Teacher Spotlight: Mr. Christensen and Mr. Nixon by Sarah Sallee

(Courtesy of Santa Catalina’s Instagram page.)

Three months into the school year, new students at Santa Catalina are slowly adjusting to joining a new community along with taking part in this year’s distance learning. However, new students aren’t the only ones to be joining the Catalina community! I had the chance to get to know two of our new math teachers, Mr. Christensen and Mr. Nixon, and speak with them about why they became teachers and how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the structure of their courses. Overall, I aimed to answer the question, “Who are these teachers beyond their Zoom screens?”

What drew you to become a mathematics teacher? Did you have any influential teachers who impacted your life during high school?

Mr. Nixon hadn’t initially expected to become a teacher. However, drawing from his experiences tutoring classmates in high school, Mr. Nixon found that he enjoyed working with kids who needed help, acting as a guide for them in the process of learning the “language” of mathematics. Mr. Christensen echoed Mr. Nixon’s sentiments, saying that while he had always loved math, it was a twist of fate that allowed him to pursue an applied math degree in graduate school. He elaborated, “I was originally slated to go to graduate school in Civil Engineering, with a follow-on teaching engineering at West Point. The Math Department at the time had a shortage of instructors, and asked me to go Applied Math instead. I really enjoyed teaching at West Point, and decided to make it a second career after retirement.”

Both teachers also spoke of how their high school physics instructors played an influential role in their enjoyment of working in the realm of science and mathematics. Mr. Nixon recalled that his geometry teacher created a setting in which he could explore his curiosity for math. That same instructor taught his physics class later on. When asked about his most challenging and favorite high school courses, Mr. Nixon couldn’t help but laugh as he said that physics class had to be the answer for both questions. A subject that can simultaneously excite and terrify students, physics proved a delightful challenge for both Mr. Nixon and Mr. Christensen, feeding their hunger for the challenge that comes with developing an understanding of this fundamental natural science. Mr. Christensen also shared his “debt of gratitude to all of my high school teachers – they were all excellent. My best teacher was my physics teacher (who was also my dad). I was lucky to see an entirely different side of him in the classroom.”

How long have you been teaching?

While Mr. Nixon began formally teaching in 2011, he has also served as a research technician at our beloved Monterey Bay Aquarium, worked with computational modeling and instrumentation design, and also taught at CSU Monterey Bay.

How has the distance learning format changed your teaching process?

While both teachers said that the content of their courses has not changed, their teaching methods have undergone some alterations. Mr. Chistensen explained, “I have always tried to incorporate technology in the classroom, but the current environment has made that transition essential. I do miss the one-on-one work that works so well in the classroom, and I look forward to the day we can all meet again in a standard classroom environment.” Mr. Nixon agreed, noting that “you have to learn by doing” and emphasizing incorporating puzzles, station activities, and other tools into class time so that students are engaged when building on their comprehension of new concepts. Even at home, Mr. Nixon enjoys finding ways to actively apply his math skills to engage with students. When solving the problem of his children’s boredom during quarantine, Mr. Nixon found his solution in 3D printing. He designed and printed everything from boats to marble runs built in the form of a Hilbert fractal (an algebraic structure) for his young son. They have now done everything from building Lego contraptions to participating in the entertaining sport of competitive marble racing. In light of the uncertainty surrounding how to safely hold in-person sporting events, the question now stands, will the mathletes of the world dominate the new sports realm with marble racing? Only time will tell. Whether building Legos or creating puzzles for students to solve in-class, Mr. Nixon is demonstrating how math can provide active entertainment for students of all ages.

Moving on to what they enjoy doing during their free time, I asked both teachers if they had any favorite sports teams, movies, or books. When talking football, Mr. Christensen expressed his support for his favorite football team, the Las Vegas Raiders, while Mr. Nixon spoke about bleeding orange and black for the San Francisco Giants. For their favorite movies, Mr. Christensen chose Vision Quest, while Mr. Nixon expressed his love for the films My Neighbor Totoro and the Iron Giant, productions which he has recently introduced to his kids. Finally, when discussing favorite books, Mr. Christensen mentioned Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine St. Exupery, while Mr. Nixon discussed Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein, citing the novel as one that has inspired him since he first read it in high school. Mr. Nixon now makes a habit of re-reading the science fiction novel every now and then as it “forces you to think about a character who has never seen anything that you know” and compels him to reflect on teaching new skills to others; this perspective, he believes, aligns well with the process of teaching science and mathematics to freshmen.

Continuing to lighter topics, I asked both teachers about their favorite meals or foods. If there is any secret food test to determine if a teacher is able to relate to the students at Santa Catalina, then both teachers passed with flying colors. Mr. Christensen spoke of being “a creature of habit,” saying, “I usually have a peanut butter and honey sandwich for lunch, with an apple on the side. I also love my wife’s white bean chili, and when she cooks breakfast for dinner.” Ask any Catalina student and you will hear that breakfast for lunch means a crowded dining hall, and peanut butter toast as an afternoon treat is a given. Mr. Nixon’s favorite foods, deep-dish pizza and burritos, also align with those members of the student body who will happily build a burrito (or taco!) on Tuesday and indulge in multiple slices of pizza on a Friday night to celebrate the start of the weekend.

Finally, I spoke to Mr. Christensen and Mr. Nixon about how traditions play a vital role in the Santa Catalina community before asking if either teacher had a favorite tradition or holiday. Both mentioned enjoying spending time with their families; Mr. Nixon enjoys sitting by the fireplace during Thanksgiving, while Mr. Christensen loves “spending time with my family at Christmas and feasting on my wife’s Christmas Manicotti.” Whether in person or in a virtual setting, members of the Santa Catalina community celebrate their strong bonds, and both students and faculty are excited to show Mr. Christensen and Mr. Nixon the crazy, wonderful traditions in which we all partake as we officially welcome both teachers into our Santa Catalina community.