BY ANGELA BARBUTI
Last month, seven New York City high school teachers received the Sloan Award for Excellence in Teaching, which annually honors instructors of math and science for motivating and inspiring their students. Gustavo Goncalves, a math teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School on the Upper East Side, was recognized for his unwavering commitment to his students’ success.
The Brazil native, who came to New York as an international student in 2001, teaches AP calculus, pre-calculus, math foundations, algebra II/trigonometry, geometry and discrete math. A testament to his dedication is the fact that his students’ AP calculus AB exam average is a 4.75 out of 5. When asked how he managed such a feat, he said, “All I did was I connected with them. I raised the standards and they stepped up to it. I expected 100 percent from them, and they gave me 100 percent.”
Mr. G, as his students call him, also instituted a math foundations class after observing the varying degrees of aptitude from students who were entering high school from different caliber middle schools. “They take six classes with me, and I see the kids’ difficulties and struggles and what they are lacking. I’m really surprised to see how many kids don’t know how to add or subtract,” he said.
When the bell rings at the end of the school day, Goncalves’ work is nowhere near done. Having a passion for soccer, he also coaches the school’s team. And when he leaves the field, his job shaping young minds is still not over, since he returns home to two children of his own, a 16-month-old son and a 3-month-old daughter.
As for his future plans, Goncalves plans on continuing his work at “ELRO,” a high school he refers to as “heaven for teachers.” And there’s no better compliment he can give the school than by saying he would like his own children to attend one day. “I would definitely send my kids to Eleanor Roosevelt when they’re ready to go to high school.”
You grew up in Brazil. When did you know you wanted to become a teacher?I came to New York in 2001. It’s actually an interesting story. I wanted to do mathematics. When I came to the United States, I had four jobs at one point. I was an international student so had no financial aid or scholarship. I had to pay for my tuition which was $5,500 first semester. And one of these jobs was teaching. I was teaching SATs in Queens and also worked as a TA and worked as a teacher at the learning center. And I enjoyed it and was like, “You know, why not?” And that’s how it started.
I read about your impressive 4.75 average on the AP calculus AB exam. What can you attribute to that success?The kids. They’re amazing. Every year it’s the same thing. So I think it’s the kids. The kids are the best part about teaching. If you have good kids, you can love your profession. If you have bad kids, you can hate it. And in my case it’s no different. I love my kids. My kids are great. And of course, you end up having like half a dozen who can really … But for the most part, the kids are amazing.
How do you work at maintaining a good relationship with the students?I bring a lot of humor to the class. No one laughs at my jokes except me. That’s one thing that works well with the kids. And I try to be honest with them. If they struggle with a topic, I tell them. If they’re good at one topic, I’ll let them know as well.
Why is it so important to you that high schoolers excel at math?Well, first of all, I teach math just for the beauty of it, not to worry about a test. I always go above and beyond what a test covers. It’s New York State, so a lot is test based. You’re going to take the SATs, Regents and AP courses. That’s how the state board and college board evaluates the kids. And it’s good to see the kids getting a 5. I have a “high 5” club in my class. All the kids who scored a 5 on the AP exams, they have their names up for years. And when they come back after they graduate, they see their names on this poster. They feel proud of their accomplishments. And a good score gets you college credit as well. I have a lot of kids coming back and saying, “Mr. G, I don’t have to take any math classes because of my AP score.” Well that’s a good thing and a bad thing. The bad thing is you’re not going to take math classes again, but the good thing is you save up to $2,000, depending on the school you go to.
Explain the math foundations class you started.In the past, we had a lot of difficulty teaching students coming from middle schools. They come from different middle schools, good and bad ones. And we noticed that middle schools tend to inflate their grades so the kids can get into good high schools. I was looking at some transcripts five years ago and was like, “How can this kid be a 90 in math if he can’t add or subtract? Something is wrong with this.” Across the board, our SAT, Regents and AP scores were not good enough. So we decided to create the class to close the gap, to make sure all kids come in ready for us.
You’re getting your second master’s now. I’m getting it in pure mathematics. I got my first in mathematics education. I stopped because I had two kids, one after the other, and I became the soccer coach at our school. My second passion is soccer, so I decided to go for it, and I’ve been coaching for five years now. It’s fun.
What are the challenges to your job?My challenge right now is sometimes we get unreasonable parents. I had a parent once who said, “I want my child to be challenged, but I don’t want him to struggle.” How is that possible? But I’m very blessed that my administration approves what I do, because I know it can be a pain if your boss doesn’t like you. Both my principal and assistant principal support and approve of what I do. And that makes my job much easier.
What are your future plans?My future plans as a professional is to get my Ph.D. in mathematics. I know the clock is ticking. [Laughs] I like to be in a school environment. I don’t want to be a professor. I like being a high school teacher for many reasons. First of all, my school is great. And I would like to help build a computer science department because we don’t have one in our school. That’s something I’m looking forward to.