Jack Assaf: From Engineer to Educator

By: Darby Evans

October 26, 2017

Originally published by Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE)

While a former mechanical engineering student at Notre Dame, Jack Assaf considered summer internships at companies like Ford Motor Company and General Electric. Instead, Jack chose to teach math to students in Africa during the summer before his senior year.

“I taught physics for eight weeks in a rural village in Ghana, and that was my sort of internship for teaching. It was my way of trying it out,” Jack says. “As a mechanical engineer, it’s a little weird to go teach. People often ask, ‘Why aren’t you in engineering? Why are you throwing it away?’”

Jack, who is now a member of ACE 24 in San Antonio, sees nothing wasted in his decision to join the ACE Teaching Fellows Program. In fact, he feels only exhilaration in the chance to convey his love of math to his new students in Texas. Having watched his own parents teach for 25 years, Jack firmly believes that everybody can be a “math person”—even students with learning disabilities, just like himself.

“I am excited to reach out to help students who may be struggling with learning disabilities, because it wasn’t until eighth grade that I learned that I had dyslexia,” Jack says. “You often get labeled as not a math person or not a reading person or not a school person, when in reality, you might just have some sort of learning difference.”

From his International Summer Service Learning Program in Ghana, Jack knows that cultivating this love for learning is no small task. He would beg students to finish their homework to no avail—until the students came up with a creative solution on their own.

“I would give homework to [the students] a week in advance,” Jack says. “The night before homework was due, [the students] decided the only way that they would get it done is if they came and sat on my porch and did it with me. That was a super awesome time because every Wednesday, after school, we would sit on the porch and we’d finish their homework together.”

“Jack firmly believes that everybody can be a “math person”

—even students with learning disabilities, just like himself.”

Not only did Jack enjoy forming relationships with the students, but he also reveled in the mental work of teaching.

Jack says, “When I was writing the final, I lost track of time because I was getting pretty excited about the problems, because I was involving the kids’ names in the problems and it was super fun… It was also a unique challenge because most physics problems have to do with things that didn't exist in their understanding, like two-story buildings or planes or cars.”

So, after Ghana, Jack knew he wanted to use his mechanical engineering degree to teach. And after looking at his options, he knew he wanted to teach with ACE.

Initially, Jack wanted to join ACE because it is an elite teacher preparation program, and he was intrigued by the idea of living in community. After spending some time with ACE this summer, his appreciation for the faith aspect of the program grew.

“I think the fact that faith drives all of [ACE] is what gives it that extra spunk and the extra pizazz that’s needed to be a great teacher,” Jack says. “You could do every bit of cold-calling and activating prior knowledge, and it would be fine, but as long as you are [teaching] for faith, it brings more gusto to it, which has been exciting to understand.”

Jack began his journey at Notre Dame as a mechanical engineering student, and his Domer story continues in San Antonio. There, in his new position as a high school math teacher, Jack can preach that his discipline is, in fact, “beautiful and fun.” Thanks to Jack Assaf, we may soon have a world brimming with “math people.”

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