To the Extreme
If there’s a math problem, yo, Simon MacFarlane can solve it. Between his unorthodox methods and engaging personality, the Bixby teacher is creating mathterminds one Rubik’s Cube twist at a time.
Middle school — a period of time so many of us try to forget. Thankfully, in the midst of all the awkward changes, most of us had one or two teachers who made a huge impact and helped shape who we eventually became.
That’s what Simon MacFarlane is to so many students at Bixby Middle School. He is that teacher who makes learning fun while teaching one of the most difficult subjects of all: math.
Even before students enter MacFarlane’s classroom, they are greeted one-by-one with a high-five and usually a song floating out of their teacher’s mouth and down the hallway. “I’ve had a point of contact with every student before I take attendance,” MacFarlane says.
Teaching math is no easy task, but for MacFarlane, it’s all fun. Difficult concepts are turned into songs — or even better, raps. Vanilla Ice (aka, MacFarlane dressed as a ‘90s rapper) makes an appearance to teach students about mathematical functions by rapping “Nice Nice Functions” to the tune of “Ice Ice Baby.” He even sets up a sound system and recruits students to be “hype men.”
MacFarlane is quite the YouTube sensation. He implements a flipped classroom where his students watch the lesson on their own, via YouTube, and do the lesson in class. His YouTube channel, The Mathtermind, is watched not only by his students but also by classes at other schools.
When MacFarlane was growing up in Nuremberg, Germany, he knew early on that he would be a teacher. “Plan A was to become a professional basketball player, but Plan B was to be a teacher,” he says.
Once, when his fifth-grade teacher was late to class, he went to the front of the room and began teaching the lesson. When the teacher arrived, she told him to continue, and he proceeded to teach the entire lesson.
After receiving a degree in education with an emphasis in physical education from Oral Roberts University, MacFarlane taught physical education at Owen Elementary for one year. He then decided to return to Germany for a few years to help his mother after his father’s death.
When he returned to Tulsa, it took a little while for him to find the right fit when it came to teaching. However, when he became a substitute teacher for Bixby High School and Middle School, he quickly realized the school district was perfect for him.
In 2011, he was hired full-time and taught for both the middle school and high school. The following year, he began working only at the middle school and has been there ever since.
Even while he was subbing, MacFarlane began implementing creative teaching methods. As a sub, he would bring a Rubik’s Cube to class to help students learn about the concepts of 3D and surface area. When he became a full-time teacher, he started a Rubik’s Club at Bixby Middle School, where students learn how to solve the cube and also create nontraditional cubes of their own.
MacFarlane’s passion to help students learn doesn’t end when the bell rings at the end of the school day. After school, he offers free tutoring.
“Simon has a teacher’s heart and every day, he goes above and beyond to make his ‘math-athletes’ be the best that they can possibly be,” says Kelli Wilson, Bixby Middle School Pre-Algebra teacher.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, MacFarlane and some fellow teachers go above and beyond to help raise money to go toward the Special Olympics each year. A few years ago, he and other Bixby Middle School teachers started a lip sync band, which performs songs from every decade while dressing up as hippies, rock stars and the like.
The band, I Saw a Mouse, has reached epic popularity levels, now selling legitimate merchandise — T-shirts that MacFarlane himself designed. All the proceeds of the merchandise sales also go toward the Special Olympics.
And that’s not all. Also, to raise money for the Special Olympics, MacFarlane holds a Beard Shaving for Charity contest each year. Students make suggestions on how he should shave his beard, and he narrows it down to four options. Students put money toward different options that they choose for MacFarlane’s beard to be shaved as. So far, he has had his beard shaved in the shape of Pi (3.14159 … any math nerds out there?), Wolverine, tiger stripes and mutton chops.
When he isn’t busy teaching, MacFarlane is spending time with his wife, Michelle, and their three children.
“I can’t imagine our math department without Simon MacFarlane. He is a valuable member of the Bixby Middle School faculty, and he is admired and loved by all,” Wilson says.
MacFarlane’s biggest hope is that in his classroom, students have fun and learn more than just solving math problems. “Kids ask me all the time, ‘When are we going to use math in the real world?’ My class is more than just a math class; it’s a problem-solving class,” MacFarlane says.
“You may not use quadratic functions on a daily basis, but through math, you’ll learn to persevere and work through a problem.”
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