High school’s Steve Kocmoud ending 35 years of ‘speaking math’
Math teacher Steve Kocmoud isn’t one to toot his own horn about his students’ success, so, appropriately enough, a string of numbers will have to do it for him.
Over the last nine years, 72 percent of his 422 Hudson High School students have hit the top score of 5 on the national Advanced Placement Calculus Exam, which helps determine their freshman status in college.
Another 19 percent tallied a 4 on the test, and 6 percent got the minimum passing score of 3.
The average score for Kocmoud’s advanced-placement calculus students since 2005: 4.6, compared to a national average of 2.8.
Remember, we’re talking about calculus here, which has been one of the most-failed courses in colleges and universities for a long time.
“We try to make math less magic and more practical,” Kocmoud said in typically understated tones during an interview last week.
“Math, just by its nature, is very exact, and its language is very precise. So we spend a lot of time looking at the language of calculus -– what does this or that ‘phrase’ mean in an equation, for example. I’ve become somewhat of a translator because math really is like a language.
“And, bit by bit, day by day, week by week, we work through that in class. It’s really a testament to how hard these kids work.”
Kocmoud’s language analogy is particularly fitting since his wife, Kathy Andrewson, was an English teacher at the high school for 33 years before she retired in 2006. "Actually, it was 33-and-a-half years. My wife would appreciate seeing that," he chuckled.
Kocmoud, too, will retire after 35 years when the spring term ends in June, and while he knows “the time is right,” he acknowledged that it’s all gone by vey quickly.
“I was barely 22 when I started teaching -– that’s barely older than my students,” he noted. “I even grew a mustache to look older.”
Same school, same mustache
Kocmoud, an Eau Claire native whose father was a middle-school teacher, counselor and principal, still has that mustache, and Hudson High School is the only place where he’s ever taught.
Over the years, he’s handled everything from consumer math and algebra to geometry and statistics, but for the last decade, his focus has been calculus. This year, all five of his classes have been advanced-placement to get his kids ready for college.
Only 29 students enrolled in his first advanced-placement calculus course, but that number has steadily grown to 86 this year.
“First, let me say that we’ve had great results on the (Advanced Placement) test, so that makes more kids want to take the course the next year,” he explained.
“And the reason they’ve done better is not just me; it’s also their own hard work and enthusiasm, and all the other great people who are also in the math department here. That allows me to spend all of my time just on calculus instead of having to re-teach what the students should have learned before.”
Make no mistake about it, either: One thing Kocmoud brings to all his classes is the fact that he’s “been there” when it comes to hard work, frustration and persistence.
“Oh, I had a devil of a time with calculus. There almost was a moment when I thought I just couldn’t do it,” he smiled.
“But I decided that the only thing I could do was just work my way through it. It was a challenge to me, and I enjoy that kind of challenge. That struggle also made me a better teacher later because it made me understand what some kids are going through when they have the same kind of trouble.”
The best part of the job, Kocmoud said, is seeing when all the hard work begins to show results.
“What I enjoy the most is when I’m talking about all the math up there in front of the class, and you can just see the light bulbs going on when they understand it,” he explained. “To me, that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”
So, yes, Kocmoud will miss teaching when he and wife Kathy are gardening, traveling and taking their regular long walks around town during their retirement. Then again, he expects a lot of reminders.
“My wife and I met here, so we have a lot of students in common,” he said. “We’re big walkers, and former students will drive by, honk and wave at us. That’s really enjoyable for us.
“It’s the connections you make with your students that stay with you. I love mathematics, and I love connecting with the kids and watching them when they see things in mathematics for the first time. That, for me, was the best feeling in the world, and I’m sure I will miss it happening day-to-day. But it’s time to move on.”