The Return of the Wizard

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While he doesn’t possess any real magical powers, Mr. Billingham’s ability to instill a genuine enthusiasm for math inside teenagers is almost supernatural. For the previous 20 years, very few classes have enjoyed Billingham’s wizardry, as he switched from a full-time teacher to Jesuit’s Technology Director in 1996. However, this past year Billingham returned to his “absolute first love of teaching math,” taking on two sections each of BC Calculus and Honors Advanced Algebra 2/Trig.

Before becoming Technology Director, Mr. Billingham worked as a math and computer science teacher at Jesuit for 16 years. But with the advent of the internet and its immense impact on education looming, Jesuit created a position dedicated to helping the school adapt to the sudden wave of technological innovation in 1996. “Sounding like a fun thing to do,” Billingham applied for the position four years after finishing his masters degree in computer science. He was chosen for the position, which started off as a one man operation. Fortunately, a tech committee comprising of friends of the school helped him effectively plan and budget, as well as eventually network Jesuit and buy the school its first computers in 1996. Under Billingham’s direction, what started off as a small network of Windows 95 computers in ’96 grew to a complex fiber optic network, dozens of servers, and wireless capability throughout the whole school today.

When Billingham first started as Technology Director, he was teaching two sections of math; however, that soon dwindled down to one. “There were a lot of times where I was encouraged to give up that one section,” Billingham noted, “but I always insisted on teaching that one class. I thought of it as the high point of my day. No matter what was going wrong, I could forget about the stress of tech; I could go into the classroom with eager young students and discuss math with them at a high level.”

Throughout those 20 years, Billingham never forgot about his “ first love,” always having “in mind that I would do this for awhile and then I would return to teaching math. And just last summer, I turned 61 and I just thought, ‘It’s time.’ We had five people leave the math department so it was a great time for me to go back into math so I returned into the classroom. Now every period is the high point of my day.”

Billingham’s move sparked excitement throughout the math department, as “Everybody loves Mr. Billingham,” said Mrs. Gerber. “Knowing we were having a veteran math teacher [come] back was awesome. Before, he only got to work with BC kids so only the guys who got to BC Calculus were able to see this man who loves math so much outwardly. I mean we all love math, but Billingham has a special love of math.”

With such a genuine affection for math, students as well can’t help but enjoy the enthusiasm and energy Mr. Billingham brings with him into the classroom each day. “Billingham’s passion for the beauty of mathematics rubbed off on so many students, including me,” remarked Will Curran ‘17. “His appreciation for the simplicity of calculus and the interesting quirks within it are obvious during class, yet he also stresses the importance of creative thinking.”

Mrs. Gerber similarly noticed Billingham’s incredible ability to challenge students and to just “whip a math problem out of his head, asking students, ‘Have you ever thought of this?’ I was excited that more kids could see that. He has just a great way of making kids think about math.”

Coming up with random problems about almost any concept makes him so effective at helping students in the math lab, which Mr. Billingham “has particularly enjoyed” this year every day during 6th period, “Anybody can come in with a question about anything and I have to quickly assess what’s their level of understanding and try to find a way to explain it to them that they will get.” Aiding him in this endeavor is his 37 years of teaching experience at Jesuit, where he has managed to teach every math class from Algebra One to BC Calculus except statistics.

His expertise is noticed by all the students who walk into the math lab during 6th period, students such as Thomas Whitaker ‘17, who commented, “It’s quite amazing to see Billingham go from helping a sophomore with a specific geometry proof to helping me integrate functions in calculus. If I missed a day or if I didn’t get something immediately in class, I knew I could always head to the math lab during 6th period where the wizard would gladly re-teach me anything I was unsure about. I’ve always thought the math lab was a very undervalued part of Jesuit, but Billingham might be changing that as more and more kids went to the math lab as the year passed.”

Even though he has taught math at Jesuit for 37 years, Mr. Billingham still finds new ways to challenge himself in the hopes of becoming an even better teacher. For instance, when Mrs. Gerber went on maternity leave, Billingham offered to take over one of her AB Calculus classes because “He thought he could be utilized more,” according to Mrs. Gerber. While Billingham has traditionally relied on the lecture format for his classes, he had to adventure with activity based learning when he took over for Mrs. Gerber. In her AB calculus class, “The learning goes on by cooperatively working on worksheets within the classroom with a little bit of assistance from the teacher,” Billingham noted. “I committed to trying my best to teach the class the way Mrs. Gerber had been teaching it so I had to adapt my teaching style. It was a bit of a challenge for me, but I knew that at any time if I needed to, I could fall back on lecture and could just explain it.”

