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Local nonagenarian provides tutoring for GED students

LUFKIN, October 8, 2013-- His life reads like one of the math problems he’s fond of helping students solve.

Find the correlation between the following numbers: 16, 97, 36, 12 and 25.

The 16 is part of 1916, the year John Woodside was born, making him 97 years old. The 36 is from 1936, the year he graduated Arkansas State University – from where he holds Distinguished Alumnus status – with his degree in chemistry. He’d later earn his master’s in chemistry from Oklahoma State University. The 12 marks the number of years he’s been serving as a voluntary tutor at the Adult Learning Center in Lufkin, with the past several of those taking place at the current facility on the campus of Angelina College.

And the 25 marks the average age of the students receiving help from this dedicated nonagenarian.

Remarkably, before beginning his service as a volunteer math tutor, Woodside had never taught school at any level despite his vast years of knowledge and experience as a chemist and chemical plant manager for oil companies in locations around the world. With his credentials, it wouldn’t be a reach to picture him at the front of a large lecture hall in a major university.

And yet here he is, 12 years after overhearing a conversation between friends in which they spoke of the need for tutors for students studying for their General Education Development (GED) tests. Such tutors are part of AC’s ongoing initiative to provide outside help and include such entities as Smarthinking and the Kahn Academy, both web-based tutorials.

Those are relatively new methods. Having someone of Woodside’s expertise is a bonus. When nearly anyone else his age would be content to enjoy retirement, Woodside makes his way into a classroom two days each week to meet with students varying in ages from 19 to 55 years old.

“I was having lunch one day at Pinecrest Retirement Community, and a lady and a man were sitting with me,” Woodside said. “They were telling me the Adult Learning Center needed tutors for math for those people who were trying to earn their GEDs.

“It’s wonderful to see someone who doesn’t have a high school diploma and needs to get a job. To see their faces light up when they learn something. You see those who don’t think they can do it, and suddenly you can see it when they get it. There’s nothing like it.”

Woodside said he’s able to take the foundations of math he learned more than 70 years ago and apply them to what students are learning today. In his words, “Two plus two is four everywhere in the world.” But what makes his approach extraordinary is his ability to tailor his lessons to the student’s individual needs and learning methods.

“These students are adults,” Woodside said. “They’ve learned math, whatever it is they know, in various ways in various places. I endeavor to find out how they’ve learned their math and find ways to teach it the way they’ve learned it.

“Mathematics is an absolute science. There are several ways to get to the answers to the problems. Whatever route the student takes to get to the problem doesn’t really matter, as long as that route leads to him or her getting that GED. That’s how I teach them.”

Laura Bush, Executive Director of the Adult Learning Center at AC, said the way students respond to Woodside shows that his impact is reaching far beyond solving math problems.      

“The students always look forward to working with him,” Bush said. “He’s so good at keeping up with their progress, and those who have gotten their GEDs come back just to check on him. They’ll tell me, ‘He really helped me understand this stuff.’

“But on the other hand, it’s almost as if he’s a student himself. When I was in charge of the lab, Mr. Woodside would always come in to tell me how he was doing with his students, and he always had something to tell me about something new he had learned. He’d learned a new way to figure out a math problem. He was always amazed at how their brains worked in solving problems, and how they were able to use each other’s knowledge to solve some pretty hard challenges. He was always excited to find so many different ways to learn and explain the same problems.”

Woodside has seen his share of success stories in the dozen years he’s been working in this capacity, with many of his protégés continuing their education in a higher setting. He spoke of those who came to him after getting laid off from other companies, and of the man who retired at age 55 and earned his GED for no reason other than the sense of personal accomplishment.

“I have worked with students who have gone on to get good jobs in the medical profession, and some who have gone on to college and earned their degrees,” Woodside said. “I had one man who went from being a high school dropout to earning his PhD.

“But the most rewarding part for me is seeing someone who needs a job, who has a family to support, and doesn’t have a diploma, get his or her GED so he or she can get a decent job.”

Woodside said he has no idea how long he’ll continue to tutor. “At my age, I don’t plan too far ahead. I take everything day-by-day,” he chuckled.

However long that may be, it appears he might just be getting as much from those he’s helping as they are from him.

“It’s so rare to see someone whose whole day is about coming in just to help students,” Bush said. “He’s told me this is what makes him happiest, to come in and work with these students and see them experience success.

“He could be doing so many other things, but he makes this a priority in his and his students’ lives.”


John Woodside (left) works with student Austin Longoria in the Adult Learning Center on the Angelina College campus. Woodside, 97, has worked the past 12 years as a voluntary tutor for students studying for GED testing. (AC Press photo)

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