Monday, April 26, 2010

Dr. Jill Van Newenhizen: The Teacher Who Changed My World

Dr. Jill Van Newenhizen and me at my Lake Forest College graduation, May 8, 1993.

I've been thinking about great teachers for a few weeks. I've been thinking about them since Jaime Escalante died at the end of March. In case you don't remember him, he's the real-life teacher from the classic 1988 movie "Stand and Deliver," which told the story of how he turned around failing calculus students at Garfield High School in east Los Angeles. He gave those kids a future. That's what great teachers do.

Yesterday, my friend Ben Joravsky wrote a fantastic blog post about the incredible teachers his daughters have had over the years (read all of his Chicago Reader columns here). This morning, I received my daily inspirational email from Simple Truths and it contained the wonderful movie "Heart of a Teacher." Finally, tonight, my friend Hannah (Ben's super cool eldest daughter, not to be confused with his equally super cool younger daughter), posted the video below on Facebook.

I'm sure we've all had teachers who inspired us to be better, who believed in us when no one else did, who took us under their wing, or who made us stretch beyond our wildest possibilities. Maybe they gave us a second chance even though we didn't deserve it. Maybe they worked extra long hours to help us overcome learning challenges or planning lessons to keep the smarter kids in class from getting bored. Maybe they knew we had challenges at home and did everything in their power and then some to make school our safe haven.

I had many amazing teachers throughout the years, but one in particular stands out for me.

Dr. Jill Van Newenhizen, my Calculus professor at Lake Forest College.

I took Calculus in high school, but struggled greatly. One of my strongest memories of Calculus in high school was the teacher walking to the front of the room one morning and starting his lesson by saying, "this is a concept the girls might not get." Uh huh. Guess what? I couldn't get it.

Not one to concede defeat, I took Calculus again when I got to college and was fortunate enough to have Dr. J. Keep in mind that I was a psychology major and I didn't need Calculus to graduate. I took it for fun. Yes, fun.

Right away, I knew I was in the right place and would get it this time. Dr. J. made it clear that her goal was for her students to learn the material and she was always available for extra help. She had generous office hours, even keeping evening office hours in a dorm, where I was a regular. Many nights, I'd arrive to find Dr. J. in the lounge waiting on students and watching opera. There we'd sit doing Calculus and listening to opera. Not only did I learn the material and earn a respectable grade both semesters, but I also fell in love with opera, and decided to further challenge myself by taking Multi-Variable Calculus the next year (unfortunately with another professor).

Dr. J. pushed me hard to be the best I could be in her class. I wasn't an A student, but I knew that I'd gone over, around, below and through to do the best I could do, not just for her, but for me. She taught us not only about important mathematical concepts, but also taught us about how math relates to our lives. Maybe you've heard of a guy named Euclid and another guy named Daniel Burnham? She loved to talk about how Burnham's Plan of Chicago relied Euclid's Elements. She even had us write papers.

To say I didn't do very well in Multi-Variable Calculus would be an understatement. I failed the class. Who was in my corner helping me appeal to my professor to let me retake the final? Dr. J. I lost the appeal, but with her help, learned a much more valuable lesson. After losing my job as a resident assistant because of the F, she helped me see taking risks and falling flat was part of life, but what spoke louder than failure was how I got back up. I'm not sure how I would use Multi-Variable Calculus now, but I know that no matter what path I go down and no matter how it turns out, I will always be okay.

In June 1992, when my mom tried to kill herself, Dr. J. was one of the professors who reached out to me and let me know she was there if I needed anything. That fall, when I was studying in Chicago as part of the Urban Studies Program, we attended the opera together. When I moved to Washington after graduation, we spent a lovely day exploring Freer Gallery of Art and Sackler Gallery and then capped off the evening with a fabulous dinner in DuPont Circle. In the seven years I was in DC, that was one of my most favorite days.

Almost 20 years later, she has gone from being Dr. J., my professor, to being Jill, my friend. I love knowing that whenever we get together, it's like it was just yesterday when we last saw each other, even if it's been a few months or longer. And I look back on my days spent sitting in her classroom as some of my best at Lake Forest College.


  1. You both look the same 17 years later? lol

  2. Well she was also an amazing teacher in my life also. I was required to take a math class to complete education classes to obtain my teaching degree. Math of any type has been a lifelong challenge to me and it was standing in my way of teaching literature. Jill was there available helpful rooting for me at every turn. I made it through with a passing grade. What a fabulous teacher and friend.


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