Mrs. Gerber thought it “worked out very nicely that Billingham taught the AB guys for a while. It was a different change of pace from what he was doing before” as he has been “teaching BC Calculus for so long. AB guys are just a different group of guys…While the BC guys sort of naturally get interested in what questions they’re doing, in AB, you have to be more engaging, which is why we do more activity based learning.”

While filling in for a teacher halfway through the year is inherently difficult, Evan Bausbacher ‘17 thought Billingham “did an excellent job” taking over their AB Calculus class. “Initially, I was a little scared because I only knew Mr. Billingham as the wizard who taught BC Calculus, but we did not lose a step once Mrs. Gerber went on maternity leave. The innovative ways he approached difficult problems and concepts was amazing. I could tell he struggled a bit with how our class was structured and how he would have liked to lecture more, but I think he adjusted well and did a nice mix of both lecture and worksheets when he needed to. Ultimately, I believe everyone in the class grew as students of the game as a result of his tremendous teaching.”

Mrs. Gerber reflected on the experience, saying, “I really think he enjoyed the challenge. I think it opened his eyes to new ways of approaching teaching. In BC, you can just teach the way you teach and that will be fine, but in AB, you have to mix it up… and now when he’s thinking about BC, he’s thinking about different things to try.”

Billingham similarly believed “It was a positive experience. I’m doing more group work — partner work with free responses in my other classes. I’m doing that to the extent that I can while still covering the larger amount of material that we need to finish in BC to complete the curriculum.” Senior Elliott Ingram has particularly noticed this trend in Billingham’s BC Calc class, as “We have started to do a lot more AP free response practice later in the year. I think this has really helped everyone because we are doing the free responses on some of the hardest concepts in BC like Taylor series; so working with other guys is a huge help as you can talk the problem out with them and try to solve it together.”

While Mr. Billingham did teach both an Honors Programming and an AP Computer Science class in the years before he became Jesuit’s Technology Director, he “has little interest” in teaching computer science once again. “I liked teaching it. It was good. It was fresh,” Billingham said. “It really is very similar to math. The difference being that a program either runs or doesn’t; it either does what it’s supposed to or it doesn’t. The hardest math problems to grade on a test are the ones that are almost right. With programming, you just work till you get it right and just check it. I like that, but I really love the beauty and abstraction of math instead of the downturn practicality of programming.”

One of the benefits Billingham enjoys after returning to the classroom is the free time. “My previous job was very busy, but I wasn’t as scheduled as I am now. So if I was working with a volunteer, I had the opportunity to take them out to lunch or go work on something off campus if I needed to. On the other hand, in some ways, I paid for that flexibility by being here late in the evenings, coming in on weekends, working throughout the summer, but now, I have much more free time, but the time I have working is very scheduled. I mean I have this thing on the wall that tells me at this time, I have to be here. At this time, I have to be here. It truly is very different.”

With the added free time, Billingham has taken over Mu Alpha Theta for Mrs. Gerber and hopes to take the club in “the direction of competing” more. “I still like the idea of tutoring and pi day,” Billingham said, “but I want to get kids more practicing for competitions, not just UIL and AMC and TXML, but the Greater Dallas Mathematics Competition and maybe the McNabb Tournament.”

Additionally, Mrs. Gerber is looking forward to Billingham “working on a team with other teachers in the department” next year so that “more people can can learn from the wizard.”

While some contend the wizard references have been a part of Jesuit folklore for years, Billingham traces them to a Dondis class he was subbing last year where he showed students “a stupid coin trick.” Still amazed to this day, Evan Bausbacher remembers it as “the single greatest magic trick“ he’s ever seen. “I didn’t know how to react in the moment. It was all too surreal. Everyone in the class knew right then that this man was truly THE wizard.” Peter Ju ‘17 even bought Billingham a wizard hat for him to wear during class this year, which Billingham finally did on the last day he subbed for Mrs. Gerber’s AB Calculus class.

Besides raising challenging questions and showing off cool magic tricks, Mr. Billingham loves to bring out his infamous joke books during class. Flipping to a random page of one of his books, he will tell a joke that often brings mixed reviews. “Half the time they are pretty funny,” said Will Naquin ‘17, “and half the time people just chuckle because it’s awkward.” Nevertheless, Will Curran ‘17 always appreciates Billingham’s jokes, as “His dry sense of humor is awesome and really enjoyable.”

Overall, Mr. Billingham’s return to the classroom this year has made a positive impact on so many lives. He was truly deserving of this year’s Teacher of the Year Award.

May we all get 5’s on the AP!

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