Editor’s note: Through our “Exceptional Educator” series, Reporter Newspapers is showcasing the work of some outstanding teachers and administrators at our local schools. If you would like to recommend an Exceptional Educator, please email editor@ReporterNewspapers.net.

Gary Piligian teaches Advanced Placement statistics, statistics and other math classes, including pre-calculus and algebra 2, at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Sandy Springs. He’s been a teacher for four years. Before teaching, he was trained as an engineer and worked on Wall Street as a financial investment banker. He’s also the school’s cross-country coach and runs marathons.

Q: What attracted you to teaching at first?
A: My path was different than that of most teachers – I was an engineer by training who worked at a management consulting firm after getting my bachelor’s degree, and, after I went to graduate school for an MBA, worked in the institutional fixed-income business for 25 years – 11 years for Salomon Brothers (now part of Citigroup), and 14 years for Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. I’ve always been interested in education, as it played a huge role in my own career, and was at the stage of my life when I had the financial flexibility to teach.
Like many non-teacher parents, I was a critic of how kids are taught, and I decided that instead of simply being a critic, I should try and do something about it.  Teaching, done right, is definitely more difficult than most critics think it is.  I have tremendous respect for my colleagues at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, and I’ve learned a great deal from them.

Q: Has the appeal changed?
A: I love working with the kids and with their parents, so from that perspective, the appeal hasn’t changed at all.  I draw energy from seeing the students learn challenging concepts, and from helping them connect the dots between the skills they learn in class and the opportunities that are open to them in the business world.

Q: What keeps you going year after year?
A: Honestly, it’s the notes you get every now and then from a student, a parent of a student, or a former student telling you about the personal impact that you’ve made on the student.  That’s the key.  I want our students to be successful and then to pay it back when they are in a position to do so.
I’m also fortunate that I work at Mount Vernon, where teachers have the flexibility to experiment with new ideas and technologies to keep things fresh.  All teachers at Mount Vernon have learning outcomes that drive our instruction, but we have tremendous latitude in how to get our students to best achieve the learning outcomes.  We can tailor our instruction and style to our special expertise.  As an example, the school has let me create a two-semester elective for next year – introduction to personal finance, and introduction to investments. These are life-worthy topics, they are right up my power alley and I can involve our parent community as resources. I’m excited to see how this class unfolds next year.

Q: What do you think makes a great teacher?
A: I used to think subject matter expertise was the end-all and be-all, and, obviously, that is hugely important. In fact, it’s a given – it’s the price of admission to the ball game. But, after that, what really matters is something quite simple: Does the teacher care about the students and about the subject matter? If a teacher cares, students pick up on that. And likewise if they sense the teacher doesn’t care.

Q: What do you want to see in your students?
A: I want to see students who are ready to tackle difficult problems; I value resiliency and persistence.  I try to put the growth mindset into all students – the idea that anyone can learn anything if they put the effort into it.

Q: How do you engage your students?
A: The biggest thing students are looking for is relevance.  Our Head of School, Dr. Brett Jacobsen, suggested all of our staff read a book called “Future Wise” by David Perkins. The book emphasizes that educators need to make sure the concepts they teach are “life worthy” to students – in other words, is what we are teaching likely to matter to the lives that students are likely to live? That’s a great lens through which to build engagement: Is it relevant, and does it have real-world applicability? I always link what we learn in the classroom to what I actually applied in my role in the investment business; students are clamoring for that type of relevance.

Q: Do you have a project or special program you use year after year?
A: No. I change up my projects from year to year. You have to keep it fresh – refine what you’ve done before that worked well to make it better, and don’t be afraid to jettison things you did in the past that just weren’t that effective.

Q: Is there a “trick” that works to get students involved?
A: Candy.  All students will work for candy. Seriously, there’s no trick – students can tell if you are working hard on their behalf. They can sense that you care, and they respond in kind. Now, if you can only tell me the key to keeping graduating seniors involved. That’s a tough one, because, quite understandably, they’re starting to put high school in the rear-view mirror as they look forward to college. I love teaching seniors, because they are mature, they are thinking about their future, and they want to know what it’s like out there in the real world. But it does get challenging to keep them involved as you move toward Graduation Day.
Also, I’m totally honest with my students.  I tell them that I never had the occasion to use imaginary numbers in my work experience, but I used the concepts of compound growth almost daily. I build trust with my students, and don’t take that trust for granted. If you can expand your role from being a teacher to being a life coach, students appreciate it.

Q: What do you hope your students take away from your class?
A: Hard work, persistence and resilience are more important than raw ability. What you decide to study is more important than where you go to school. Think about growth opportunities when you make your education choices – if I were 18 years old today, I’d make sure I’d closely investigate technology, energy, health care and data science.

Effort matters. Luck matters. Ethics matter. Skills matter. Some jobs pay more than others because of supply and demand; make sure you get the skills that will put you in high demand, and make sure you protect your reputation. You are the master of your own destiny.

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.