Jim Willis: “I’m Having a Blast, Man!”

A busy day in Math White Table: Jim is in his element, lively and animated. Bouncing between tables, he makes sure kids have signed in, teaches math, and offers witty comments. Cody Potwin, drowsy from working until 10pm the night before, is here to finish some homework. Jim doesn’t hesitate to help.

Jim Willis, a retired math teacher now working at math white table, joined our school community last year. He taught math for five years in Belfast, Maine before teaching at Northfield High School for thirty one years, and then he returned to Belfast to teach for fourteen more years after that.

“I got bored in my retirement so I came back and subbed at this,” says Jim. “I’m having a blast, man!”

Can you tell me a story about a specific experience, early on in your career, when you learned something about teaching?

I had been teaching for 35 years, and I was pretty good, but I was getting a bored, and I was thinking about retiring.

I went to a workshop on an Integrated Math program, it was brand new. To make a long story short, I became involved in developing this math curriculum, which is student based not teacher based.

From that day on, I just completely changed the way I teach, the way I feel about students, about myself.


How would you describe your teaching style?  How has your style changed over time?

Socratic; in other words, I’m always questioning and asking you to figure it out.

I also teach with a lot of humor, a lot of energy, and I try to make it fun.


When / why / how did you decide to become a teacher?

When I graduated from high school, back when Abraham Lincoln was president — don’t quote me on that one — I went to the college that would give me the biggest scholarship to play basketball, and it happened to be a branch of the University of Maine, and they trained teachers.

So I became a teacher entirely by accident, I didn’t intend to. I was just gonna go play basketball.

I was eighteen years old, I didn’t know what the hell I wanted.  But I’m lucky because I’m still here man, look at me!


Can you tell about a specific time when you knew you impacted a student?

I’ve had three different students call me at my home at night to say goodbye because they were going to commit suicide,  and they wanted to say goodbye to me. I’m really proud to say that all three of those people are still alive.

I said to them “Wait, let me come be with you,” and we were able to figure out something.

I don’t know if they learned any math from me, but they’re alive today partly because of me.

One of them named their first child Jim. That teared me up a little bit.


What’s your philosophy about teaching?

Every year, I’d tell my classes “I’m not gonna teach you a darn thing this year, nothing. But I’m gonna expect you to learn.”

Students are pretty uncomfortable with that at first, but it works.


Can you describe something you’ve learned from another teacher?

When I was wet behind the ears and brand new, there was another teacher who told me something. She found out that the louder we speak to students, the louder they get back to us. So if you want kids to quiet down to get busy, you have to speak quietly to them.

When I’m teaching a class and I need them to get quiet I just stand there and look at them, don’t say a word. Eventually, they get quiet.


Can you tell a story about something unusual that you experienced outside of school?

Outside of teaching, if I go back to my career as a basketball coach and player, I’ve been blessed to meet a lot of good people.

One person, the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets in the NBA now, he’s a very close friend of mine.

But the most important thing to me, in my life has always been my family and my kids.

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