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Just an hour before the spring 2018 Advanced Placement calculus exam, jittery East Bridgewater, Mass., high school students gathered in Jamil Siddiqui’s classroom for breakfast.
Siddiqui had made them homemade French toast to help quell their nerves, then gave them a last-minute pep talk, reminding them of all the effort they had put into preparing for the test: the homework, before- and after-school meetings, and marathon review sessions, all designed to unlock the intricacies of calculus.
“It’s time to go perform,” said Siddiqui (ENG’93, Wheelock’94, GRS’98). “There is no reason to be nervous or worried, because you are prepared, you have practiced for this day for months.”
The same could be said for their teacher. Siddiqui has been teaching AP calculus for 24 years at East Bridgewater Junior/Senior High School. In that time, he has coached hundreds of students for the AP test. Typically, 7 out of 10 of those students receive a score of three or higher on the exam. One in three will score a perfect five.
Those results are well above national averages, demonstrating how Siddiqui has conquered a professional challenge: getting high school students to like, and sometimes share his love of, pure mathematics, a subject he calls “the language of love.” He says he still gets excited—even a touch nervous—sending his students into one of the most challenging exams of their high school career.
Beyond math, colleagues and students talk about Siddiqui’s decades-long commitment to his school. He is the kind of teacher who hosts barbecues for students, attends their sports games, and routinely stays late as a club advisor or a confidant.
That passion for his subject and dedication to his students has recently earned Siddiqui a singular honor. He has just been named 2019 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year.
“He has this sort of Yoda-like presence,” says East Bridgewater principal Brian Duffey. “He’s the guy kids and other adults go to with things because of his unassuming approach. And there’s always this unstated deal with him that he’s going to be with you the whole ride through, right to the end.
“He really is a master teacher.”
The first step in teaching teenagers math has little to do with numbers. First, Siddiqui says, they need to learn to be wrong. That fear inhibits them from learning and asking the questions they need answered.
“I cannot care less about your final answer,” he tells students. “I want to know what your thought process is.”
Helping students figure out their thought process is where Siddiqui shines. On a recent morning, before most people have sipped coffee, he is moving animatedly about his classroom, searching to find the correct superhero magnet to illustrate a precalculus concept. He throws out a question that advances his theme and becomes suddenly still, waiting for one of his students to venture an answer.
“He’s always way ahead of the kids,” says former student William Pellegrino, who became a math teacher in South Easton, Mass., because of Siddiqui.
“He loves math so much, even if you don’t fully get into it, it starts to rub off on you a little bit—you just can’t resist,” Pellegrino says. “Obviously, I’m a math nerd, but I’ve seen it happen to others who aren’t.”
Siddiqui and his two brothers were raised by a single mother who worked as a nurse in remote Caribou, Maine, near the Canadian border. Distractions were few. Video games and cell phones were a rarity. He says the three frequently challenged one another with science and math problems.
He came to BU to study biomedical engineering, but it was a stint as a tutor in the University’s math lab that proved most formative. Siddiqui was by far the most popular tutor in the lab, says Robert L. Devaney, a College of Arts & Sciences professor emeritus of mathematics and statistics, who later hired him to work in his computer lab. After graduating with an engineering degree, Siddiqui stayed on to earn a master’s degree in math education. A few years later, he returned to BU to get a master’s in pure mathematics.
“In my own career as a student,” he says, “it was the ideas that I struggled with and repeatedly got wrong that became the topics that I understood the most.”
Devaney, past president of the Mathematical Association of America, says he still sees Siddiqui at national math conferences, which few high school math teachers attend. And at a time when most states, including Massachusetts, are facing significant shortages of qualified math teachers, Siddiqui is offering his students a window into higher order mathematical thinking.
“He’s teaching students AP calculus, but he’s also showing them what’s new and interesting and exciting in math,” Devaney says. “And that’s what clearly makes him stand out. East Bridgewater is lucky to have him.”
It would be easy to fill an auditorium with all the students that Siddiqui has helped score well on the AP calculus exam. (About 700 by his count.) And that’s exactly what East Bridgewater school officials did in May 2018 during a surprise ceremony to announce that Siddiqui had been named Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, a first for the district.
The superintendent of schools was there, along with state and local officials and Siddiqui’s wife, Rebecca, a history teacher, who came with their 17-month-old son. Also on hand were 10 of the 14 former students Siddiqui has inspired to become math teachers, there to celebrate their mentor.
Cheers and applause erupted when Siddiqui, who did not yet know about the award, appeared. Students waved “5” signs from their seats while music blared from the sound system.
“I think he really deserves it,” says 17-year-old Calliope Tarsi. “It’s really easy if you’re having trouble to ask him questions.”
And from rising senior Hunter Dempsey: “He gets you really prepared. And he doesn’t leave anyone behind.”
Siddiqui says he didn’t enter the teaching profession to win accolades, but he is honored to be named Massachusetts’ top teacher and share his love of math. (The official ceremony took place June 21, 2018, at the State House.) After nearly two and a half decades in the classroom, he’s been a role model for his colleagues at East Bridgewater, who frequently stop by to observe his teaching methods. He also has a side gig working for the College Board training math teachers. Yet he has no intention of leaving the classroom for an administrative job.
“I always say, you gotta love something, either your subject or your students,” Siddiqui says. “The best teachers, I think, love both.”
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at email@example.com.