Teacher Leadership

A Waiting List for Calculus

A San Diego teacher of the year fosters passion for math—and his classes fill a 100-seat theater.

Teacher is in a solider costume teaching in front of a classroom

It's a few minutes after 7 a.m. on a drizzly Friday morning and math teacher Jonathan Winn is standing just outside his first period classroom yelling at the top of his lungs, his voice reverberating across campus. "How does that go?!" He's not so much yelling at his students as yelling for them, exhorting them to shout out the answer to a complex calculus problem, in unison. A few minutes later, Winn is dressed in a wig and a white ruffled shirt, playing 18th-century mathematician Gottfried Leibniz doing calculus in Paris. Later in the 90-minute class, he puts on a drum major's hat and exchanges drum beats and claps with his students, to get them to feel the power of their unity.

This is how they roll in Winn's AP calculus class on the campus of Crawford High Educational Complex in San Diego, California. Teaching the most popular class on campus, Winn fills every one of the 100 seats in the school's theater -- and there's a waiting list to get into his class. One in ten of the students are native English speakers and 95 percent of them receive free or reduced lunch. While Winn's extracurricular antics are entertaining, he says they are part of a collection of proven techniques to get the most from his students. And according to Winn, they are beginning to see results: About 80% of seniors who have gone through the Crawford's math program curriculum have received at least one acceptance letter to a four-year university.

Winn has also just been voted San Diego Unified School District's High School Teacher of the Year. Winn has developed a high voltage classroom atmosphere that has done what some would say is impossible: he's inspired high school students to get excited about math.

Winn says his success in the classroom didn't come easily. "In my first teaching assignment, I was way overwhelmed. I quit after two years, cleaned out my retirement account and I went to Thailand for like three or four months and taught English over there and thought I was never coming back." But he did return to San Diego, and that's when he started observing several master teachers. He was especially impressed by the work of Crawford's 9th grade algebra teacher Carl Munn, who insists that every student can succeed at math in high school. Winn joined the school in 2007. And after observing one of Winn's lectures, veteran teacher Becky Breedlove came out of retirement to volunteer in his classroom. She thought, "how does a guy plan, prepare, and deliver these amazing lessons for more than 100 students and keep up with the paperwork? I said I'd help with the paperwork part and I ended up staying and coming every single day."

Winn has helped raise money to bus students to testing centers for their AP and SAT exams, and helped jump start a popular math club. While he occasionally works with students into the night and on weekends at school, he also makes time for his personal passion, surfing. "Being out in the water is a really important experience for me. Being on the edge of a wave, being out there and potentially falling and getting crunched... In that moment, you have to figure it out -- it's kind of like a life or death situation. I don't think calculus is life or death for the students, but I do think that when you're faced with a really tough problem, you either have the skills and the capacity to rise up, or you don't -- and I believe that the key is self-belief."