Knoxville, Tenn. – Benita Albert is one of those teachers of student legend – so much so that Oak Ridge High School student Katherine Wheeler says rumors of Albert’s impending retirement raced across student Facebook pages last spring.
“And then I thought, oh, no, then I won’t be able to have her for calc. two next year - and my little sister won’t be able to have her – and this would just be terrible,” says Wheeler.
After 42 years in the classroom, after earning the presidential award for mathematics teaching, after leaning hundreds of regional AP calculus training sessions — after all that, Benita Albert is slowly making her exit from Oak Ridge High School. There was some truth to that rumor, after all: Albert retired this summer, but the school board asked her to return part-time on contract for one more calculus class this fall.
“I’ve loved every student I’ve had,” says Albert. “I’ve heard from a lot of them and they are happy people and successful people in large part and that’s so wonderful it’s almost like they become your mathematical children.”
Those “mathematical children” have reached incredible heights – her students’ inventions include the revolutionary DaVinci surgical robot – eyes for the Mars Rover – the world’s leading voice-recognition software – and more.
“There’s just all sorts of heroics that we don’t, as teachers, get to know about immediately but we see later on and it makes me so incredibly proud,” says Albert.
“And every single one of those kids as much as possible I have asked to come back and share it with the future classrooms, they need to realize they sat in the same desks, same classroom, same teacher in my case, maybe – but look at where they are now, that it will happen, that it will happen to anyone who wants it bad enough.”
Scott Molony remembers that feeling.
“She had this faith in us – she had this wonderful – almost like a personal relationship with everybody, and this sort of very friendly, chipper, challenging spirit that said, you can do this, c’mon.”
Molony’s now a graduate student specializing in the ethics of technology at Boston College. He says he wasn’t the best calculus student in Benita Albert’s class … but he was dedicated enough to make it to school at 5 a-m for Albert’s early morning office hours.
“I think that kind of willingness to make so much of herself available, in addition to being a really – just a nice person is just something extraordinary that I’ve never seen in any other teacher since I’ve been through college,” he says.
That extra attention helped Molony win the 2006-2007 National Siemens Math Competition with two fellow calculus students – and helped their mentors at Oak Ridge National Laboratory secure 8-hundred-thousand dollars to study biofuels. Not bad for a guy who thought he was an average calculus student.
Especially in this culture, it’s – some people will say, oh, I’m not a math person, or oh, I’m bad at math. And Benita Albert would never accept that, ever. Anybody could do the math, she’d say; you just have to sit down and work on it. And she was willing to be there with you every step of the way,” he says.
Molony says it’s a tragedy that Oak RidgeHigh Schoolis losing Albert. But he says he’s happy knowing the teacher who woke before dawn and left after sunset every day for four decades will have more time with her family. And he says there’s one more legacy Benita Albert will leave: all this time, she’s been showing other teachers her secrets to success.