Roslyn High School math teacher Soowook Lee already had a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering when he stumbled across an ad looking for New York math teachers.
Though his Cooper Union degree was not specifically in math or education, Lee met the requirements and learned he loved math even more as a teacher than as a student, going on to earn his master’s degree in math education at Lehman College.
Lee and 11 other teachers will be honored Sunday by the Harvard Club of Long Island as a Distinguished Teacher of 2018.
Lee, who moved to Queens from South Korea when he was a freshman in high school, was a math team member in middle school in South Korea and at Forest Hills High School in Queens after the move.
Nominated by Roslyn alumnus Mark Kong, a Harvard University Class of 2021 member, Lee said his teaching method focuses on leading instead of lecturing, encouraging his students to discover their own formulas.
“I tell my students the struggle in math is quite different because if you knew the answer as soon as you saw the question, you didn’t learn anything from that question,” Lee said. “They have to struggle, and through the struggle they get to explore different things, and that’s how they learn. Instead of giving out the answers and going through the mechanics, I encourage my students to come up with formulas for various topics. It’s a little bit backward, but that’s how I like to teach math.”
Lee, who lives in Sea Cliff, teaches multivariable calculus, differential equations, pre-calculus, geometry and other math courses at Roslyn High School and taught for 10 years in Queens before joining the Roslyn faculty in 2010.
He also works with younger children, volunteering at his children’s elementary school in Sea Cliff to coach Math Olympiad. During summers he teaches math to children in intermediate grades at his town library.
Across his classes, which range from standard classes through the honors level and research honors level, Lee said he has to focus the lessons on what the students know and their level of skills.
“There’s no one method that works for all students,” Lee said. “One thing I tell myself is I’m an actor, and I’m here to perform to the level that students can understand. The focus is not about me and how much I know, but it’s about how much they can observe and absorb in terms of their skills. I teach for the students, not to show off my knowledge.”
Outside of school, he and his wife, Amy, have two daughters and a son, grade-schoolers who all “love to read too much.” Lee enjoys car camping with his family in places like Hither Hills in Montauk and Hershey, Pennsylvania, where they relax, explore, enjoy nature and reading.
Though Lee used to help coach the Roslyn math team, he now writes questions for the Nassau County math tournament and is also the coordinator for seventh- and eighth-graders at the Institute for Creative Problem Solving, a nonprofit organization run through SUNY Old Westbury.
“Mr. Lee is extremely good at presenting mathematical concepts and arguments in a clear, coherent and easily understandable way,” Kong said of his former teacher. “[He gets] students to come up with their own solutions to problems that had stumped them. Although approachable, easy-going, with an excellent rapport, he teaches in a way that causes his students to think.”