Katerina Smyslova ’24 interviewed High School Math Teacher Daniel Dudley, who has taught both AP and IB Math since coming to TASIS in 2019.
Can you describe your professional background and explain how you ended up at TASIS?
So far, my experience has been very good. I’ve taught overseas longer than I’ve lived in the United States. I taught in the Peace Corps in Malawi for five years, and that's where I met my wife. From there we went to Verde Valley School in Sedona, Arizona, for 12 years. We then went to King’s Academy in Jordan for eight years, and after eight years in Jordan, we wanted something different. I wanted to be somewhere in Europe, so I looked at TASIS and was happy to receive an offer to come here.
So far my experience has been very good here. The students are great and seem to be very engaged for the most part. They have a lot of passion, which is fun to watch. You can see that they enjoy being here. And of course the view is amazing. Everyone loves that.
How would you describe your teaching philosophy?
I think my teaching philosophy is one of patience. I know that teenagers are teenagers. I also try to think of it as a long-term arc. What are they going to be in 10 years? That's what I try to imagine. I try to provide a foundation for whatever they decide to do in the future.
It's always fun to see students come back after 10 years and hear them say, “Oh, I remember that.” And it’s also nice to see how much they've changed—the little pains in the neck in class have suddenly grown up! That is really nice to watch. After teaching for almost 30 years, you get to see a lot of different students in different stages of their lives. They're not as different as they think. Students 30 years ago aren't that much different than students these days.
I was just going to ask what you think has changed over the years about students...
One thing that stands out is that students seem to have become much more politically aware than they were 30 years ago. Those days, I don't think they were paying as much attention to what was going on around them. I always hoped that students would become a little bit more politically active than they used to be. Politics used to be just something that people did, but now students seem to be much more aware of the problems that politics can cause down the line. I think they're finding their voice a lot more. In the early years, students didn't speak out as quite as much, but over time they've become much more vocal and more willing to express their opinions.
Certainly when I was in school, I just sat there and learned the lessons and moved on. I didn't care about politics or anything like that. But students these days seem to be much more politically involved, which is good. History kind of slowly moved along, but the last 15 years things have really accelerated. And I think students are going to have to grow up a lot faster than they expect. This world is really going to change fast for them, which scares me.
You teach both AP and IB courses. Why do you think it's important for TASIS to offer students these two different tracks?
They are two different structures. There was one teacher I worked with who described AP as more of an à la carte. You can pick and choose what you really want to focus on, whereas the IB says you will focus on these six things. I think there are pluses and minuses to both. Depending on what a student wants to study, I think both of them are really strong programs to do. I personally prefer the AP because I like the idea of having more flexibility in what you choose to focus your learning on, but I can also see that the structure of the IB is really strong.
I think it's important to have both options, and it’s one of the reasons I came to TASIS. Most European schools offer IB, and there are some schools that offer AP too. I teach AP Statistics and really wanted to continue with that class, so that's the reason I chose this school over a couple of others I had the option to go to. The other schools were strictly IB, so I decided I'd rather have a bit of flexibility in my own teaching. I’m sure TASIS students appreciate that flexibility as well.
Do you think there is too much pressure on students from a young age nowadays? Like in ninth grade, they already have to start thinking about what they’re going to be...
Yes, I think that's too young. As I said earlier, things are accelerating, which is something to think about. But I don't want kids to grow up too fast. I want them to mature and start thinking about real world issues, but I don't want them to grow up so fast. I decided very early that I wanted to do something in the fields of science and math, but I didn't have any idea where I would be or where I was going at that age. I was perfectly fine with that.
I think it's important to see the world. I think it's important to have some fun too. I love to see these little Elementary School students running around the playground without a care in the world. And so I think they lose a little bit of that a bit too early. I know you want to focus on getting into college and stuff like that, but you’ve got to be a kid too. Enjoy yourself a little bit. Those are memories that will last.
Why is STEM education so important in today's world?
As I said, things are accelerating really quickly, and I think science and technology is going to help us solve some of the problems that are growing fast. However, I also really think that it takes a bit more of a creative mind in some ways. We need people who have an open mind and can think creatively about solutions to work with the scientists to come up with solutions to the problems the world faces. The creative element is essential, which is why I think the arts are just as important. They keep the creative juices flowing and get you to think outside the box a little bit.
