Virginia Tech Magazine

Volume 14, Number 1
Fall 1991


Engineer's math not enough for high school

by Sookhan Ho

When Ira Joseph (AE '64) left his job as a stockbroker at age 50 to teach high school math, he didn't count on becoming a "cause celebre."

Although the Brooklyn native had designed fighter-bombers of the ilk seen in Top Gun and become vice president of a stock brokerage firm, it was the red tape involved in making a switch to a high school teaching career that put him in the Reader's Digest (July '91) and brought U.S. Congressman Newt Gingrich out in his defense.

A graduate in aerospace engineering, Joseph had worked for four years as an aerospace engineer designing prototypes of the F-15 fighter before being lured away from engineering by the lucrative thrills of the stock market.

He racked up an incredible array of sales and successes as a stockbroker over the next 17 years, eventually becoming vice president of the Shearson American firm in Atlanta. While teaching stockbrokerage in the Atlanta area during the past five years, he discovered that he enjoyed being in a classroom, "teaching math and thinking skills." That and the downturn in the market helped him decide to become a math teacher.

When Joseph interviewed with the Henry County, Ga., school board last fall, he was assured that his lack of formal teacher training would not be a problem in gaining certification, given the quality of his education. After all, he had earned 78 credits of college math at West Point and Virginia Tech, taking such math-loaded engineering courses as fluid mechanics and aerodynamics.

Joseph was hired at Stockbridge High School. Three months later, state education officials refused to certify him. Declaring that he wasn't qualified to teach high school math, they forced school officials to dismiss him.

The problem, according to Caro Feagin, Georgia's associate director of certification, was that Joseph had taken most of his math courses as a college freshman and sophomore. The state requires math teachers to have at least six math classes beyond the sophomore level.

Joseph, who still bristles when he talks about his experience, says that, ironically, when he was "released" from regular classes last November for not having enough college math, he had been teaching math at its most basic level—‘‘for people who didn't intend to go to college."

What was particularly ridiculous, he adds, was that while state officials were finding fault with his lack of math, they had said little about his lack of formal teacher training.

The would-be teacher wasn't shy about doing battle with state officials. He enlisted the aid of his students, their parents, and officials at his alma maters. They rallied to his defense, expressing their indignation and bewilderment in letters to the principal and the certification board.

"Before Mr. Joseph, I was not doing well. When he substituted, then came to replace our last teacher, it was really a huge relief. Not only does he use techniques to help us utilize what we are learning, but he cares enough to understand our problems," wrote senior Cynthia Stell. "If he is not what you call a teacher, then most of my teachers aren't teachers," James W. Brannan concluded.

Then came this letter from Mary J. Slaughter, whose son, Marcus, is hearing-impaired. "Before Mr. Joseph took over the class, Marcus was very depressed about his geometry class and was having a real problem trying to comprehend what was being taught. However, since Mr. Joseph's arrival, his attitude has completely changed. He is actually excited about the class, is understanding what is going on in the classroom, and is performing well." Her son, she says, reports that his teacher "has lots of patience and explains things fully."

Jim Marchman, Virginia Tech associate dean of engineering, pointed out that "the math courses required of our engineering students are all very advanced versions of those required of liberal arts or education students." He noted that as an engineering student, Joseph took courses that included the normal calculus sequence, multivariable calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, and an advanced course in complex variables.

"I would judge his background as an outstanding preparation to teach math in high school because he not only knows how to do math, he also knows what to do with it," Marchman said. Frank Giordano, who heads the department of mathematical sciences at the U.S. Military Academy, noted that Joseph was always in one of the top two math classes at West Point.

Joseph, who had been permitted to work as a substitute teacher, also took his case to The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, which published an article on his predicament last December, in addition to a front-page story, "Is red tape costing Georgia good teachers?," examining the state's teacher certification rules.

Soon after the story appeared, Joseph received an encouraging letter from his district congressman, Newt Gingrich. Gingrich described Joseph's problem during a congressional session and had his story entered into the Congressional Record. Reader's Digest editors featured Joseph's dilemma in their July '91 "That's Incredible" column. The publicity generated may have helped bring about concessions from the certification board last January.

"We agreed that I would go back to school and take some math courses at the upper division level," says Joseph. He was given a provisional certificate, which allowed him to teach regular classes at Stockbridge, but at a lower salary than of a regular teacher.

Joseph earned the required math credits. He also completed an education course in "classroom management." More publicity about his case would help others in similar circumstances, he says. "I'm not unique. This involves the education of the whole country."

He cites comments made by Rich Lunsford, another letter-writer. The American educational system must be "one of the lowest in the industrialized world" when someone with an aerospace engineering degree is not allowed to teach, Lunsford said. "If you expect the youth of America to keep up with the rest of the world, you need to let teachers with real world experience into our schools."

Sookhan Ho is an information officer in the College of Engineering.

Virginia Tech Magazine, Volume 14, Number 1, Fall 1991