When Upper School math teacher Rip Blackstone was named 2015-16 South Carolina Independent School Association (SCISA) High School Teacher of the Year, he became the 11th Heathwood teacher to win SCISA Teacher of the Year in the last 15 years.
That’s a remarkable accomplishment, both for individual teachers like Mr. Blackstone who have won the award and for the school as a whole—especially since no other independent school in South Carolina has had more than three teachers of the year in the same time period.
Upper School Head George Scouten says it’s no surprise that Mr. Blackstone earned SCISA’s recognition. “Rip is held in the highest regard by parents and students, who love him for his passion and expertise in math, but also for his clarity of instruction, rich sense of humor, and deep commitment to his students,” Dr. Scouten said. “He’s always asking kids to think, to problem solve, to anticipate outcomes. Time flies by in Rip’s classes because the students are engaging their minds and having fun.”
We wanted to know more about the secrets of Mr. Blackstone’s success, so we asked him to talk about why he loves teaching, what’s kept him at Heathwood for 25 years, and what advice he has for his students and their parents.
You began your career as a lawyer. What inspired you to begin teaching?
I practiced law for 10 years. At that time, Stan Wood was Head Boys Basketball Coach here. He and I had coached church basketball together, and at one point, Heathwood’s JV coach left and Stan asked if I’d fill in for a year. That stretched into another year, and another—and then I got a call at the beginning of the school year saying Heathwood’s 5th grade math teacher was leaving and asking if I’d like the position. I thought about it for one day and said yes. I had loved coaching, and I had an accounting degree, so I decided to make a career change.
What do you like about teaching math?
A lot of people approach math with anxiety—they’re scared or intimidated by it. So it’s very rewarding to see people start to understand it and recognize its value and the beauty of it.
As you say, people are often scared of math. How do you approach it to help build their comfort and confidence with it?
I try to be very enthusiastic about math. Students might even say I’m overly so! But I want to impress on them that it’s a beautiful and worthy subject. I hope they’ll catch some of my enthusiasm, because math absolutely fascinates me.
You’ve spent your whole 25-year teaching career at Heathwood. What’s kept you here?
In a nutshell, the people and the school culture. The students are great, and that makes it fun to be here. I also very much respect and appreciate my colleagues on the faculty. And I value the fact that Heathwood gives me a lot of freedom to teach how I want to and what I want to.
You’ve also coached Heathwood sports for many years and are an Assistant Coach for the Heathwood football team this year. What do you like about coaching?
I enjoy it because it gives me another connections with the kids. I get to see another side of them, and they see another side of me—that I have more interests in life than math. Getting back into football has been great because this year’s team is just a great group of kids—they’re enthusiastic, coachable, and they get along well with each other.
Heathwood teachers have won recognition from SCISA as Teachers of the Year so often in the last 15 years—what does the school do to encourage and support great teachers?
To be honest, I think part of the reason we win Teacher of the Year so often is that Heathwood is so highly regarded for the caliber of its academics that SCISAassumes anyone we nominate is worthy of serious consideration. But the school also does have a culture that promotes great teaching. Heathwood has always given me a lot of freedom to experiment and grow as a teacher.
What does winning a statewide Teacher of the Year award mean to you?
It’s always nice to be recognized for what you do. You get a sense of validation that you must be doing something right. But I also see it as very reflective of Heathwood’s reputation and the overall quality of our faculty. I think any one of our teachers could have won that award—we have a great faculty.
If you had to sum up your teaching philosophy in just a couple of sentences, what would it be?
Make it fun, make it interesting, find a way to teach so that students will understand. My goal is for every kid to find something about math that they enjoy, and for every kid to have success.