The dedication of a teacher
When Nick Miller became the principal of Buffalo High School in 1985, he noticed that many students were bypassing the calculus class offered and found out it was because the teacher for the class had a reputation of “grading really hard.” This led to him taking a trip to visit the classroom of Carlton Urdahl, the teacher who many thought was too hard on his students. He would quickly realize that not only was Urdahl a fair and honest grader, but his heart and motive behind teaching would help his students succeed long after they left his room.
To be a Teacher
Ever since the fourth grade, Carlton Urdahl, of Litchfield, knew he wanted to be a teacher. Growing up, he attended a smaller country school, where there were only about four kids in his class.
“When I was in third grade, the teacher would allow kids to take the first graders out into the hall, and you could work with them on flashcards, arithmetic, or reading,” Urdahl recalled. “I used to love doing that. It was just fun to see a kid learn. I never wavered or turned from that idea; all the way through high school, I knew I was going to be a teacher. I just didn’t know what I was going to teach.”
Urdahl went on to be a math and German double major, and he began his teaching career in Granite Falls, where he was a German teacher. While he enjoyed teaching the language, he found math to be more exciting. He would spend the first ten years of his teaching career in Granite Falls, and then, he came to Buffalo.
Urdahl continued to teach German at the junior high for the first three years of being in Buffalo, and once the schools decided to start offering German at the high school, he switched over to teaching math full-time.
“I love teaching math,” Urdahl said. “It’s really the kids. To me, there’s something exciting about a kid getting excited about math. A lot of kids hate math, to be honest with you, but when you teach a concept and see a kid catch on, I can’t explain it…it’s very rewarding.”
Teaching AP Calculus
Urdahl is perhaps best known for teaching Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus at Buffalo High School. To receive college credit for the class, students take a final test at the end of the semester and need to earn a passing grade, which, out of a scale of one to five, means earning a four or five. For Urdahl, helping the AP students prepare for the test is the goal, not the grades.
“Calculus is considered difficult, but it really isn’t that bad,” Urdahl said. “Once the kids see that, it really helps. It’s fun to teach Calculus because you see their minds change.”
As fun as it can be, students who take his AP class can’t expect an easy time.
“I honestly don’t believe in extra credit,” Urdahl said. “When you have an advanced class where these kids will become math students because they want to go into physics or something like that, you can’t do that.”
Over the years, he’s had plenty of students come into his class, frustrated with receiving a lower score than they’re used to, wanting to know what they can do to boost their grade.
“I had a kid come in once, saying he got 106% in Pre-Calculus, and I said, ‘that’s not going to happen here,’” Urdahl recalled. “There are certain things you need to know in Calculus, and if you want an “A” in my class, I want you to be able to achieve the “A,” not because of all the extra stuff you can do.”
Urdahl does offer one single test, however, that offers the chance of extra credit, but it comes at a price. There are six true or false questions, and the test is completely optional. If students choose to take it, they will receive one point extra for each right answer. However, if they get it wrong, they lose two points. While some parents thought that was unfair, it offers the opportunity to earn extra, but with the understanding that it involves risk and won’t necessarily come easy.
Seeing the Good
After Nick Miller, the former Buffalo High School principal, met with Urdahl, he realized the way he taught always had the students’ best interest in the center of it all. Whether it was staying after school, coming in early, or having breakfast at Perkins with students to go over problems, Urdahl continually embodied the characteristics of a dedicated teacher.
“I believe in my heart that there is not a more influential or important profession as teaching,” Miller said. “Carlton Urdahl epitomizes what being a caring, loving educator is.”
Miller took note of Urdahl’s interest in the students, recognizing him as the only AP teacher following up shortly after the test was given, asking after the results. Even with the majority of his students passing with high grades, Urdahl would continue to seek out how he could improve as a teacher.
“As a principal, I never wanted him to retire, because I knew he was irreplaceable,” Miller commented.
Urdahl’s passion for teaching was not overlooked by his students, either. Steve Skallerud (BHS ’84 and Harvard Business School ’93) still remembers Urdahl as his favorite teacher. What stood out to him the most was Urdahl’s patience and dedication to helping them understand.
“It was okay if you didn’t get the problem right, as long as you kept going and didn’t give up,” Skallerud said. “Those life skills were applicable beyond math-learning.”
Skallerud also recalled Urdahl’s gentle demeanor.
“He didn’t tell students their answer was wrong,” Skallerud said. “If it was right, he’d say, ‘this is good,’ and if it was wrong, he’d give you this little grin that meant, ‘keep working on it, kid.’”
Teaching vs. COVID
For a teacher who highly values the personal connections of classroom teaching, Urdahl was faced with a challenge when COVID-19 shut down schools and required distance learning.
“When we did the online teaching, all I had was names,” Urdahl said. “You send this work online, and you don’t even see the kid work at it. You can’t answer questions, and they don’t ask questions. It was really lifeless.”
He struggled with connecting with kids over the phone to get them the help they need, and the disconnect did not help with keeping their interest in the lessons, either. Looking to the fall and the possibility of continuing distance learning, however, Urdahl is still committed to helping his students in any way he can, no matter how difficult it may be.
“I really thought I would go home and just take a month off and not even think about school,” Urdahl said with a laugh. “But every time you turn the stupid radio on, there’s something about COVID-19 and what’s going to happen in the fall.”
Urdahl has been chatting with a few students and discovering online resources to supplement his lessons in the chance that in-school learning isn’t available again.
“We were told ‘less is better,’” Urdahl explained, “and to cut down the assignments and not make it too hard, so a lot of us were trying to make it easy enough for the kids to get into it and do the work. But I teach AP Calculus, and when they take the AP exam, you have to have achieved certain things. I’ve got to be honest with the kids, that they need to know certain things. I’ve been worried that we’ll go online again, but I think we can make it work.”
57 Years and Counting
Recently completing his fifty-seventh year of teaching, many would wonder just when Urdahl plans on retiring.
“It’s either [retirement] or death, let’s get real,” he laughed. “It’s looming in the future. This could be my last year, but it just depends on how things go.”
Whenever Urdahl does plan on stepping away from the classroom, it is clear he has made an incredible impact on his students, teaching them lessons that continue with them long after they leave his class.
“To me, there’s something exciting about a kid getting excited about math.”
~ Carlton Urdahl ~