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April 5, 2023

Problem Solver

Whether on the soccer field or in the classroom, Jacob O’Brien learns from his students every day. Here, he shares a little of his own background, what he thinks about this magazine’s theme “rigor and relationships,” and how he feels when a student claims to hate math.

Tell us a little about your path to Asheville School. 
I am originally from Jacksonville, Florida. I taught and coached at a Catholic school in Jacksonville for thirteen years. At my time at that school, I was a department chair, led the Professional Development Program for new teachers, was chair of our Administrative Review Team, coached five different sports at different periods of time, and taught over a hundred students every year. I felt like all those extra duties were taking away from why I became a teacher. My day-to-day interactions with the kids seemed more brief and too businesslike. Both for me and for my family, a change of scenery was best for all of us at the time. I applied, received a phone call the same day, and was traveling to Asheville for the full interview a week later. Asheville School has given me the opportunity to get back to what I love: working with students and helping them grow as mathematicians and as people.

Who were some of your role models, in math, or in life?
My parents have always been my role models. I always say that my mother was my example of how to live love, and my father was my example of how to show love. My mom cared for me and my siblings while my dad was away at sea and did so with exceptional patience. She showed me how to live for others with care, while also having strong expectations of those around you. My dad loved spending time with us when he had it, and we always felt how much he loved us throughout our upbringing. I can only hope that my own children look up to me half as much as I look up to my own parents.

How has math education changed since you were a student?
Education is full of buzzwords and phrases. But “sage on the stage” must be the most perfect description of how math education was when I was a student. Teacher in front, loads of examples, millions of problems for homework, good luck. That direct teaching style has its place, but giving our students the opportunity to experience the concepts even before they learn the formal processes has been the biggest change since I was a student. In Statistics, I love for my students to “play” with data even before we begin to work on what formulas they need to solve any specific questions.

Who do you look to for inspiration / how do you get your ideas? 
I hope this does not come off as corny, but my students are my main drive and inspiration. If I notice that my methods are becoming stale and the students are losing interest, it is time to try something new and get them hooked again. If the class is struggling, I need to look at what is working and not working and adapt my methods. At that point, I take advantage of my colleagues and the math community. There are so many resources out there now that I feel like I could study what other teachers do every day and not even scratch the surface of what is available. If I ever get tired of trying to learn new methods or adapting to the ever-changing world, that will be the time for me to step out of the classroom.

What would you say to a student who professes they “hate math.”
Hate math? Who can hate the intricacies of the quadratic formula or the excitement of learning the power rule in Calculus after having to trudge through the clunky derivative formula? I used to hate math. I did not see the value of plodding through formulas. I often tell students to keep an open mind and to find something that we do that they do enjoy. After a student finds something they like in math, they have a platform to build upon. Once a foundation is built, it is easier to find increased enjoyment at any level of math explored. It is also important for us to make learning accessible. We try not to continue to punish students for not answering questions correctly but reward them for the process they take and the attention to detail they use.

The theme of this magazine is “rigor and relationships” and focuses on how we ask our students to do rigorous things, but we ensure they have meaningful personal relationships in place that are there to support them if (when) they fail. What does the concept of rigor and relationships mean to you?
This goes back to what I learned from my mother. Expectations were always high, but I was never scared of failure. My mom drove me to learn from my failures, to take an introspective look at what I did leading up to challenging times, and to bounce back quickly. I try to help my students understand that struggles are the best path to deep learning. Failure does not mean we like our students any less. Quite the opposite; the most important part of our job is to teach students to bounce back from challenging times.

I see this in the classroom, but I see this the most on the soccer field. Sports offer students the chance to fail and bounce back again and again. I can think of one athlete in particular who faced adversity throughout their academic and athletic career here at Asheville School, who tended to crumble in their third form year, but by their sixth form year had grown into someone who knew how to respond to adversity in a positive way. This learning goes beyond these walls and will stay with them their whole lives.

I have learned so much from my colleagues as well. I feel like Ms. Cianciulli should have ‘rigor and relationships’ as a title on her name tag. Seeing the standards she holds for her students while being genuinely interested in knowing each child on a personal level is inspiring. There are so many stories like this here at Asheville School, and I hope that I am helping the students understand the importance of both rigor and relationships.