Former executive Peter Mcintosh, MSIA ’76, draws on white-collar experience to revolutionize his students’ lives from a high school in Oakland, California.
The hum of keyboard clicks fills the air as a classroom of high school students works its way through algebra problems on their computers. Suddenly, a teenager shoots his hand into the air. “Mr. McIntosh — I don’t get it.” Peter McIntosh looks up from his desk. He knows just what the young man needs: a healthy dose of truth.
“When you say you don’t get it,” McIntosh begins, “what I think you really mean is ‘I could do this problem, but it’s going to take me 30, 40 seconds, and right now, I’m not really in the mood to do that.’” Most students smile and nod their heads. “I think you want me to come over there and do the problem for you,” McIntosh continues. “If you’ll be honest with me, I’ll come over and do that problem — as long as you’re honest about what’s actually going on here.”
His teaching style — equal parts candor, humor and, in his words, “aggressive optimism” — have long been trademark McIntosh. Judging by his students’ skyrocketing scores on the state math exams since he arrived at Oakland Unity Charter School just a few years ago, it’s also highly effective.
That swift success is surprising — not only because most of his students come from neighborhoods plagued by gang violence and poverty, but because the teacher who helped lift those scores has only a few years of teaching under his belt. Instead of getting practice via student teaching, McIntosh cut his teeth running seminars, consulting for international banks and solving multi-million dollar problems on behalf of companies like PwC and Charles Schwab.
Back In the Game
After retiring in his 40s as Charles Schwab’s Executive Vice President of Operations, McIntosh spent nearly a decade savoring his early retirement: enjoying quality time with his wife, coaching his two children’s baseball and soccer teams, golfing, and pursuing part-time consulting and philanthropic board work. By early 2008, though, his children were approaching college age, and McIntosh began contemplating a second career.
A friend who had worked for McIntosh at Charles Schwab suggested he try teaching and offered to introduce McIntosh to a district administrator who liked hiring retired executives with coaching experience. She believed their skills managing corporations and running drills easily translated to managing classrooms, and that their real-world success motivated students in ways traditional teachers couldn't.
The administrator hired McIntosh on the spot. That summer, after receiving just two weeks of intensive training, McIntosh taught a month-long algebra-prep class to incoming freshmen. He loved it, and he found that teaching wasn’t much different from “walking out on stage and giving a speech to 500 people, or facing 20 8-year-olds on a soccer field.” He says the key to inspiring success in others is “being more optimistic about their abilities than they are.”
While cleaning up his classroom on the final day of the program, he found a note from a girl who had struggled her way through the four weeks. “Mr. McIntosh, I want to thank you,” it read. “You’re the first person who ever told me I was smart.” He showed it to a fellow teacher, who replied: “This is what happens, Peter — now you’re hooked.”
Shifting the Paradigm
McIntosh soon attained full teaching credentials as a result of his extensive math courses in graduate school and a critical shortage of math teachers, and in 2010 he began teaching algebra and geometry at Oakland Unity Charter School. Located in one of Oakland’s roughest neighborhoods, the school’s student body is composed almost entirely of the sons and daughters of immigrants. The year before his arrival, students were scoring in the bottom 20th percentile on the state’s math exams.
McIntosh had his work cut out for him, but he quickly discovered that his students’ difficulties with math weren’t due to shortfalls in ability or intelligence, but rather deficits in responsibility, effort and confidence. Many students were actually very smart, and therefore never had to work hard. When faced with more complicated math problems, they gave up quickly.
He suggested the faculty “focus on teaching the responsibility to learn the material.” That philosophy, McIntosh says, is the bedrock of his teaching approach, and it’s all built upon a foundation of honesty. “You may have had bad teachers in the past,” he tells his students. “So you may have a deficit. But it’s your responsibility to climb out of that hole. You have to put in the effort. If you do, you’re going to gain confidence, and you’re going to be much better at this stuff.”
LEVERAGING PAST SUCCESS
To help illustrate abstract principles like tenacity and accountability, McIntosh draws on anecdotes from his white-collar past. One of his students’ favorites is from when McIntosh consulted for a bank that had misplaced $100 million. Seven firms had audited its books; all had failed to find the funds. Rather than audit the bank for an eighth time, McIntosh asked to be trained as a new employee. After the second day of training, he realized the bank “had a careless approach to transactions. ... I could imagine a lot of situations where something would get lost.”
He created a list of scenarios that could be the culprit — a lost traveler’s check being reissued without the old check being canceled, for instance. He asked a programmer to find every transaction that fulfilled those criteria. Sure enough, “a bunch of one-sided transactions had happened ... over 10 years, it added up to $100 million on the dot.”
“The kids find this stuff fascinating — they really appreciate that people come in from the real world, and we’re not like ‘this is how people count butterflies’ — these kids probably aren’t going to get a job counting butterflies, so they tune out. But if you tell them real stories, they pay attention,” McIntosh said.
Moving the Needle
McIntosh now teaches Algebra I and II and AP Calculus classes at Oakland Unity, and his ninth grade students’ math scores on the state exams have risen from the bottom 20th percentile to the 99th — making them California’s 11th best. Moreover, 90 percent of Oakland Unity’s graduates now go on to attend college. Film crews from as far away as Japan and Germany have come to observe his classes, and Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy and a leading voice in education reform, frequently cites McIntosh’s success in his speeches.
Despite the accolades, McIntosh says he and his fellow faculty members have miles to go before they sleep. “One of the problems we still have is that we get 90 percent into college — but only 20 percent end up graduating. It’s really hard to move the needle ... we need to help them get not only to college, but through college.”
To that end, McIntosh has a message for his fellow B-school alumni: “If you get to the point where you’re fortunate enough to retire when you still have lots of energy, and you want something that’s really cool — find your way into a classroom.”
Peter McIntosh, MSIA ’76
Math teacher, Oakland Unity High School