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The man who makes math fun

gillaspie
Williamsburg High School math teacher John Gillaspie poses at his desk. Gillaspie is retiring at the end of the school year after 40 years of teaching at WHS.

By ANDREA FURLONG

In describing John Gillaspie, the words soft-spoken, nervous, extraordinarily humble and self-deprecating come to mind. On paper, it’s hard to imagine those adjectives coming together to form one of Williamsburg High School’s most beloved teachers. And yet, that’s the role he has had in people’s hearts ever since he moved to Williamsburg in 1970.

Forty years ago, the Davis County High School graduate settled in Williamsburg with his wife, Bev, after three years of teaching math at Fremont High School. He had just received his master’s degree from the University of South Dakota and was looking for another job.

“We just wanted to stay in rural Iowa and there was a job opening here and this looked like a nice place,” he said.

Gillaspie, 65, said he remembers the class sizes being about the same — around 25 students. His room, the same — just a few doors south of the main entrance. His position, the same — teaching upper level math courses. The only things that were really different were the course offerings, his schedule and the technology. Back then, calculators were about the size of an 8 x 11 inch sheet of paper and computers ran on paper punch cards.

Gillaspie was, in fact, the teacher who is credited with bringing computers to Williamsburg High School. After taking some courses at the University of Iowa on computer programming, he decided to incorporate computers into his math classes in the early 70s.

“If you can write programs to do the things you do in math class, then it just takes you to another level of understanding the concepts,” he said.

He started and ran the school’s Mac lab for about 20 years until about 2005, when more demanding course offerings in the math department forced him to choose between teaching computer programming and math.

“I just got busy with math here recently and we added the advanced placement (AP) classes and I gave computers up. It’s one of my regrets that I wasn’t able to continue that,” he said.

Gillaspie said having to give up the Mac lab is one of the many things that makes him nervous. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed in his 40 years of teaching – his nervousness. It’s just a part of who he is, he said.

“I’m nervous everyday,” he smiled.

No matter what impression he’s made on the students or what he has done for the math department at WHS, Gillaspie is nervous because he feels like he could have given more, he said.

This last year, he stunned students when, with the help of his college-age grandson, he made his own digital pen and smartboard (an interactive white board that acts as a projector screen for digital images and the Internet and can be drawn on with digital pens).

“I could do much better,” he said.

He’s researched and scanned the Internet to bring unique math-themed items into the classroom, like mathematical raps and the soundtrack from “Calculus: The Musical.”

“One time I thought about trying to get (the musicians from the musical) here, but it didn’t work out. It’s a little expensive, I think. That’s what I mean. . . there’s so many things that I should do and maybe would do,” he said.

He’s even made tests fun for his students, by playing a humorous rap about tests directly before big exams.

“Every time they take a test, I just like to get them pumped up,” he said.

But, the always humble and extremely self-deprecating man is nervous because he still could have been a better teacher, he said.

“I don’t do way near enough stuff,” he said.

But a different story reveals itself through the colleagues who admire him so much.

ACCORDING TO OTHERS

“He is always out there on the cutting edge. The time he spends researching and planning. . . you never know what he’s going to do. One day you’ll go into class and he’s got a 10-speed bicycle, showing you how the gear ratios work,” said WHS math teacher Greg Stolze.

“And the next day you might be learning about pi . . and he starts undressing and shows you his T-shirt,” said WHS teacher associate and former student Mandy Landuyt.

Landuyt remembers clearly the day “Mr. G” started “stripping” in class.

“He had on this cardigan and dress shirt and he took off his cardigan. Pretty soon he was unbuttoning his dress shirt, and we’re like, ‘Mr. G, what are you doing?’ His shirt had plastered all over the front of it the formula we were learning,” Landuyt laughed.

From his math-themed novelties in the classroom to his dry, self-deprecating sense of humor, Gillaspie has left a lasting impression on many.

Stolze, who’s known Gillaspie for the last 26 years, still remembers the first time he met him, during his interview at WHS.

“The principal called him and he came in and he was covered from head to foot in paint. He looked like the only survivor from an explosion at the Dutch Boy factory,” Stolze laughed.

“I said (to myself), now this is one interesting, unusual individual, and he has proven that true in every way.”

Stolze didn’t know it at the time, but Gillaspie was covered in paint because his summer job involved painting houses and barns around the community. Painting was the one thing Gillaspie has been known for most in the community, as far as jobs go. At WHS, he has held many positions: AP math teacher, prom organizer for 25 years, substitute and extracurricular activity bus driver, Mac lab director and assistant at basketball games and track meets. He’s also held informal positions, like serving as the self-appointed mentor of the math department.

