An Integral Part of the GDS Equation

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An Integral Part of the GDS Equation
Dina ElBoghdady

One of the oft-repeated tales about Andy Lipps’ 23-year career at GDS involves a medical scare that turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Andy (as he tells it)—and for the School.

“I could never have imagined, when I had a mild heart attack in 1997, that I would look back at that as the best thing that ever happened to my career,” Andy said. “But it definitely was.”

Andy had been practicing law for 24 years, first as a DC public defender and then at a DC law firm, when the heart attack prompted a career switch. Convinced that his stressful job contributed to his heart condition, Andy left the legal profession and pursued a master’s degree in mathematics, just for fun, not knowing what he would do with it. “Then, in November of my second year at [George Washington University], a lawyer friend of mine called to say that her son’s math teacher at GDS had left, and I should consider applying,” said Andy, who was a math major in college. “The position had been open for a while. As I’ve said a million times, that’s probably the only reason that the School would hire an old guy like me with no teaching experience.”

Clearly, the arrangement worked out. Andy went on to distinguish himself as a math teacher and coach of the School’s math team, which he created and built into a national powerhouse. Within the past decade, he added to his course load by expanding into other departments. He started teaching a constitutional law class and helped teach two classes in Latin, his favorite subject in high school. He also team-taught a civil rights course and developed a related annual field trip to Alabama that epitomizes the social justice ideals of GDS.

History teacher Richard Avidon, a longtime friend of Andy’s, describes his former colleague as “part of the soul of GDS” because his passions seamlessly aligned with the vision of the School’s founders. “I think Andy found GDS to be surprisingly special for him,” Richard said. “He got caught up in the mission and the personality of the place.”

Not Just a Math Teacher

Andy’s passions manifested themselves in all sorts of ways around School. When the Arab Spring uprising erupted in 2010, he successfully pushed the administration to cancel classes and organize a half-day “teach-in,” which involved inviting GDS-affiliated experts (mostly parents and alumni) to speak to students about the complexities of the Arab world.

Walk the High School’s math hallway, and hanging on its walls are portraits of mathematicians, all of them pieces that Andy commissioned from GDS art students. He did not dictate a vision for the art, but rather encouraged the students to do some research and apply their perspective to the piece.

Andy with students on a trip to Alabama.

Andy with students on a trip to Alabama.

As for the signature field trip to Alabama, it started as a somewhat impromptu journey with seven students on the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March in 2015. And it gave rise to a civil rights history class (called “From Freedom Rides to Ferguson”) and an annual excursion that Andy described as his “proudest achievement” at GDS.

Lee Goldman, chair of the HS mathematics department, said Andy’s enthusiasm for engaging students on many different fronts speaks to his deep interest in a wide array of topics as well as his teaching philosophy. “He truly believes that our job as teachers is to raise ethical human beings,” Lee said, “not just to teach them polynomials.”

But if anyone wanted to talk about that kind of thing, Andy was up for that too. Outside of class, he would organize gatherings to discuss number theory with students during his early days with the math team, and they’d show up and chat for hours. “He did this in his free time,” Lee said. “He really enjoyed getting kids excited about what they were learning.”

Student Interest + Teacher Support = Success

To appreciate how much Andy affected his students, consider the unsolicited praise he’s received from them over the years.

Abby Martin ’07 was a senior at Williams College in 2011 when she nominated Andy for the college’s George Olmsted Jr. prize, awarded to high school teachers who played an influential role in the lives of Williams students. Andy won after Abby wrote to the judges about how he refused to settle for “middling performance” from her in his AP BC Calculus class just because she had chronic vision problems at the time. Instead, he worked to get her the accommodations she needed and showed her “the rewards of perseverance” during tough times.

Andy with one of the portraits he commissioned from GDS art students (credit Layla Coyne)

Andy with one of the portraits he commissioned from GDS art students.

Abby did not pursue math as a field of study. But she continues to appreciate how Andy’s zeal for complex mathematical problems was rivaled only by his passion for social justice. “He would take a few minutes at the start of each class to talk about current events, not in a killing time type of way, but in a way that taught us to care about humanity,” Abby said recently. “To this day, I still gravitate toward people who think about the broader world and don’t walk through life with blinders on.”

Noah Kravitz ’16, who is pursuing a PhD in math at Princeton, credits Andy with inspiring him to explore a career in math academia. “I always knew I liked math,” Noah said. “But Andy made me think: ‘Huh, maybe this is something I’d like to do for a very long time.’”

That’s why Andy immediately came to mind when Noah won an honorable mention for the 2021 Morgan Prize, which honors outstanding math research by an undergraduate student. In accepting the prize, Noah recognized Andy for “teaching me the possibilities of math beyond the classroom and taking the time to challenge me with a near-constant stream of interesting problems.”

Leaving a Lasting Impression  

Andy now lives in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. He said he’s going to miss the excitement of working with students, and the fun they generated. Among his many fond memories are the escapades of the math team, which he oversaw from 2001 to 2016, and the achievements of the many students who sustained it. There was Ben Gunby ’12, who won a gold medal at the prestigious International Mathematical Olympiad in 2010 and then again in 2011. And there was Kirin Sinha ’11, the sharp, dynamic team captain who expanded the small team to 50 students under her watch. During her freshman year, Kirin pushed Andy to enroll the team in regional and national events, not just local ones.

Andy recalls how Ben emerged the winner of one of those events in 2011, and Kirin ranked as the top girl and the 9th student overall. When it came time for Ben and Kirin to take the stage and collect their prizes, “I could hear one kid from another team ask his friend; ‘What does GDS stand for?’” Andy said. “His friend answered: ‘Goddam smart.’ True story.

Kirin, who attended MIT, Cambridge, and the London School of Economics before earning an MBA at Stanford, said that Andy stands out as a “champion of new ideas” among all her teachers and professors. “He was the kind of teacher who would react to a student’s idea by saying: ‘Yes, let’s make this happen. Let’s get you what you need,’” Kirin said. “To have a teacher like him say yes to you as a student really makes an impression. It helps you believe in yourself and opens you up to the possibilities in life and how you view opportunity.”

Other Andy-isms endeared him to students: the way he would wax rhapsodic about Euler’s Method and the logic of a mathematical proof; his love of “Calculus Carols” at Christmas time; and the way he humanized famous mathematicians by sharing stories about their personal lives, such as the duel that killed Evariste Galois in 1832 or the friendship that blossomed between Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel.

And his can-do attitude did not go unnoticed by students or faculty given how he juggled his courseload with time-consuming extracurriculars, such as Harvard Model Congress, filled in for the math department head when needed, and came in early and stayed late on a regular basis.

“He was the kind of guy who made things work,” said Marcus Boorstin ’13. Marcus recounted a story he’d heard about how the math team was making its way back to GDS by bus from a meet in North Carolina when traffic came to a standstill in the streets of Washington.

Andy jumped out of the bus and began directing traffic, eager to help students thoughtfully navigate their way to their next stop.

 

An Integral Part of the GDS Equation

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