For Kathleen Wilhite “math power” is key to the future success of her students.
“They may never see the innate beauty I see in mathematics,” she said, “but they should see the usefulness of mathematics and use their own mathematical skills sets to successfully solve real world problems.”
Wilhite began her career in 1972, as math teacher for seventh through ninth grades at Old Mission Junior High School in Shawnee Mission. She retired in 2013 from Olathe South High School where she taught geometry, advanced algebra 2 and trigonometry.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in English and secondary mathematics from Emporia State University in 1972 and her master’s degree in educational psychology and research from The University of Kansas in 1992.
Wilhite is a testament to the changes in classrooms.
“I am a study in the evolution of math education over the last four decades,” she said. “I started my career as a traditionalist with quiet students all arranged in neat lines of desks with myself as the center of attention. However, my views of students’ needs and my understanding of how students learn changed quickly and therefore my role as teacher and the structure of the class changed as well.”
In her classroom, Wilhite went beyond teaching the theories and practice of mathematics. She also taught the history of mathematics by helping her students learn about mathematicians, developments and discoveries in the science of mathematics.
“Mrs. Wilhite wouldn’t just introduce a new concept — she’d explain where it came from and make sure we understood not just what to do but why to do it,” wrote a former student who noted that Wilhite is the only math teacher he’s had who included math history. “I have on many occasions remembered a forgotten mathematical skill by recalling how and why it works.”
Along the way, Wilhite pushed her students to succeed.
“As the year when on, she started to take a special interest in me, being aware of my academic past, one could say I was a trouble student,” recalled a former student who earned a substantial scholarship to study civil engineering at Colorado State University. “If it wasn’t for Mrs. Wilhite seeing through my flaws to my potential that year, I would not be where I am today. … To this day I have not had a teacher as wonderful as her.”
Former students also have gone on to careers in education, some as colleagues and others as college professors.
“The greatest lesson I learned about teaching was one I learned long before I knew I wanted to be a teacher,” wrote a colleague who also was a student of Wilhite’s. “Kathleen Wilhite told me that her philosophy was to teach to the top of the class rather than the bottom or the middle. This, she said, made everyone better.”
Outside the classroom, Wilhite has been involved with Science Pioneers, which encourages youths to pursue careers in the STEM fields; the Expanding Your Horizons program to encourage sixth- through eighth-grade girls to pursue math and science, and coaching MATHCOUNTS teams.