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Principal Dancer in Ballet Changes Career

Susan Notes: Here's a career change in which we can rejoice--a a former ballerina who can show the beauty and elegance of mathematics. Quite a difference from the study algebra so you'll earn more money message spewing forth from Education Trust and their friends at the Business Roundtable.

Rachel Westlake was destined to be a ballerina, but after years of lessons, sacrifice and even a stint as a principal dancer, she gave it all up and found an even greater love:


The ballerina-turned-math professor started ballet lessons as a toddler, commuted as a teen from her New Jersey home to dance lessons in New York City, and then moved in with an aunt in New York so she could attend a special performing arts high school.

After graduating from high school, Westlake danced in New York for a year before landing a position as a principal dancer in Seattle with the Pacific Northwest Dance Company, now called Pacific Northwest Ballet. After two years, she moved to San Francisco and danced as an apprentice at the San Francisco Ballet.

But while Westlake loved to dance, she never enjoyed performing before a crowd. So in 1979, after two years with the San Francisco Ballet, she decided it was time for a career change.

Now, ironically, she is on stage again -- this time as a math professor at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, where her toughest critics are students who don't like math.

Yet Westlake, 47, gets rave reviews from her students, and this Friday, she will be honored for teaching excellence by the state association for math instructors, the California Mathematics Council Community Colleges, at the group's annual conference in Monterey.

Although she chose ballet over math when she was younger, the dance with numbers has always intrigued Westlake. While most of her classmates -- aspiring actors, skaters and dancers -- avoided math, she took classes on the subject all through high school. It was a lonely pursuit. One semester, she was the only student in a class.

So when she quit dancing, not knowing quite what she wanted to do, she began taking math and physics classes at City College of San Francisco. She eventually earned her bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley with a double major in math and physics, and went on to get her master's degree in math.

Working as a teaching assistant in graduate school, she discovered a new career.

"I loved teaching, so it seemed like a good place to go. Truthfully, I'm much happier," she said. "I like interacting with the students. It is very inspiring to watch them learn something big, not just the little details but to see them make a mental step in sophistication."

The switch from a career in ballet to one in math was easy, she said, because there are so many correlations between them.

"There is a very similar aesthetic between them. They are both very beautiful, very elegant. There is sort of a purity to them," she said. "There is something about that ideal world that you create in both of those places. It is a world that makes sense and fits together, where beautiful things are created."

While many of her students do not share her love for math, she seems to have won them over with her commitment to making sure they at least understand it.

It is her unflagging enthusiasm for teaching and her commitment to helping students of all abilities understand math that makes her stand out, students and colleagues say.

"Everything that she teaches, she teaches with an extraordinary degree of excellence. So she is able to teach different classes, like third semester calculus and beginning arithmetic with the same flair," said math department chairman Philip Farmer. "That is unusual because most people who can teach third semester calculus don't have the interest in teaching students who are learning how to add fractions and they don't really have the skills either."

Farmer said Westlake has worked hard to educate herself on the best way to teach students basic math, especially students with learning disabilities, because many students taking basic math in college are in that class because they have learning problems.

She and Farmer developed the curriculum for the current arithmetic class and they were the first at Diablo Valley College to use hands-on interactive materials to help students understand math concepts.

Farmer nominated Westlake for the state award and she was chosen by her colleagues from several candidates in a department vote. Statewide, she was one of six to be chosen for the award from a pool of several hundred nominees.

"Her students start out as the typical math students who are there because a counselor told them they had to take math, and they leave the class actually liking math," said Lake Tahoe math professor Larry Green, chairman of the awards committee for the California Mathematics Council Community Colleges. "These are great teachers."

About to hand out a quiz during a recent class on finite math, Westlake didn't hesitate when student Meghan Stephens asked if she could first explain the concept behind a homework problem that was likely to appear on the quiz.

She took nearly 20 minutes going through the problem on game theory, filling the board using different colored markers, blue, red and black, to highlight different steps and ensure they were clear to the students and did not just blur together.

"I'm not really good at math. I'm going into finance, and she makes it clear to me. She puts it into real world terms that you can easily grasp," said Stephens, 22, a second year student who is transferring to Sonoma State University in the spring. "She is the best instructor I've had here yet. I wish I could take her with me when I transfer."

That enthusiasm is more rewarding than performing, said Westlake, who has been at Diablo Valley College since 1988.

She enjoys teaching a variety of classes from the high level classes with the students who are math whizzes to the basic classes with those who are scared of math.

"I like helping them get past their anxiety and help them see that they can succeed," she said.

Student Lori Landis, 46, said Westlake can look around the class when she is lecturing and tell if all the students are following along.

"If not, she stops and goes back over it. She doesn't just lecture on," Landis said.

Farmer said that Westlake is also very precise in her teaching and is very specific with the students about what materials they need and how work should be done.

"So she is not only teaching them the subject but how to be students," Farmer said.

Westlake tries hard to see math the way her students do and relates what she is teaching to real life so that students can see the relevance and better grasp the concepts.

While teaching annuities in a recent class, she told the students that she was saving for retirement with money that comes out of her paycheck monthly. That means that she has an "ordinary annuity" in which payments are made at the end of each term.

"It is a great class for people who don't like math ... and for people who like math," Landis said. "She is real patient. She doesn't make you feel like there are any stupid questions."

Westlake took a one-year sabbatical at UC Berkeley in the 1990s to study math and science education and research methods for teaching basic skills.

"It just gave me a whole different way of thinking," she said. "What was wonderful was to be able to see what is not simple about it and be able to break it down to where people have problems and give them the big picture."

The bigger picture is what is important to her. She doesn't mark a problem as a zero, for example, if a student gets the wrong answer because of a minor computational error -- as long as she can see the student understands the concept.

She also uses humor in her instruction, both to make the subject interesting to those who may not feel comfortable with math and to help the students remember what she is teaching.

Student Henry Bartholomew, 15, said that when discussing interest rates, she told the students that her young daughter called the simple interest formula, I=Prt (Interest = Present Price X Time), "I equals pretty."

"She wants questions and she keeps real good office hours," said Bartholomew, a first-year student. "So many people have stayed around in the class even if they have problems because she really tries to help and explain things."

— Tanya Schevitz
San Francisco Chronicle


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