Tribute to a Math TA

The UTM Mathematics and Computational Science department is famous for its excellent faculty members. This year, the life of the department was spiced up with the competition for the Teaching Excellence Award. This award was created in 2003 by the Teaching Assistants Training Program (TATP) to reward the outstanding contributions and achievements of TAs at the University of Toronto.

Every year students from all three U of T campuses vote for their favorite TA who inspires and assists them the most in their academic work. This year, one of the finalists of the competition is Rafal Drabek, Masters student and Mathematics TA from UTM.

Rafal graduated from UTM in 2006 with high distinction in a specialist in Mathematics. Rafal has been a math TA for over four years and a math tutor for over eight years. Out of 75 TAs nominated, he is the only finalist from our campus.

The UTM Mathematics Department spotted Rafal as the potential winner well before nominations began. When one of the departments instructors was informed about the opportunity to nominate Rafal for this award he asked: If he [Rafal] is not the best, then who is the best? Several other instructors showed great support and enthusiasm in the nomination process as well. Even greater enthusiasm was observed among the students. In no time, Rafals students from previous years started voting as well.

I dont think I wouldve pass my proofs class if I hadnt met Rafal. He saved me from failing and taught me an entirely new way to study productively. It was life changing says Mary, a second- year mathematics major.

Over 40 UTM students voted for Rafal in total. Each student had their own specific motivation for casting a vote. Some students liked the way Rafal graded their tests and quizzes, some were impressed by his communications skills, and others went by Rafals great personality as a teacher. The list of his attributes is endless; one can hardly find a math student who has not had Rafal as a TA or, more importantly, not receive extra help from him. I still remember how before the calculus exam last year, Rafal stayed at school until 10 p.m. helping us with Integration. When I told my friends, no one could believe that a TA could do something like that for free, says a student who wished to remain anonymous.

Many students agree that Rafals tutorials are never boring. He makes them interesting with his sense of humour and clear explanation of the material. My teaching strategy is very well defined, says Rafal, I never assume previous knowledge from students, even if it is an official prerequisite. I always try to approach the problem from the point of view of a student who is just learning the material.

Rafals unique teaching style has even attracted students from other tutorials. This year Rafal has been overwhelmed with requests for extra help from students not from his tutorials. One day a group of students came to my office and asked if they could write a petition to the Chair of the Mathematics Department asking if I can hold office hours for their course even though I am not a TA for that course. I was pleasantly surprised by this and allowed them to write the petition, says Rafal.

With regards to the competition and his nomination, Rafal says hes as surprised as he is thrilled about it. I heard about it from one of my students. When something like this happens to you, you really know that all the things youve done were not in vain, says Rafal.

Rafals merit does not end with just academic achievements. Showcasing his outstanding leadership skills, he has been the captain of a soccer team in the Mississauga community for over three years now. He is also very knowledgeable on issues ranging from religion and languages to hockey and cars. Also, Rafal is a history minor. One of his greatest interests is the history of Russia and Europe in the medieval period. His other interests are chess, reading, and travelling.

Ever since Rafal was three years old, it was obvious to his parents that math was his destiny. By the age of four, his nickname was Little Professor. He was the top student in all his mathematics classes in high school and continued that feat at university level.

As a Masters student, Rafal is approaching his thesis and thinking about the future. My goal is to become a professor at U of T, claims Rafal. I wanted to get this job since high school. For now, I am just in the middle of my Masters degree. Then I will proceed with my PhD.

There is still another round of the competition before the winner of the tri-campus competition is decided. On behalf of all my peers in the Math department, I wish Rafal all the best in the next round.

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