Mount Greylock math teacher Robert Thistle earns James C. Kapteyn Prize

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WILLIAMSTOWN >> There's no perfect formula for being a good teacher. The variables are always changing and the outcomes are often unknown.

But Mount Greylock Regional High School math teacher and coach Robert "Bob" Thistle keeps a few critical constants that have equalled success in his classroom.

"My hope for every teacher is that you create a culture where you show your cards and lay out what expectations you have," Thistle said. "In my classes, we tolerate mistakes, but we won't tolerate put-downs. Our culture is based on respect and accentuating the positives."

It's an approach that works: Thistle recently was named the sixth annual James C. Kapteyn Prize winner, earning a $10,000 grant through the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation.

He said he was humbled by the honor, created in 2009 in memory of the late Deerfield Academy educator, coach and campus leader James Cornelius Kapteyn, who died suddenly in 2007 at age 45 while playing indoor soccer.

"It's a real honor to be connected to someone like him ... and to see his family members making something good happen out of something so sad," said Thistle, who met members of Kapteyn's family and past prize winners at an Oct. 26 award ceremony at Mount Greylock.

In a letter supporting Thistle's nomination, Mount Greylock senior Emmett Shepard described his teacher and coach as being "authentically interested in the world around him."

Two sides of Thistle's classroom have wall-length white boards that the teacher reserves for working out math problems with students, as well as listing things happening at the school and student birthdays happening that month. Along the sills of the windows at the rear of the classroom are books and DVDs relating to math. But the fourth wall has become an expanding collage, assembled beneath the phrase "Believe."

It contains references to Math League, articles about Mounties' athletic wins, posters of the school's fall Shakespeare productions, among other festive things.

"I think that wall is a great metaphor to Bob's contributions to the community, celebrated in math and in life," Mount Greylock Principal Mary MacDonald said.

Heading into his 10th year at Mount Greylock, Thistle serves as the mathematics curriculum leader, teaches an SAT prep class in the evenings and coaches the boys' varsity basketball team. He has taught every mathematics course the school offers, from pre-algebra to AP calculus, has run Math League and serves in a co-mentoring program with other math faculty.

A Pittsfield High School graduate, Thistle graduated from Boston University in 1989.

He's held various roles at Roxbury Youth Works; taught runaway and homeless youth at Survival Shelter in Weymouth; and has been an instructor at The Gifford School. He's also worked at PHS.

Thistle's students support their teacher's award, and in 2013 voted him the "Teacher of the Year."

"He's definitely a gifted speaker. In his classes, you never are bored and he's always getting you involved," said Lucy Barrett, who's taken ninth-grade geometry and honors calculus with Thistle.

"He never lets [class] feel like a lecture. He's learning while he's teaching you," said senior Kelsey Orpin, who took pre-calculus with him last year and is now taking calculus.

In a recent geometry class, a paraprofessional noted that Thistle had made an error. Instead of blushing, Thistle turned it into a teaching moment by reminding students to check their math on a quiz, "So you don't make a mistake like I did."

"He doesn't make you feel like a student who's below him," said Barrett. "Everyone respects him, and his class never gets out of hand."


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