Three seasons in the NFL? Impressive.
PhD in applied math at MIT? Also impressive.
Four consecutive consonants in your surname? Very impressive.
Perhaps none of these achievements, in isolation, is enough to confer celebrity. But look to the center of this peculiar Venn diagram, and you will find only a single name inscribed: John Urschel.
Urschel’s new memoir—Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football, cowritten with his partner Louisa Thomas—is a good classroom book, a multipurpose tool. His NFL background makes him a role model for the reluctant. His logic puzzles are brain food for the math-hungry. And his dual career is a conversation starter for everyone else.
In short, there’s something for everyone. Especially teachers.
From the educator’s perspective, Urschel’s story is valuable not because it is rare, but because it is common. It’s what every promising young mathematician goes through: a roller coaster of motivation and apathy, a journey of bridges and roadblocks, an education that’s never perfect, but sometimes good enough.
Five takeaways for me:
- Boredom is a power outage.
John’s early teachers missed his mathematical potential. One even said that he should repeat a grade.
Why didn’t they see the shining light of his ability? Because, when a kid is sufficiently bored, you can’t see anything, shining or not.
Listen to Urschel’s account:
I hated school. In the classroom, I was bored and sullen. My mind wandered. I spent half the day counting the flecks in the linoleum floor.
Boredom throws everything into darkness. A kid’s abilities, his needs, his gifts, his gaps… under the blackout lighting of boredom, it all looks the same.
- Don’t pander.
Here is John’s description of the first teacher whose style really gripped him:
The way he did it was not flashy. He did not show us catchy experiments or try to communicate just how weird the material was. He was not particularly enthusiastic or charismatic….
Not exactly Dead Poet’s Society, huh?
But for reasons I couldn’t quite explain at the time, I heard something deep and resonant in his nondescript, matter-of-fact way of lecturing. …. [he] was knowledgeable and thoughtful, and—most important—he encouraged us to learn and think for ourselves.
Strained analogies, dubious “real-world” connections, non sequitur photos of jets—that won’t cut it for students like John.
They want the math.
Math can be captivating, just as vegetables can be delicious—as long as you don’t make the mistake of coating them with frosting.
- Build ambition.
In a passage that was adapted for the New York Times, John issues a kind of challenge to the nation’s math teachers: to dream bigger.
I wish some of my teachers had been more like my football coaches. I wish they’d shown the same passion about their subjects and had the same impulse to recognize and nurture potential. I excelled in math and science at an academic powerhouse, and my academic potential was clearly greater than my potential on the field, but none of my teachers ever told me that if I dedicated my time and my full focus to math or physics, then I could be a great mathematician or scientist. No one in high school ever called the MIT or Princeton math departments and told them to recruit me. No one ever told me I could be Albert Einstein or John von Neumann, arguably the most brilliant mathematician of the twentieth century. (Nobody even told me who John von Neumann was.)
John isn’t knocking his individual teachers. He’s trying to nudge the culture in a new direction.
I understand why they did not say those things: my teachers would have sounded ridiculous! But there is something to be said for having the imagination to aspire to the very highest goals, and for giving and getting the encouragement to commit oneself to get there.
This is, I think, the highest purpose of Urschel’s book itself—to give students something to dream for.
- Give chances to excel.
We all know students want to be challenged. But more than that, they want to glow, to achieve, to thrive, to feel excellent at math.
Urschel’s mother may have understood this better than his teachers did:
Instead of giving me an allowance for making my bed or taking out the trash, when we went to the store, she would let me keep the change if I could calculate her change before the cashier gave it to her. Pretty quickly, I became quite good at that. To protect her pocketbook, she upped the challenge. Instead of calculating the change in my head, she had me calculate the sales tax before the cashier rang up the items.
In John’s telling, and in my experience, students love what they feel great at. This can be scary for teachers—it risks creating winners, losers, hierarchies—but we’d be fools to ignore it.
- Curiosity is fire.
As a kid, John would spend occasional evenings diving down rabbit holes of independent inquiry. Yet he never discussed this with his teachers. Contrast that with his first experience of mathematical research with Professor Vadim Kaloshin:
It is fascinating to see your progress and enthusiasm, he emailed me one day. No other comment or kind of praise could have made me feel so good—or make me want to work even harder.
As a teacher, you’re desperately busy with two tasks: building an obstacle course (homework, quizzes, tests), and helping students through it (feedback, lesson planning, extra help sessions). It’s easy to forget that the whole game is an artificial labyrinth, disconnected from later life.
Out there in the world, nothing is more valuable than curiosity and independence. John found his. It’s our job to help other students find theirs.
And luckily, we’ve got John’s book to help.