In general, I think that being a well-rounded student and being able to read critically are incredibly important skills. So I think STEM is just one part of the well-rounded student. Undoubtedly, technology is going to have to really get involved to solve a lot of the problems that are coming down the road. But it's going to take the right sort of mind to think about things a bit more creatively.
Do you think that technology has caused kids to mature more quickly? I mean because they are exposed to so much more information...
Absolutely. The amount of information that we have access to at our fingertips is amazing. It’s unfathomable! I remember writing a research paper in high school. I would go to the library and start pulling magazines out and leafing through them one at a time. Today you just search for a word or a phrase that you're looking for, and you’ll get all the articles you could ever want at your fingertips within a few minutes. It's an amazing resource. I wish and hope that it's used more for the good than for the bad. Unfortunately, I think the bad comes with the good. So we'll see.
What do you like most about teaching at TASIS?
That's a tough one. There are a lot of things I like. What you realize when you teach in a lot of different schools is that teenagers are more similar than you might think, worldwide. But I think it's an inspiring environment here. If you're bored here, I think it's your own fault. So get out and explore. If you’re bored, go for a walk or something. There's so much to explore!
As I mentioned, I like the flexibility that comes with being able to teach both IB and AP classes and getting to see the pros and cons of both. I think that's a plus. And I think the students, by and large, are pretty engaged. They’re trying hard. For example, I just show up in class and find kids sitting there ready to learn. That doesn't happen all the time. They are respectfully argumentative sometimes. They'll say, “I don't know if I agree with that,” because they are respectful. I worked at another school where they were a little less respectful, a little more aggressive, and they would tell you straight away, “You're wrong.” I think the students here are more engaged and seem much more respectful than I'm used to, which is really nice. So that makes teaching here a lot easier and more enjoyable. And I'm not getting confronted with arguments all the time that don't have anything to do with learning.
How do you compare this school to the others you've taught at?
I’ve found out that in every school there are going to be some really strong kids and some who don't care as much about education because maybe their parents forced them to be there. There are kids that would do well at any school in the world—they get in, they're driven, they're motivated—and then there's this other group that just wants to get what they can. They want to maybe have a little too much fun and not spend as much time on their studies.
One difference I see here has to do with the socioeconomic backgrounds of our students. At the school in Jordan, we had a very broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds. We had poor kids from the village who got there by hard work and scholarship. Then you would have the wealthy kids from the upscale neighborhood in Oman, and they were all learning to live together and learn from each other. I felt that the socioeconomic breadth was really nice. Here, it seems like there are a lot of fairly wealthy kids, and I don't think they see as many kids on the low end working their way up through the system. I wish there was a little bit more socioeconomic breadth in the school. I think that's an important piece. I wish we could offer scholarships to more kids to get in here to benefit from this education, and I also think that the community would benefit from those kinds of kids taking advantage of the opportunity. Seeing a kid who really values everything about this place because of where it is and all it offers—I think we could use a little bit more of that.
Did the social differences in Jordan unite or separate the students?
Well, but there was a big English disparity when they first came as a freshman from the village versus a kid who's been speaking English most of his life. That gap would narrow quickly by the time they graduated. We had a student in Jordan who could barely speak English when he came, and he ended up going to MIT when he graduated. I think the gap narrowed as they went along, and friendships started to form. I didn't see the gap much in the upper grade levels. In the lower grade levels, there was definitely a pecking order. But I think that once those kids started to establish themselves socially and in school, the pecking order started to switch around a little bit. By the time they were graduating, I would say for the most part it was a pretty together group. That was really good to see.
Have you met former students who turned out to be really successful?
It depends on how you measure success. Plenty of them are people who just got out there and did it. I do remember one kid who I taught as a senior during my first year in Jordan. He was a pain in the neck, and he and his friends gave me so much grief in class. He later came back for his five-year reunion, and I met him at dinner that night. He came up to me and said, “Mr. Dudley, I am so sorry for being such a pain.” We had a great conversation. It was clear that he had been working on himself.
This same student also didn't get into his first college choice, and he blamed me for that. We had a big row, but he ended up going on to do great things just because he willed himself to do so. I think that sometimes when you don't get what you want right off the bat, it's not always a bad thing. It's how you learn from it that matters. He bounced back and later ended up getting into the college he wanted to go to. So he went in through another route and still got it done, which to me is amazing. I think so many kids do that.
Sometimes if you get into all the colleges you apply to and get all the best opportunities, it’s not good. Sometimes you should get knocked down a little bit, and that's a little test of character. How can you bounce back from it?