Throughout a 50-year career, Professor Emeritus Max A. Sobel championed mathematics education and inspired others in the art of teaching. An educator at both the high school and college levels, Sobel has taught and mentored thousands of students.
“Dr. Max Sobel was a revolutionary when it came to teaching math,” says former student Jeanne Roitman ’77. “He pioneered new ways to teach math…emphasizing theory and making math fully comprehensible even to those for whom it did not come naturally.”
A 1947 graduate of Montclair State, Sobel received a master’s from Columbia University and went to work teaching mathematics in the Newark Public Schools. He later earned a doctorate from Columbia and joined the Montclair State faculty in 1957.
Known for a keen interest in his students, an ability to make difficult concepts understandable and a ready smile, Sobel is a favorite of many former students. “Dr. Sobel taught my 9th-grade Algebra 1 class,” recalls Cathy Lybeck, who attended College High School on the Montclair State campus. “It wasn’t until after I graduated college and graduate school that I realized he was the best teacher I ever had.”
Fellow College High graduate Rachel Geller agrees: “As a teacher, he was real, he was energizing, he saw only our best and he certainly left this student with a whole new, positive attitude toward mathematics.”
As the author or coauthor of more than 60 books on mathematics education, the Fair Lawn resident’s influence extends far beyond Montclair State. His books are used in classrooms throughout the country and also have been translated into Chinese, Japanese and Spanish.
Sobel’s enthusiasm for teaching rubbed off on many former students who became teachers themselves. “Dr. Sobel’s spirit frequents the classes I teach today,” says Craig Mousin, a College High graduate who now teaches at DePaul University. “His irresistible joy combined with his generous invitation to high school students to partner in the classroom while maintaining the discipline necessary for critical learning inspires my teaching to this day.”
Deborah Ives ’91 MA, ’03 EdD, who now teaches at Montclair State, is also grateful for Sobel’s mentorship. “Each experience was filled with awe at his enthusiasm for both the teaching of mathematics, as well as his respect and sensitivity for students. How fortunate I have been to call him teacher.”
“When I became a teacher, I thought a lot about what made [Dr. Sobel] so effective in the classroom, even for students who were not, shall we say, math inclined,” says College High graduate Linda Castiglia Danford. “If he had a philosophy of teaching, this is what I think it was: remove the fear, teach the subject as imaginatively as possible and never take yourself too seriously.”
Motivating students was always at the heart of Sobel’s teaching. “There is no magic key, and it won’t work for everyone, but you’ve got to get the attention of students through motivational techniques,” he once said. “Get them interested and thinking about solving problems, because most kids want to learn.”
The recipient of numerous honors and awards, including a Lifetime Achievement in Leadership, Teaching and Service Award from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), Sobel has served as president of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics of New Jersey and as a member of the Mathematical Association of America, the NCTM and the U.S. Commission on Mathematical Instruction – National Research Council, among others.
While Sobel’s service to professional organizations and his many published works have made a lasting impact on mathematics education, it is perhaps his role as a teacher and mentor that has had the greatest influence on his former students.
“He made mathematics and studying mathematics exciting,” says College High graduate Michael Weaver. “He inspired me to spend a summer studying Algebra II on my own so that I could take some more advanced classes. That speaks not of my abilities but of Max Sobel’s ability to inspire.”