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Drawing Your Way Into Mathematics: Chuck Garner’s MAA Spotlight

Many of us are drawn to what comes naturally. The same can be said for our August Member Spotlight, Chuck Garner, PhD, who has taught calculus for more than two decades at Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology, located in Conyers, GA. Garner is also a recipient of the Edyth May Sliffe Awards and was honored at the 2023 MAA MathFest.

MAA: Can you share your journey into mathematics?

Chuck Garner (CG): I was not a math prodigy or interested in math in middle or high school. In fact, I was an art nerd. I drew and painted; I loved comic books and still collect them. I was all into art. I could do math, but it just wasn't interesting to me.

When I got to college, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I realized that I didn't really want to have an art career. Then, I thought about computers, but I wasn’t completely sold on that idea. So, each quarter, I took the standard math, science, English, and history courses trying to figure it out. Although history was appealing, I noticed that over the first four quarters, I kept taking a math class. I dropped the English and science classes, and I kind of stopped with history and realized, wow, math is interesting.

Failing in Order to Achieve

Calculus was a four-quarter sequence, and when I took Calculus I, I earned a B. When I took Calculus II, I ended the class with a D and, like an idiot, took Calculus III and failed it.

Soon, I realized that was the first time I'd really ever failed a course, and it wasn't the instructor’s fault. It was on me. I wasn't doing homework. I was sleeping through class, and I was not a very good student. I took Calculus II over again because I had this attitude that numbers wouldn't beat me. I tried again, and I guess by hearing it a second time, it made sense. That's when I took Calculus III again and finally Calculus IV, making A's.

That’s when I began to think, ‘Oh wow, math is pretty cool, and I really like this.’ That's not to say I kept making A's in math classes. I did not.

However, I liked it because it was a challenge. Art, for me, wasn't a challenge, and I think that was what separated them both.

Remaining in the Classroom

But then, of course, you begin to think, what will you do with a math degree? The people in my life at the time were telling me, ‘Oh, you could always be a teacher; you could always be a teacher.’ So, I took the bare minimum required to get a teaching certificate. When I graduated with my Bachelor's in math, I started teaching middle school.

I thought that was going to be it. I had already gotten married and started a life and a career. But I realized that by teaching sixth and seventh-grade middle school students, I could feel my brain beginning to melt. I needed some intellectual challenge. So, I went back and got a master's in math, which led to a PhD in math.

MAA: How has the MAA impacted you?

CG: I was getting my Master's Degree while I was teaching middle school, and with the advice of my professors there, I joined the American Mathematical Society (AMS) in 1999. The next year, of my own volition, I joined the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). At that time, our community was opening a high school, and I knew they would need a calculus teacher. I searched for calculus resources, found the MAA, and joined.

MAA’s materials made a huge impact; just to have access to the wealth of MAA FOCUS articles and to read publications like Math Horizons made me feel a part of a community, even though I'd never been to any kind of meeting yet. The first meeting (MAA MathFest) I went to was in 2014 and located in Portland, OR.

MAA: What was some of the best advice you've received?

CG: Try to understand why you do what you do. That can apply to anything, but in particular to teaching math. For example, if you understand why division by zero is undefined, then you can explain it to students. When your students ask [you to clarify why], you can have a clear answer for them. I've heard some teachers say, ‘Well, it's just undefined. You can't do it.’ That's not a good enough explanation [for your students]. It's not satisfying to a 13-year-old who is asking to understand mathematics better.

MAA: Who/what inspires you?

CG: My wife, first, because there's no way I would have gotten a PhD in math without her support.

Next would be my students, and in that, I include my own children, whom I also taught. I also find inspiration from my colleagues at my school.

[I’m also inspired by] figuring out things to improve on. I think the goal of any long-term career in this game is to figure out not just what seems to work [well] and [continue to] do that for the next ten years. But to reassess and fix what seems to be ineffective to have a better outcome for the next group of students.

Finally, there's one teacher, Steve Sigur, who was also a long-term coach of competitive high school math teams. He passed away in 2008. Steve had a way with students and had a way with words that I struggled to emulate. I've never been in his classroom. He never taught me. But in working with him, I can tell this guy was one of the best teachers, and I want to be like him.

MAA: What, if any, advice would you give to those newer in the mathematics field?

CG: First, you're going to mess up. Own it, move forward, and learn from it. I found that students hate it when you try to cover up that you messed up and not admit it. They really don't like that, and they lose respect for you.

The second piece of advice is to be active in organizations. There are a lot of teachers that I know in my area who are not active in any organizations, not even at the level of just being members. They struggle to think through lessons, try to plan things, and teach their students. They don't have a good network of people to rely on to help give them ideas, to help, and frankly, to steal ideas from and use them as their own. I think just being exposed to a bunch of different people and different ideas is really useful.