What We Can Learn from Mr. Stern

Math teacher Joseph Stern, who teaches higher-level courses such as Quantum Mechanics, discusses his background, interests, and family life.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Frances Sy

Math teacher Joseph Stern is best known for teaching high-level courses, such as Quantum Mechanics and Multivariable Mathematics, at Stuyvesant. What is less widely known about him is that he stumbled upon his love for mathematics by accident and navigated through the worlds of the Marine Corps and visual arts along the way.

Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community, Stern attended a Yeshiva, a religious school that emphasized the value of being a good citizen rather than focusing on academic subjects. In such an environment, Stern had the freedom to pool his efforts into pursuing his interests, which included painting. “My [maternal] grandmother was a great painter and had always sort of groomed me from young childhood to be a painter [as well],” he remembered. “She taught me her techniques.”

After graduating from high school, Stern attended Queens College on an art scholarship. At the time, Stern “didn't know what mathematics really was or why [he] ought to care about it. It looked like a symbol game with no creativity or emotional content or charm in it.” He took a quantitative reasoning class to satisfy an area requirement, then decided to take a class in logic. He subsequently “discovered that [he] not only enjoyed formulating and proving theorems, but [also] was better at it than [he’d] ever known.” After signing up for a Calculus I course over the summer, he was “completely hooked.”

“Looking back on it now, I think that I was extremely lucky to have been pushed and pulled in various directions that I didn’t really choose for myself on any deliberate basis,” Stern reflected. “Somehow, by sheer luck, I landed in the intellectual paradise of mathematics.”

Stern soon declared a double major in mathematics and philosophy and a double minor in linguistics and anthropology. Though many students are generally discouraged from taking on the intense workload of a double major and double minor, the faculty at Queens College was fully supportive of Stern’s intellectual passions.

From 2000 to 2001, Stern studied financial mathematics under the British Marshall Scholarship. Upon his return to the United States, he trained for and enrolled in Officer Candidate School, an institution that the Marine Corps uses to condition its future officers. Because of the long hours spent running and performing drills, Stern developed fractures in his shins. One element of his training included jumping off of a high platform, which put sudden stress on his existing injuries and caused Stern to end up with a broken leg. He was given the choice of either repeating the entire training sequence and his year in Officer Candidate School or being released on medical leave. Ultimately, he decided to be released: “Had I been really devoted to the idea of being a military officer, I would have [repeated the sequence],” he said. “But I think that I just really wanted an adventure.”

Shortly thereafter, Stern took on a position at Martin Van Buren High School in Queens, where he taught a course for students who had previously failed their Regents exams. “My initial conception was that [teaching] was a short term gap before going on to math graduate school,” Stern said.

David Linker, a City College professor and Van Buren alumnus, changed Stern’s perception of teaching and his entire future. Linker came to Van Buren to host a professional development conference for the staff and scout out candidates to coach the New York City Math Team. At the beginning of his lecture, he presented problems to his audience and asked if anyone could solve them. By the end of the talk, Stern and an older colleague were the only individuals able to solve Linker’s problems. Linker introduced Stern to Daniel Jaye, the former Assistant Principal of Math at Stuyvesant (and the brother of former mathematics teacher Gary Jaye) and offered Stern a position as a math team coach. Since then, Stern has enjoyed working with other faculty members and his students. “It was only because I found this place and was really happy teaching the advanced courses here, talking with the students, and the course material and the teaching, that sort of induced me to stay in the professional field,” Stern described.

One of Stern’s most gratifying experiences as a teacher was when one of his high school students, Michael Scheer (’12), had his research paper published in the online journal Forum Geometricorum. “That was so much fun, both to take part in the work and especially to see the joy and excitement in [Scheer]’s eyes when he learned that his paper had been accepted for publication,” Stern said.

Currently, Stern and his wife of five years are raising their son, Toby, who is almost two years old. As Toby grows older, Stern hopes to share at least some of his passions with him, though he is cognizant of the fact that the interests of children often diverge from those of their parents. His only guarantee is that Toby will grow up surrounded by love.

For students who are considering a career choice involving education, Stern’s advice is to “learn your subject inside and out, to the point where you would be prepared to actively contribute to the subject should you decide to.” While it is difficult to become a master in the art of the way students learn, the subject matter itself should always take precedence. “It’s a competitive world with a lot of extremely bright people, so don’t rely on cleverness to get you places,” he explained. “You need real depth of knowledge—as much of it as possible. But it’s well worth the hardship if that is your calling.”