“Exceptional” math teacher to receive prestigious award

By Andy Bader, Mitchell Advocate  

It’s not unusual for Mitchell District High School (MDHS) mathematics teacher Adam Agar to receive mail from the University of Waterloo.

So a recent letter just sat on his desk, unopened, for a few days before he got around to reading it.

And then he couldn’t believe what was inside – he had been nominated to receive the prestigious Rene Descartes medal for the advancement of mathematics from the university, his alma mater. Just three such awards are presented every year.

“It was completely out of the blue,” he said recently from his classroom at MDHS, not even realizing former principal Emma Watts had nominated him. “It’s still a little surreal to be honest with you. You look at past winners…. And what they’ve done and to see me in that light. I’m speechless, which is rare for me.

“It [the letter] totally took me off guard, I was expecting to read some contest information but this one was directed to me personally,” he continued. “I’m still in that state of not sure how to react. I read about it, knew about it, but it’s not something you think about winning.”

The Society of Descartes Medallists was founded in 1968 by the Rene Descartes Foundation for the Advancement of Mathematics at the University of Waterloo. This Society has met annually since 1968 for the express purpose of paying tribute to mathematics and/or computer science teachers in Ontario who are identified as being worthy of special recognition.

Watts, who is now principal of Stratford Northwestern, nominated Agar for the award, calling him an “exceptional” math teacher.

“He is brilliant with a conceptual understanding of math that allows him to teach difficult concepts in a variety of authentic and relevant ways for students,” she said. “He also understands kids. His compassion for their trepidation of the subject coupled with his passion for it and an outstanding teaching practice makes him the perfect teacher of a dreaded subject for so many. Kids learn math and learn it well.”

Currently in his ninth year at MDHS, Agar, 42, lives in Brodhagen with his wife, Emily, a teacher at Upper Thames Elementary School (UTES) and two daughters. The current head of mathematics at MDHS, Agar also gives credit to colleagues Brenda Brodhagen and Kelly Caldwell for their hard work and dedication.

Agar’s passion for math has resulted in three distinct and successful methods he and colleagues teach.

A few years ago Agar introduced the “flipped classroom” which, rather than take up 20-30 minutes standing at the front of the class talking, the department created a series of short YouTube videos and the students watch the video for homework the night before and Agar spends the entire 75-minute class the next day answering questions or dealing with small groups of students.

“It’s a little different for the Grade 9’s but once they get to Grade 11 or 12 it’s become common practice,” he said.

Another thing Agar and the department has recently introduced is the “spiral” curriculum, primarily for college-bound students, which basically involves teaching the first two lessons of a unit, moving on to another unit before going back to the first unit which essentially allows him to re-visit each topic throughout the year, building along the way. The students are essentially reviewing everything all the time and thus far, in its third year, have achieved “notable success.”

“We’re finding they’re getting the constant review and it’s definitely improved in their exam results as well,” he said.

The final new concept Agar is perhaps most excited about is the Ultimate Potential, or UP, math program, which started this school year and identified up to 20 students in Grade 7/8 that, for whatever reason, didn’t perform as well as they could have in math.

In co-operation with their Grade 8 teachers, 18 students were personally contacted last June and explained that Agar would fill in the “holes” in anything they struggled to understand.

“Our aim was to get them all at the same starting line,” he said, “and to get those three math credits with little anxiety and a high level of success.

“So far, we’ve had a lot of positive feedback from the community, and it has exceeded what my expectations were,” he said. “It’s been a rewarding semester and a rewarding year because now I get to see these guys be successful in their Grade 9 year. And they’re keen to be here.

“In some ways it’s refreshing because it’s not the same thing over and over again,” he said of the new teaching concepts. “It’s nice seeing some smiles when they realize they can do this.

“It has been a rejuvenation for myself, too, seeing that success. It’s nice to see traditionally disenfranchised students engaged again.”

Agar studied civil engineering at Waterloo but based on his co-op experiences didn’t want to work in an urban environment. He said Jim Moore, the former principal of the Seaforth high school, encouraged him to get his teaching degree and he spent his first year teaching in his home town of Seaforth before working five years at South Huron in Exeter before making the move to MDHS.

“I love it. What engineering doesn’t offer, this does,” he said. “The variety, different challenges….this is definitely where I want to be.”

The 51st René Descartes Medallist dinner will be held on Saturday, June 9. Maybe by then, it will have sunk in that Agar has won.