“He is never too busy to answer a question from another faculty person or sit and visit if someone needs to talk about an issue,” said Rose Fetzer, a math teacher at WHS for the past 17 years.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to him because I’ve had problems with my computer or graphing calculator. If he can’t figure it out on the spot, he’ll come back a day or two later and he’ll have it figured out,” she said.

Stolze said that Gillaspie is known for his desire to help others, not only in the school system, but also in his community.

“Out in his neighborhood, if there’s an old lady who needs her furnace lit at 7 a.m., he’s the guy that does it. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the network of people he knows because he’s enriched their lives in one way or another,” Stolze said.

Stolze and Fetzer, two of his longest-serving colleagues, credit Gillaspie for many things at WHS, from the school’s high number of graduating students who’ve become actuary scientists to achieving many teachers’ requests every year in negotiations with the school board over the master contract.

“He figures out all the spreadsheet calculations for both sides. He always runs all the figures not just for the union, but also for the administration,” Stolze said.

Gillaspie remembers negotiating a little less fondly.

“There’s a couple of former students who are on the school board and the first thing they say is ‘Oh, I remember when you made me write theorems.’ I thought, ‘Oh no, payback time,’” he said, laughing.

Writing theorems, which can take two to three pages to copy, or copying directly from the math textbook, has been Gillaspie’s one preferred method of discipline over the years.

“You’d camouflage it as a math learning activity, but it was really flat-out punishment,” he joked.

 But, Gillaspie, who’s taught two generations of Williamsburg students, hasn’t had to worry about discipline too much in the latter part of his teaching career. In fact, according to former student Landuyt, many students look at a high school experience without one Mr. Gillaspie class as something that’s incomplete.

“He’s kind of a rite of passage. That’s just one of the things you do before you graduate — take a class with Mr. G. Some kids take upper level math classes because they love math, but there are lots of kids who take it because it’s Mr. G.” Landuyt said.

SECOND FAMILY

It may sound generic to say, but his students are the reason Gillaspie has thoroughly enjoyed teaching 40 years at Williamsburg High School. They’ve kept his career challenging and fun and made him look forward to coming to work each day.

“I’m in the same room, but the students change. You can say it’s the same, but the students are all different. Just watching them grow and how they see the world and their views — it’s fun. Especially children whose parents you’ve taught. You see their mannerisms and you have flashbacks and it’s like, ‘Whoa.’ It’s amazing,” he said.

Gillaspie has kept every grade book from his 40 years of teaching at WHS. On his back wall is something that he is even more proud of and happy to show others. The framed groupings of senior photos — one frame for each year from 1986 to the present — resembles a collection of family photos you’d find on someone’s living room wall.

“To me, the students are all family. Not all students want me in their family, but that’s definitely the way it is. Good, bad or ugly, to me, no matter whether they liked math or they didn’t, they’re still family,” he said.

This wall of faces is how Gillaspie tracks time. Ask him about a certain year in his teaching career and it’s the students’ faces that help him to remember what happened. Gillaspie’s two regrets about the wall are that he didn’t think to start the family album until 1986 and that he only had room to include students in his upper level math courses. Gillaspie never thought that one day he’d have students purposely seeking to be included in his “family album” of sorts. 

“There’s a few kids who will actually take an AP class, just so they can get on the wall. How scary is that? That’s crazy. I never dreamed that would ever happen,” he said.

Out of all the things that Gillaspie worries over, the one thing that bothers him the most is forgetting his family. Open houses “scare (him) to death” because he’s afraid he will forget a student’s name.

“That really bothers me. In fact, it bothers me more than anything,” he said.

WHAT HE’S LEARNED

Gillaspie’s goal with teaching has always been the same: make math fun and interesting, but relative to students’ lives.

“I try to show there is math is in everything. Like complex numbers or imaginary numbers. In ‘Toy Story,’ they used complex numbers to animate the characters. Anything digital is mathematics,” he said.

Gillaspie credits the students with teaching him that “there is more to life than math.”

“Math is not everything. It’s just one part of the picture. You got to keep it in perspective. It’s just going to be part of the kids’ lives. It may be a small part or a large part, but it’s just one part,” he said.

RETIREMENT

Gillaspie said he is retiring because he feels it is time and so a teacher on leave can return to her position without any math teachers being terminated. He and his wife, Bev, will continue to live in Williamsburg. During retirement, he plans to continue painting houses and to spend lots of time with his grandchildren.

OPEN HOUSE

The Williamsburg School District will host an open house Sunday, May 16, from 2 to 4 p.m., in the high school cafeteria, in recognition of the school’s retiring staff. In addition to Gillaspie, three other staff members will retire at the end of the year: Bev Gillaspie, Barb Maas and Dale Asleson. The public is welcome to attend.

UPDATED May 13, 2010 3:33 PM

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