Significant Figures is a new, periodic feature on my blog of those who have shaped, influenced, and impacted me along the way. The name is partially in homage to this man.
Mr. Lutey was an icon at my high school. He taught physics in what was one of the few high school positions, he told us once, that allowed him to teach only physics. He was devoted to his subject and to passing that devotion on to his students. I spent three semesters with him taking what I think was titled “aerospace” physics as well as two semesters of physics.
I looked up his obituary and learned several things I didn’t know about him. That reflects the kind of person he was, unassuming and focused on the task at hand. He always wore a tie in class, even in a time where it was already normal for teachers to wear polo shirts. He was no-nonsense in his approach to managing the classroom. No one slept in his classes. If you laid your head on our desk you either quickly corrected yourself or were on your way to the school nurse because you obviously did not feel well.
He was master of the pop quiz. It was always the same—he’d walk into the classroom just after the bell rang, say, “Books and papers under your desks; keep a pencil,” hand out quarter-size sheets of paper, and announce what we were to produce upon them. Often some formula from the previous day’s class or other similar short answers. He kept us on our toes and engaged.
Nearly 30 years later, I still remember several physics formulas and how to add vectors, and I will never forget significant figures,¹ though it’s not because I’ve used any of those much as an adult. It’s because Mr. Lutey made sure we learned them. I remember more from his classes than from most of the rest of my high school classes combined—not just because I found the subject interesting, but because I was taught by someone who was passionate about it.
Mr. Lutey demonstrated every concept he could. He rescued a supermarket checkout conveyor belt from vo-tech because he saw that coupled with a battery-powered toy car it would be useful for explaining vectors of force. Lasers, vacuum pumps, and incline planes were always nearby to give tangible meaning to a concept.
He even let me come in one day during lunch hour and use some computer measurement equipment to try a few experiments of my own. He was approachable, even though most of us found him intimidating because he was like nothing else we experienced in the classrooms of Elkhart Memorial. He embodied one of the great quotes from a movie of the time: “Students will rise to the level of expectations.”²
My life lessons from Mr. Lutey?
If you want to inspire students, you must know your stuff. None of us had any doubt that he was reading books on unified field theory in his spare time. Whether he was or not, wasn’t the point. He had passion about his subject that made us believe it.
If you challenge students, they will perform better than if you coddle them.
Learning can be hard work. He wasn’t one to tell personal stories in class—the only ones I remember him sharing were about college and the effort required to succeed. I don’t know if they were autobiographical or just proverbial for our benefit, but I can picture him, much younger, hunched over a desk with a book, pencil, and paper doing the deep work to understand. As someone who coasted through most of high school, that was an important lesson.
Finally, there is nothing wrong with a white dress shirt and a tie, even if everyone else is wearing polo shirts. It shows you take yourself and your job seriously.
¹ My friends and I would often sneak up behind each other in the hall and whisper, “Significant figures.” The proper reaction was, “Aigh!” If you got a paper back from Mr. Lutey without “sig fig” in red on it somewhere, it was a victory.
² Stand and Deliver—based on a true story about a math teacher who challenges a group of hispanic students to go further with math than they ever thought possible.