Three students file into a professor’s office. They have come with a question about an algebra homework problem. There is an equation that must be understood and a parabola that must be graphed.
The professor looks at the equation for a moment. “The challenge is that it is too easy compared to others of this type,” he tells the students. He goes through the steps, utilizing the white board hanging on his office wall. His main goal is not to solve this individual problem, but rather to help them grasp the algebraic concepts.
As the students leave, their questions answered for the moment, the professor returns to his chair. “Sorry for the interruption,” he says. “I’m just too committed to my students.”
For him, Don Siemens, professor of mathematics, that may well be true. Siemens estimated that he has taught more than 5,500 students during his 28 years at John Brown University. He also said that some of his best friends have been the students he has taught.
Siemens is officially retiring in May. However, he intends to return to teach two algebra classes in the fall for the next two years as an adjunct professor.
He is the oldest of nine children, born to two University alumni. After growing up in Kansas, he and all nine of his siblings returned and also graduated from the University, which Siemens said “must be a record.”
In 1966 he started college. Due to changing his major three times and taking a semester “bumming around Europe,” Siemens graduated with a Mechanical Engineering degree in 1972.
Next taught he math and coached cross country, track and basketball at a Missouri high school for four years. He said he had seen how influential high school teachers and coaches could be in students’ lives and wanted to have that kind of an impact.
Siemens’ next step was to get his doctorate in southern Illinois as he continued teaching at a high school there. He studied education, curriculum and instruction. “Basically how to be a teacher,” he said. After finishing his degree, he applied to teach at a high school in Tulsa. He also interviewed for an open position at John Brown University, for which he was accepted.
He said that what brought him back to the University was reading articles by John Brown III in the Brown Bulletin. He said he never would have left teaching high school if he had not been so impressed with the University’s emphasis on academic excellence and the spiritual formation of both faculty and students.
Siemens spent his first 19 years at the University teaching in the Division of Teacher Education. Later, in 2003, he said he wanted to get back to teaching math. He intended to do so in high school, but when a position opened for a math professor at the University he took that instead.
Throughout his career Siemens has been interested in studying how to be a better teacher. For example, his doctoral dissertation dealt with the use of homework in math classes.
Now that he is retiring, he hopes to take the next couple of years to process the data he has from teaching mathematics at John Brown. His goal is to examine whether taking algebra classes help students with their overall success in college.
Siemens said he has learned many things from his students. He may continue teaching by returning to the high school class room at some point in the future.
“My students have kept me laughing,” he said. “They have helped my problem solving skills stay sharp as I work with them, and they give me a purpose for ministry and my existence on earth.”