by Kari Croop
When Ping-Tung “P.T.” Chang (Ph.D. ’77) was in high school, his teacher bluntly told him he was not “math material,” making his point with an angry order that Chang re-write the formula he had botched in class 2,000 times so he would never get it wrong again.
But that daunting experience didn’t scare Chang away from the subject. Quite the opposite: It pushed him to become the kind of math teacher who would help students instead of humiliate them. And today, he says, he’s living his dream.
“As a teacher, you should be helpful and humble, and I treat my students like friends,” explains Chang, now a mathematics professor at Mat-Su College in Palmer, Alaska. His style must be working – he was named a 2010 U.S. Professor of the Year. This award, sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, is presented to only four professors nationwide each year.
“I’m not a big shot though,” he adds with a laugh. “I’m just doing my job.”
The standards Chang sets for himself aren’t typical, however. On weekdays, his alarm goes off at 4 a.m. so he can be in the office by 5 a.m. to grade papers or meet with students who need extra help. He even offers outside instruction free of charge to anyone who’s willing to learn, from local high school students to fellow teachers looking for new ideas to implement in the classroom.
These days, Chang is championing a technique he calls the “Grow Your Own Problem-Solving Method,” in which students present problems to the class and talk out the solutions as a group. He has been using this method in his own classes for years and believes it inspires his students to think beyond solving the problems printed in their textbooks.
“A long time ago, the teacher taught, and the student listened. But in my class, we’re actually talking and laughing about math,” he says. “It helps me relate to the students and communicate with them, and my students love it.”
This story was originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of the College of Education's Milestones magazine.