River Ridge High School teacher George Christoph is one of six state finalists for the Presidential Award in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
The prestigious award recognizes teachers who serve as models for their colleagues, provide inspiration to their communities, and serve as leaders for the improvement of mathematics and science education. Winners will receive a certificate signed by the president, a paid trip for two to Washington, D.C., and a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation.
Christoph, 64, of Lacey, talked with The Olympian about the award, his career and his passion for teaching and mathematics. Here are excerpts of the conversation.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
This is my fifth year at River Ridge and my 44th year teaching. I’ve taught in Ohio, Kentucky, intercity Cincinnati, public schools, private schools, junior highs, high schools and colleges. I was a Fulbright scholar during the early 1980s in England. I’ve always taught math. My wife, Saraliz, and I have been married for 43 years. We have two grown sons.
What is your education?
I have a bachelor’s in industrial management and a master’s of education from the University of Cincinnati. I’ve also done some graduate work at a half-dozen places.
How did you get into teaching?
I thought I would try it, see how it went. In those days, all you needed was a degree. I taught for a couple of years and found out I liked it. You get to that place in life where you find something you’re good at, and you can’t imagine doing anything else, so here I am.
What brought you to South Sound?
Our grandchildren. Both of our sons live in the Northwest, and they were never coming back to the Midwest. I thought I would slow down and partially retire, but I’m busier than ever.
How has teaching math changed over the years?
It’s the same numbers, but the approach is different. I’ve probably lived through three or four different swings of the pendulum. In the 1970s, we had new math. Now we’re in the thick of No Child Left Behind and state standards and mandates increasingly adding demands of what you need to teach.
What keeps you motivated?
The students. The kids at River Ridge are one of the most diverse populations probably in the country. What amazes me is how well they get along and how supportive they are of each other. River Ridge and Saint Martin’s (University) hired me sight unseen, and out of all of the places I’ve been, I’ve never been in a district where there was so much support. If you want to try something, they’re encouraging. I just feel really lucky to be here.
When you’re not teaching at River Ridge or Saint Martin’s, what are you doing?
I like building things. Before we moved to Lacey, we ran a 120-acre sheep farm. I built a log cabin on our farm in Kentucky. Now we live on one-third acre, and I built a glass studio in the backyard. I collect slide rules, and I read a lot – mostly about math and history, and biographies.
Tell us about the Presidential Award in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
I was nominated by (district administrator) Troy Oliver and (River Ridge principal) Karen Remy-Anderson. The portfolio wasn’t as detailed as the national boards – I spent 14 months working on that – but it was close. The state chooses three math and three science teachers, and sends their names to the White House. The winners — one math and one science teacher per state – will be announced in April 2012. They’ll fly the winners to Washington, D.C., for a week, where they’ll get behind-the-scenes tours, and they’ll get to meet with their governor and lawmakers.
What was your reaction when you learned you were nominated?
I was surprised. It was really nice since I’m relatively new to the district. I’m one of the more experienced teachers, but a lot of other teachers have put more time into the district.
What do you love about teaching?
There are three things. The students: You watch them grow up and follow them after they leave high school, and see that you made a difference. The subject: Math constantly fascinates me. It’s a subject you continue to learn about forever. The chance to work with new educators: I try to work with a student-teacher every year.
Talk to us about your mathematics classes. What makes you different from other math teachers?
Two years ago, my son and his wife went to Tanzania, where she was a Fulbright scholar. While they were in Africa, he taught physics, chemistry and pre-calculus. He didn’t have any textbooks, so my pre-calculus classes wrote a pre-calculus textbook. We got a grant, printed the book and shipped it to them. They’re using textbooks from Lacey, Wash.
Right now, at River Ridge, I’m teaching a class called University of Washington in the High School. It’s a pre-calculus class, and we use the UW’s textbook, curriculum and their test. Kids can earn five credit hours from the class for about a third of the cost of tuition.
I try to bring enthusiasm to the classroom – lots and lots of enthusiasm. I like to watch the kids grow, respond and get excited. Every spring, we do a stage show called “The Dance of the Equations.” The students model the mathematical functions. We set it to music, and it’s just a lot of fun. I also run a math club. It had three boys the first year, and last year we had more than 40 students in it.
What have you learned through teaching?
I’ve learned a lot about mathematics, and a lot about growing up. There are so many pressures on kids today, and they are so resilient.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I’ve learned that every student is different and you can’t treat all students equally because they all have individual needs and desires. One child might need cajoling, one might need pleading and one might need a poke. You’re always looking for that magic hook – what can I do that hooks kids into math?
A decade ago, every teacher was supposed to be a reading teacher. Now, the focus is moving to math; 1957 was Sputnik, and that was the wake-up call for the United States. The government started pouring money into math and science, and we put a man on the moon and we invented the personal computer – all kinds of things. If we’re going to maintain any kind of ranking in the world, it’s going to be because of math and science.