In Mind and Matter (Penguin Press, May), former pro football player Urschel explores his life and careers in football and as a math teacher.
What prompted you to write this book?
It felt like it was a good breaking point in my life to assess my work and my life. I have become more passionate about sharing my love of math with young people and hope they can love it as much as I do. I want to bring math to a larger audience. Math is heady and elegant. It’s very pure; everything is built on things that have already been shown.
How did your parents influence your two interests: football and math?
My mother was my biggest role model. She cared about education and recognized my ability to solve problems, so my true math education came at home as a young person because my mother nurtured my ability. She wanted to be sure I had more opportunities than she had. If I wanted to become something, the only thing that would stop me would be bad luck but not the household I was born into. My father helped me train; he would help me work out. He would come to my games in high school and be there in the end zone watching me, and then, after the game, he’d offer his advice on ways I could improve.
What are the similarities between playing football and solving a math problem?
They share a lot of common traits. There’s repetition in both. Failure is common to both, but their attitude toward failure is where they differ. In athletics, failure is a stigma; it hurts when you fail. In math, you have to have a much higher threshold of failure. You’re going to make mistakes in math, but those mistakes make you try harder to solve the problem. Whether it’s in athletics, or in theater, or in another activity, there’s something amazing about being part of a team working toward a shared goal. Working with others is a really important skill that is not taught often enough in classes.
What is your approach to teaching?
First, I want all of my students to feel comfortable with me and with each other. We feel like we’re in a safe space; it’s okay to take a leap of faith with being wrong. Second, by the time they’re done with the course, I want them to be better thinkers than when they started. It’s not enough simply to memorize formulas. I am teaching them how to solve problems. You see a problem that might be different than others you’ve seen before, and you take ideas you’ve learned and try to apply them to solving this new problem.