John Pilla is well aware of the anxiety many of his students feel when they walk into his classroom to take a math course.
The Math Senior Lecturer at Montgomery County Community College’s Blue Bell Campus has been teaching for 39 years. He taught math in the Philadelphia School District for 30 years and has been at the College since 2004. He knows the subject can feel like a source of impending doom for many students.
“I let the students know that I am here for them and understand their anxiety,” he said. “When it comes to math courses, they just want to ‘get it over with’. My approach is to keep the class environment both informative and entertaining.”
That stress-free method of teaching has served Pilla well and this year he’s being celebrated for his efforts. At Commencement, Pilla was named one of two recipients of the 2022 Part-Time Faculty Teaching Excellence Awards, sponsored by the College’s eCampus Bookstore.
Teaching excellence awards recognize part-time faculty whose teaching is intellectually stimulating, accessible for all students, and demonstrates a commitment to the well-being of students both inside and outside of the classroom. Pilla, who shares the award with Chemistry Senior Lecturer Daryl Walmer, was surprised to be named this year’s award recipient.
“We’re a team here,” he said. “Everybody works together, and we have talented instructors. I was surprised when I was nominated. I’m proud to have my name involved with the College with his award.”
Pilla’s goal is to continue to find ways to make his course enjoyable and successful for all of his students. Whether that means challenging students for whom math comes easily or helping students who struggle in math, they feel like they’ve accomplished success by the end of the course.
“I encourage the students to feel like a team,” he said. “I inspire the students to give responses, there are no embarrassing answers, there are no silly questions. My comments to students in a test or work sheet: ‘You got one wrong; you find it’ and ‘You had the correct equation, but four times three is not 10. It used to be 10, but they changed it, it’s 12 now.’”
Pilla said his students respond to his relaxed style of teaching.
“I’ve had students say to me ‘I never liked math, but this course makes me feel like I can do it and I like it,’” he said.
He also believes in finding ways to connect the material he’s teaching in the classroom to the real world. As a business consultant to companies like Merck and Independence Blue Cross, among many others, Pilla shows his students how the course curriculum can be applied to a future career.
“A lot of students walk in and say ‘Oh, OK we have to do page 69 of the textbook,’” he said. “But I can say, ‘Listen, I actually did this when I worked for IMS Health.’ It makes them a little more alert and motivated. Students have their goals, and they have their careers. Through my business experience, they can actually see the needed applications.”
Teaching math is a little like hosting “The Tonight Show,” said Pilla in that you have to keep students’ attention and keep things moving seamlessly, so they don’t lose interest.
Lastly, he said, it’s important to understand your students and know what they need to be successful. One student told him he had just started a new job and would be getting a first paycheck. He asked if he should buy a new calculator or the textbook for the course.
“That’s our students,” he said. “I had an old textbook and gave it to him, so he could complete the course. In addition to academics, our students have other issues. I try to get to know most of my students. I talk to them on the side. What’s your career? What are your goals? They’ll open up to me. They’ll tell me about family issues or concerns about employment. It works. I try to get beyond the math. Sometimes outside concerns can affect academics.”
At Commencement, Dr. Gloria Oikelome, Vice President of Academic Affairs, read comments from some of Pilla’s students praising his ability to take a difficult subject and make it enjoyable.
“John’s students shared that ‘He made Math fun,’” she said. “‘I very much enjoyed going to his class every week.’”
Another student wrote that “Having Statistics as an online course was not easy, but Professor Pilla made the experience enjoyable with his positive attitude, humor, and patience in helping students with their questions.”
Pilla appreciated the feedback and said when it’s all said and done, he has one job.
“I have one objective: to get knowledge from me to my students,” he said. “How I do it? I get to know my students’ strengths and challenge them. When they say ‘I’m not good at math’ I say ‘look, you did this. You actually did this. How can you say you’re not good at math?’ I think it conveys a message to the students and it makes them more aware of ‘Hey, I can do this.’ It’s the confidence. It’s the whole picture."