‘A guiding light’

On a campus with so many tenure-track and research-oriented faculty, it might be easy for other instructors to go unnoticed.

But John Spitler, a senior academic professional lecturer in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Wyoming, was recognized in May with the Ellbogen Lifetime Achievement Award for his long commitment to and passion for teaching.

“I just absolutely love being in the classroom with the students,” he said. “It’s been a pure joy to have that as my job and I’ve never really felt like it was a job.”

The annual award honors a long, distinguished teaching career and promotes top quality instruction at UW. Other similar awards — the Ellbogen Graduate Assistant Teaching Award and the Ellbogen Meritorious Classroom Teaching Award — are given to stand-out faculty and graduate students.

Spitler has won both of these awards during his more than 30 years at UW. But the Ellbogen Lifetime Achievement Award is one of the highest honors awarded to UW instructors by the institution.

“It’s an honor just to be nominated by your department,” Spitler said. “I mean, that’s really humbling.”

Former students and fellow faculty members wrote letters nominating Spitler to the faculty senate’s faculty development committee, which then decided a winner.

Myron Allen, UW professor of mathematics, wrote one of those letters.

“I think it’s no accident that he is such a good teacher,” Allen said.

“He works really hard at it and he has worked really hard at it for many, many years.”

But Spitler said he was lucky to earn a living doing what he loves. He said he approaches math — and therefore teaching math — as one might a language.

“It’s like a written language, but it’s even more dense than any of the spoken languages around the world,” Spitler said. “And so for me personally, it’s been a lifelong mission for me to try to convince kids that the literacy aspect of mathematics is what’s important.”

Math is much more than a way to get from Point A to Point B, and Spitler said he enjoys getting that through to students, especially students who share his undergraduate degree of chemical engineering.

“Mathematics isn’t about just turning a crank and getting an answer; it’s about what crank do you need to turn?” he said.

“And oftentimes to determine that, to answer that question, you have to be able to read the mathematical symbols and understand that these are the tools that are in your toolbox and you need to learn how to use them.”

Spitler said he tries not to force the way he solves problems onto students.

“My bottom line is: I don’t think, as a teacher, you can really teach anybody anything,” he said. “All you can do is you can help them unravel it and learn it for themselves in their own mind. And that’s especially true in mathematics because there are so many ways to approach a given problem.”

Spitler’s unique style has been noticed by his colleagues in the Department of Mathematics.

“He really wants his students to succeed,” Allen said. “He also thinks very carefully about how students learn mathematics, and he finds inspiring ways to challenge them when he’s teaching.”

Greg Lyng, an associate professor of mathematics at UW, said Spitler was a role model for the rest of the department and the department’s many awards are a reflection of the example he sets.

“The impact of John Spitler’s teaching goes far beyond the many hundreds of UW students who have been fortunate enough to have had him as an instructor,” Lyng said. “His example is a guiding light for all of us who teach mathematics at UW.”

And at the heart of that leadership is the way Spitler makes connections with his students, Lyng said.

“Certainly, in the classroom, he combines the key elements of excellent teaching — knowledge, clarity, preparation — with a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm,” he said. “But, in my view, what separates (Spitler) from other excellent teachers is his ability to connect with his students in a meaningful, personal way.”

As just the second lecturer to win the award in its 13 years of existence, Spitler said he was humbled. Reading the nomination letters written by fellow instructors and former students brought tears to his eyes.

“It’s just nice to know that you made a difference in a bunch of people’s lives,” he said.

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