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Faculty Q&A with Math Teacher Charlie Sitler

Authored By: 
James Vescovi, English teacher

Ask Charlie Sitler for his favorite mathematician and he’ll be glad to tell you: Georg Cantor (1845-1918). “I crossed paths with his ideas at Fordham College. Cantor proved that there were actually different types of infinity—a veritable hierarchy of infinities, if you will. It was mind-blowing! Encountering Cantor’s theories made me want to teach math even more.  I wanted everybody to know there was so much more to math than y = mx + b.”

When did you know you wanted to teach?

Practically in the womb. My mother was a New York City public school teacher. I went to a Catholic grammar school, which had a different vacation schedule.  Sometimes, she’d bring me to her class and I’d watch her in action. I told myself, “What she’s doing—that’s what I want to do.”

How did you settle on mathematics?

I grew up in The Bronx and attended Regis High School and I always excelled in math. I earned a B.A. at Fordham in mathematics. During summers, I put my math skills to use by writing computer programs, but I couldn’t get teaching out of my head.  After receiving an M.S. in mathematics at Penn State University in 1971, I came back to New York City to teach in public schools.

Were your dreams fulfilled?

Absolutely not. My first position was as a substitute. Back then, subs arrived at school on a given day not knowing what subject they were gong to teach. There I was, with a Master’s degree in math, teaching English or American history or biology. I’d arrive at the school wondering, ‘Who am I today?’ It was terrible.

Did you think of giving up teaching?

Never! I applied for jobs at independent schools. My first stint was at St. Hilda’s/St. Hugh’s High School in Morningside Heights in 1973, under the legendary Mother Ruth.

The nun who was head of the Community of the Holy Spirit up by Columbia University?

The same. She was demanding, but I loved teaching for her. She was fair, and eventually appointed me as chairman of the Mathematics Department.

How did you end up at The Beekman School?

In addition to the academic year at St. Hilda’s, I had begun teaching summer classes at The Beekman School in 1986. I liked the atmosphere, the small classes, the diverse student body, and by 1988 I was a full-time faculty member. 

You’ve been here a quarter of a century.

Is that how long it’s been?  Well, time goes fast when you’re doing what you love. Next year, I am cutting my hours to a half-time schedule because I’ll have a new grandchild and, quite frankly, I’d like to sleep a little later in the morning.

What drives you to teach math year after year?

Passion is contagious, in whatever you’re doing. It’s the same among my students. Maybe you won’t turn them into math majors, but you can get them excited and show them math’s relevance in their lives.

Anything else?

I relish the curricular freedom I have at Beekman, which allows me to shepherd my students down all those nooks and crannies that make math fascinating. Plus, I’ve had the chance to create my own courses. One of the most popular is “The Mathematics of Symmetry”. I might work up a mathematical philosophy class where I could introduce students to another of my favorite mathematicians, Kurt Godel (1906-78). He was a logician who proved that there were true statements in math that were un-provable. Can you believe it? For me, that proposition is an intellectual feast.

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