The Student Connection

Math Tutor a Devoted Teacher without Equal

Ms. Marney Rich Keenan of The Detroit News wrote about Mr. Doug Shonk, math tutor and former high school teacher. His influence goes beyond numbers, formulae and series.

Math tutor a devoted teacher without equal

by Marney Rich Keenan
The Detroit News
March 16, 2012 at 1:00 am

This past week, we said goodbye to an unsung hero in academia these days: our math tutor.

For an untold number of pre-exam nights in the past year, Doug Shonk, a 50-year veteran math teacher, has sat side-by-side at our dining room table with our 17-year-old daughter, untangling the intricate maze that is calculus.

With each lesson imparted, Doug is careful never to move from Step 1 to Step 2 without making sure she’d fully mastered the first.

I know this because I would often be making dinner in the adjoining kitchen as they worked. I couldn’t decipher one iota of their discussions on the “Pythagorean theorums” or the “limits of a function as x approaches plus or minus infinity.”

But here’s what I did understand. Every few minutes, Doug would say: “Got it?”

“Yep,” Ellie would answer. “I got it.”

“OK, good. Now do it again.”

That is the universal language of patience, and in this case it was spoken by the most devoted of teachers.

At 70, Doug eschews the intensely compressed content curriculum of the trimester popular in schools these days. “We don’t engage long-term memory in our students very well,” he says. “Why do some students who get very good grades score dismally on their ACT? Because they learned only enough for temporary storage. They are not taught to retain.”

He’s generous with praise, offering: “That was nicely done.” And “I’m very proud of you.” And for all the right reasons. “If the final answer is wrong because she punched the wrong numbers on the calculator, I just want to know she properly applied the formulas.” He is also one of the few human beings who genuinely enjoys teenagers. “You know what I like?” he says, eyes twinkling with delight. “I like tapping the source of their energy; that spark that is big beyond belief. Once they know mathematics is doable, it’s golden.

“Some teachers take that away, and there is nothing that is worse than killing a child’s spirit. And you can kill it in three days of tediousness and being too tough.”

Shonk began teaching in 1963, spending 31 years at Groves High School in Birmingham before retiring in 2000, a couple years after losing his wife.

Shonk charges less than the going rate, especially considering his travel expenses — he averages about 20,000 miles a year on his Ford Fusion. Living alone, he says, it gets him out of the house. “Yesterday, for example, I taught from 4 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.,” he says. “That’s 71/2 hours, not bad for an old geezer like me.”

One of those students was a 38-year-old college freshman. “He’d just completed Algebra 1 in college, and he’s gone from feeling horribly depressed to being convinced he can tackle anything in college. And I love hearing that. I absolutely love it.”

Once finished with a tutoring session, Shonk loves to chat. Charming without pretense, he will expound on everything from modern artists to his daily trips to the gym (he’s the only male in three generations to survive heart disease beyond age 40) to the joy he gets being in his church’s hand-bell ensemble choir to the benefits of moderate tanning in Michigan winter. Without fail, every conversation will end up with a connection to mathematics.

“By the way,” he said to me the other night. “When you placed those two candelabras up on the mantel, you are doing mathematics. If one of them is off by just a little, you will go and move it. Why? Because symmetry is appealing.”

He can’t help himself. In Shonk’s world, mathematics is everything. “Without question, mathematics is the queen of all the sciences,” he says. “You don’t study physics or chemistry or biology or genetics or even religion. You don’t study anything without mathematics.”

Ellie will graduate with a very respectable GPA in a few months, with many thanks to Shonk.

To be sure, there are millions of other Shonks out there, and you all deserve applause when our kids are handed their diploma. Know this: We couldn’t have made the grade without you.


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