April 1, 2014
Math teacher keeps both students and colleagues intrigued
By Barbara Baker
NJC Math Professor Mike Vair (center) walks students through a problem during one of his classes on campus. His teaching style encourages students to get to their full potential both in and outside of the classroom. (Courtesy Photo)
If you tether a unicorn to the edge of a circular pond full of sparkling pink jello with a radius of “a” by a rope length of “ka” (0 < k < 2 ). What is the grazing area of the unicorn? And no, unicorns will not eat sparkling pink jello. You do the math.
This paraphrased version of the old goat calculus problem is the type of question a student in Mike Vair’s class just might find on a test. Since 1994 Mike Vair has been challenging students at Northeastern Junior College with these kind of brain teasers in one form or another. Those that love math eat up these equations and knock out answers relatively quick. Those who struggle in math find a teacher very eager to meet with them in the math lab later in the day to resolve the problem. For his mathematical prowess, great classroom persona, and willingness to go above and beyond when it comes to helping students succeed at math, Vair has been selected as the recipient of this year’s Faculty of the Year Award.
A Colorado native born in Fort Collins and raised at Ault on a dairy farm, Vair has a way of connecting with just about anyone at any level. While in college he did some tutoring of students, but didn’t really think about teaching as a career. In 1988 he had an opportunity to travel to Fiji with the Peace Corps specifically with the idea of teaching math. Liking the idea of seeing some more of the world, he accepted the assignment. He had a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Fort Lewis College and that qualified him to teach the islanders. He was assigned to Ba Methodist High School and spent the next two years teaching them math and other life skills of sorts.
Vair realized that he enjoyed teaching and upon returning to the states, decided to enroll at Colorado State University to complete a master’s degree, with the plan being to pursue teaching math at a community college. “I admit it, I didn’t want to have to deal with parents, so the college level was where I wanted to be,” he said. He got a master’s degree from CSU in 1993 and one year later, was hired at Northeastern. Since 1994 he’s been an instructor and professor of mathematics, primarily teaching the tougher classes in physics and calculus, but also being available to any student needing any kind of help with math.
In the years leading up to his teaching career, Vair worked at a variety of jobs including the family dairy farm, as a professional house painter, for the forest service, at a hog farm, and at a nursery green house. These were all jobs that kept him busy, helped pay the bills and allowed him to exercise a strong work ethic. A work ethic he continues to personally exercise and also expects from students when it comes to the classroom.
When asked what appeals the most to him about teaching, he jokingly says, “June, July and August,” indicating he likes his summers off. “I teach because I love instructing students and helping them achieve their goals and achieve their full potential,” he clarifies.
His colleagues talk fondly about Vair, although everyone on campus knows he’s not afraid to stir the pot, especially when he feels passionate about something.
“Mike is like a whirling dervish,” is how one of the several that nominated him for this award described him. “This man teaches an incredible load, spends untold hours working with students in the math lab, is available to students like no other and has tackled some really big issues these past semesters. He ‘took on’ the math side of the developmental education redesign with a frenzy that was absolutely needed for us to get moving and start transitioning. He simplified a very complicated situation into something that works for NJC. He has provided innovative and deep level ideas about how this transition will work, pushed his ideas, and carried them forward to administration and C&I. More recently, he has put his energies into a calendar redesign. In his usual way, Mike has taken the status quo and turned it upside down so that it can be re-examined from a new perspective. Mike pushes us all to do better like he does his students, who are great fans of his by the way.” Vair stays connected with high school teachers who instruct dual credit classes at their sites, ensuring that they are teaching these math classes at the same level as they are taught on campus. He has implemented a common final and reviews all syllabi.
Vair, who is often described as, ‘you know, that math guy in Phillips Whyman Hall who looks like Willie Nelson,’ says that much of his personal philosophy and teaching style goes back to what some of his mentors taught him. “My mentors were teachers who challenged me and the status quo,” he recalls. “They ranged from the high school teacher who always answered a question with another question--very frustrating since they did not answer the question but made me think-- then I answered it. The college instructors who demanded more than I thought I was capable of doing. The professors who taught fast and demanded full attention, they made me into a better individual.”
Since 1994, Vair has seen many changes happen in education, some of them have really made teaching math challenging. “Especially today, students need to prioritize education over social media and other distractions because math requires totally focused attention.,” he said. “ I am seeing many students who have grown up with the helicopter parents who took care of their problems clear through high school. Now, these students are lacking in the skill set they need to deal with difficult situations be that hard classes, personnel issues with roommates, confidence issues,” he continues. “Alternatively, I am probably just getting old and cranky!”
Vair observes how teaching math has really changed in the last 20 years . “Students have access to a wide variety of instructional materials like graphing calculators, cell phones, the world wide web and the availability of tutorials online. “But, it all still comes down to the student wanting to learn and utilizing their abilities and resources,” Vair said.
A devoted grandpa and a knife maker in his spare time who also loves motorcycles, gardening, hiking and family time, Vair does what he can to make learning interesting. “Students do not like being told how to be a better student, but if I tell a story with a message learned from my life experience then they can learn from that,” he said, “Or, they may just laugh at my mistakes.”
Vair, who has three children, two still in college, enjoys this age group. “I ask the students that I interact with here to be intelligent, demand excellence, inspire, use humor, grow hair, and to develop their thought processes,” he said, perhaps joking about the grow hair part. “They also know that hell hath no fury like a mad math teacher,” he laughs, adding, “I demand a lot out of my students and they know this from day one. Most of the students in my classes are aspiring to do some of the more difficult careers such as engineering where math has to be a priority. I get them ready for whatever might come at them later at the university and beyond.”
A fan of Doctor Who, Vair says that it has been the faculty and staff at Northeastern that have made the last 20 years most enjoyable. “They make this place really special,” he said.
In addition to teaching math, Vair has been one of the leaders of NJC seasonal hiking trips to Utah and other locations. He and David Coles have coordinated some great outings for students, teaching outdoor leadership and specialized geography classes.
Vair, accompanied by his wife, Ana, joined Northeastern’s College President Jay Lee in Denver earlier this year for a special luncheon held by the Colorado Community College System office which honored faculty of the year from all 13 colleges statewide.