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Prof. Rackham GoodlettProfessor Rackham Goodlett

November 2008

Hailed by colleagues as a “Master Teacher,” Professor Rackham Goodlett nurtures students’ self-confidence, high expectations, and motivation—all of which are vital to academic success.  As a Math Professor and Assistant Director of Howard University’s Center for Academic Reinforcement (CAR), Professor Goodlett instills principles in students that stimulate their achievement in academics as well as life.

Stimulating student achievement is not easy, especially when one teaches not only college-level math courses but also so-called “remedial” math courses, as Professor Goodlett does.  Indeed, some naysayers would claim that he was working against the odds at Howard since the National Center for Education Statistics has reported a significant gap in math achievement between students of color and their white counterparts.  However, Professor Goodlett attributes this disparity to a “lack of preparation in the early formative years,” and for 33 years he has proven that a motivated teacher can help the underprepared catch up and leap forward.

According to Professor Goodlett, a “properly motivated” teacher will possess the passion and motivation necessary to make a difference.  To do so, a professor must “first of all, enter the classroom with the belief that all students can learn.”  Additionally, fostering an environment of openness is critical.  Professor Goddlett says teachers must strive to “create the conditions for students to be comfortable speaking with them,” which, in turn, should encourage students to be honest about their difficulties.  His words reflect Howard’s commitment to providing “a caring, nurturing, and respectful environment” (“Core Values”).  Students, he explains, begin with different levels of understanding, so a successful professor must carefully observe in order to “meet them where they are academically.”  It is at this point that a professor may truly engage students.  Says Professor Goodlett, the challenge of “bridging the gap” between students on different levels is a major task, requiring total commitment:  “It is where I believe a lot of people fail—they are not willing to do the work.”

While building an engaging and trusting environment, Professor Goodlett observes that a teacher must show students that “the material is not difficult—it is only challenging” and that it can be tackled if students use the tools the teacher provides.  As a result, students who might never have believed in their math abilities begin to believe in themselves.  To maintain the momentum, Professor Goodlett makes himself available “at all times” to assist students and ensure that they have access to helpful resources.

Prof. Rackham GoodlettHowever, Professor Goodlett expects students to do their part.  For instance, he requires that for every hour of his assistance students practice on their own for an additional three hours.  Lack of practice outside the classroom is a common problem for math students, he says:  “You have to practice anything that you want to be good at.”  An additional difficulty is that most students do not believe that math matters.  Professor Goodlett addresses this misconception by illuminating the careers in which a solid understanding of mathematical concepts is necessary, such as careers in business or actuary science.  If a student is not interested in these fields, Professor Goodlett pushes them to realize that math is a hurdle they must clear in order to graduate, and, therefore, they must take it seriously.

After spending a semester under Professor Goodlett’s meticulous guidance, students show greater confidence, motivation, and expectations.  Expectations may be the most important, especially with regard to math and students of color.  Many educators and psychologists contend that students’ self-expectations play a critical role in their academic outcomes.  As Professor Goodlett explains, helping struggling students is “not a matter of feeling sorry for them”; faculty must maintain high standards for their students and help them meet them.  Consequently, Professor Goodlett has earned a reputation for maintaining a high student pass rate on departmental exams.

According to Professor Goodlett, who was born and raised in Jamaica, his passion for math and teaching developed at an early age because he aimed high.  When he began secondary school, he watched and learned as upperclassmen congregated outside to do homework.  As he and the other underclassmen realized they too could solve advanced problems, his passion ignited.  During the same time period, the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. influenced Professor Goodlett.  In a speech delivered in Jamaica, Dr. King emphasized that striving for excellence was of the utmost importance.  Professor Goodlett decided that he would do just that as a student and, later, as a teacher.  “I need to feel like I’ve given my best to my students,” he explains.

And the best, he believes, begets the best.  Professor Goodlett praises the power of teachers to elicit a student’s innate ability to learn and excel.  Thus, he challenges us to remember our teachers:  “You weren’t born great, but somebody reached out to you, somebody taught you, and you learned how to be great.”

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