June 11, 2010
by Christine Yeres
George Benack turned 52 last Monday. He has spent the past 18 years teaching math at Horace Greeley High School. In March, he received a letter from MIT informing him that he had been selected to receive a 2010 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Inspirational Teacher Award, one of only 37 teachers worldwide to receive the award this year. (To view the list of teachers, click HERE.)
Mr. Benack was invited along with his wife and three children to an awards ceremony in Manhattan, which was followed by a talk by MIT Professor Michael Sipser on “The P versus NP problem, one of the great unanswered questions of contemporary mathematics and theoretical computer science.”
“It was a great talk,” commented Benack. “I already knew a lot about this subject, but my kids understood the talk, too. He did a bang-up job.”
Benack spoke with NCNOW this week about his award and how he came to be a math teacher.
Where were you born, and where did you go to school?
I’m from the Bronx, Grand Concourse at 183rd. I went to the Bronx High School of Science, then Hunter College, where I got a teaching degree in mathematics. After I graduated, I interviewed at Citibank and other companies, but I wanted to go into teaching.
What made you choose teaching?
Probably because I’d had some professors who were good and they said, “You explain things very well and have a nice style. You might want to consider teaching mathematics.” I took that to heart. I didn’t want to sit in an office anyway. There were some management training spots at Citibank offering something like $45,000 to $50,000 to start. Instead, I opted for a $14,700-a-year job teaching at Bronx High School of Science. It was like “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
I’d done some day-to-day subbing in other schools in the Bronx. I’d applied to Bronx Science but they didn’t have any openings. Then about two weeks into September they found they had a teacher who didn’t work out. I was the last person who’d called them, so they called me. It was fortuitous. I came in, interviewed, and they said, ‘you’ve got the job,’ gave me a stack of books – no training – and I started teaching.
It was a very different time. I remember when I walked into the classroom for the first time. There was screaming and applauding, that must have been from some teacher whose spot I took. I came home every day and fell asleep right after school, on my bed, in my clothes. Back then there were 38 kids in every class, and at this school the kids showed up every day. That was 170 or 180 kids every day for eight years.
In 1991 I met my wife, Eileen, at a friend’s apartment when I was getting my haircut. She was going out with another friend of mine. I knew I had to meet her again. About a year later I ran into her and she wasn’t going out with him anymore, so we went out and on our first date I knew I wanted to marry her. She’ll say now that I had cold feet about getting married, but honestly, after that first date I told my friends, “I’m going to marry her.” She was a social worker with teens in the Bronx, and then stayed home for 10 years raising our three children, who are currently in grades 5, 8 and 10 in the Chappaqua schools. She just got tenure as a fourth grade teacher in Croton.
How did you come to teach at Greeley?
Back in 1992, just after we were married, my wife saw an ad in the paper. I was low man on the totem pole at Bronx Science in terms of seniority, and I felt that eventually budget cuts would prevent my getting ahead. She actually thought the job advertised was for Rippowam Cisqua, but it was Chappaqua and Horace Greeley.
When I called, I learned they’d filled the job but I said ‘I’d like to come up and see the school anyway. They called me back and said, ‘We’d like to interview you.’ They’d seen my resume and knew that one of their math teachers was leaving in a year and wanted to grab me while they could. They created an extra position for the year, and told me that after a probationary year I’d have to interview for the position again, which I did. Ed Hart was the principal who hired me. I have very fond memories of him, a good man, someone you could butt heads with, then shake hands with and sit and have lunch with the next day.
Were you always good at math?
When I started in New York City, you had to take a licensing exam in math. My principal told me that I’d scored the highest of all the new teachers in the City. I was always good at it, but I never planned on pursuing it in college. I wanted to be what I think I really am still: a musician. I play guitar, bass, keyboards and I sing. But once the kids came along it was almost impossible to pursue and still have any kind of normal existence. I still get to play, though, and my children play, too.
I play in Westchester, Rockland and New Jersey. I was in a Springsteen cover band for about six years. These days I play in a couple of groups who meet regularly, one band with a full horn section. We play songs like Chicago did. Another group is guitar, keyboard, bass and three-part harmony. Then there’s an ad hoc group that I play with from time to time. During the school year, I play two gigs a month, in the summer a little more.
Were you surprised by the MIT award?
Thor Eusner [a former student of Benack’s at Greeley] had recommended me. He wrote a really nice letter. I couldn’t believe it when I read it. Is he talking about me? I wondered.
Do you remember the student who recommended you?
Of course. He just got his doctorate. He was an undergraduate, graduate student and doctoral student all at MIT, and has gotten nothing but A’s in all his classes. He was very organized. He would show up asking for extra help, with Post-It notes all over his notes. He’d targeted this, this, and this question. It wasn’t the usual, general “I-don’t-understand-this . . .”
Part of your award is a treasure trove of MIT on-line resources. Have you explored your prize yet?
Right now we’re tying up loose ends [at Greeley]. My AP students, all seniors, are done. My ninth graders have to take the Integrated Algebra Regents and they’re in good shape generally. Historically, we do very well here at Greeley with the Regents exam.
I have my special MIT account to get in, and a password, which allows me to access certain resources. I’m not sure yet. Some things I’ll be able to use in the classroom, some things may not be immediately applicable but I can tell there’s a wealth there that I’ll certainly use.
You went to the City to receive you award. What was that like?
It was a wonderful evening for my family and me. All five of us attended.
I was embarrassed by the fuss MIT made over me, but very pleased. It was clear how highly they valued good math teachers and the impact they’d had on their own lives and careers.
Letter from Christine Tempesta, Director of Strategic Initiatives, MIT Alumni Association, informing Benack of his award
Dear Mr. Benack:
It is my pleasure to inform you that you have been selected to receive a 2010 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Inspirational Teacher Award. Students at MIT nominate the high school teachers who inspired them through dedicated and motivating teaching. You were nominated by Thor Eusner, who shared wonderful input about your teaching with the selection committee. As part of the nomination statement, he wrote these thoughts to share with you:
Mr. Benack, for quite a few years, I have been reflecting on the impact that you had on my life. I’m not sure if it will ever be possible to put into words how grateful I am that I had you for a teacher. I would not have been accepted to MIT if it hadn’t been for all of the valuable lessons that I learned while in 9th grade math. You taught me how to absorb and learn complex information in an efficient manner. You helped me realize the level of dedication it takes to become an effective student. You made your time and knowledge available outside of the classroom. I KNOW that all of my successes at MIT are due to you and I want to thank you! You truly deserve this award! I wouldn’t be graduating with a Ph.D. if it weren’t for you. On behalf of every student whose life you have touched, Thank you!
We are grateful to you for inspiring one of your brightest students to become one of our students.
From Thor Eusner to NCNOW
I graduated from Horace Greeley High School in 2002. I graduated from MIT in 2006 with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. I then went on to graduate with a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from MIT in 2008. I just graduated (June 2010) with my Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Mechanical Engineering from MIT. While at MIT, I conducted research on semiconductor manufacturing in the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity.
I have been a student at MIT for eight years, four years as an undergraduate student and four years as a graduate student. Out of the approximately 60 classes that I have taken at MIT, I have never received a grade lower than an ‘A.’ When I look back on how I was able to achieve such great success at MIT, I always think back to my 9th grade math class with Mr. Benack.
I owe a lot of my current successes to Mr. Benack. My 9th grade math class was an accelerated math class for a small, select group of advanced high school freshmen and sophomores, and this was my very first exposure to a fast-paced learning environment. And, it’s fair to say that the material in this class was challenging for every student in the class at some point in time. My year was the first year that Mr. Benack had taught this class, so teaching this material at this pace was new for him as well. Looking back, Mr. Benack has all of the qualities that I look for (and have looked for) in professors here at MIT.
Mr. Benack would always present new information on the blackboard in a coherent and straightforward manner. Instead of simply regurgitating information from a textbook, Mr. Benack processed the material and turned it around to actually present it in a new scope, or in a new light. As a high school teacher, Mr. Benack welcomed students to meet with him in the afternoons and in the evenings. He made himself available for these office hours, where he worked with students one-on-one. He never allowed a student to leave his office confused. If a student was willing to make the effort to visit Mr. Benack in his office, then Mr. Benack would devote limitless amounts of time and energy to ensure that the student understood the concepts.
During his one-on-one meetings, Mr. Benack never needed a book or notes for reference; he had all of the information in his head. Mr. Benack fundamentally understood all of the material that he taught, and this enabled him to present the information clearly. How many college professors would be willing to take the time to sit with every student for hours outside of class? Zero. And how many professors would be able to do it without notes? Not many. At my public high school, where teachers aren’t always respected and valued by the community, Mr. Benack truly cares about his students. Mr. Benack’s caring doesn’t stop with his students’ academic pursuits. Mr. Benack was a fixture at varsity and junior varsity high school sports events. Mr. Benack would always keep a schedule of upcoming sporting events and if even just one student of his was on a given sports team, then he would go to the game and cheer for them.
I had the pleasure of having Mr. Benack as a teacher again during my senior year. He taught the Advanced Placement Computer Science Class. And although I didn’t even know what a computer language was at the time, I knew that because Mr. Benack was teaching this class, it was going to be good. Once again, Mr. Benack devoted himself to presenting the information in a well-constructed way so that it made learning straightforward and fun. Obviously, I had some extra questions, and I knew that Mr. Benack would be more than happy to help me outside of class (as always). Mr. Benack took time out of his evenings to help me work through complex sorting algorithms until I understood how the computer was operating. For the two months leading up to the Advanced Placement exam, Mr. Benack devoted his spare time to holding review sessions where he would show up with food or drinks. He really and truly cared about making sure that every student learned the material. And he made it so that the students wanted to learn.
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