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Faculty Feature: Dr. Joseph Oechsle

See this story at malvernprep.org

[learn_more caption=”Read the chronicle of his teaching career that Dr. Oechsle provided the BFC “]

I was hired in late August 1979 as a theology teacher, and that almost did not happen.   Father Duffy called me the day after I had accepted a job at LaSalle High School as a science teacher, but he insisted I come out to Malvern and speak with him.   So I went, and since he made me a better offer than LaSalle and I had not signed a contract with LaSalle, my career began with an assignment to teach two sections of senior Theology of Marriage and four sections of sophomore Church History as well as a rotating junior section of SAT Math prep because I had just completed a Masters in Math at Villanova University.

My first year was difficult.  The Malvern seniors have a blood sport instinct to go after new teachers in the most disruptive and disrespectful ways, so by Thanksgiving vacation, I was ready to quit rather than face the animals.    But I resolved to be tougher than they were,  and since my sophomores were much more receptive and participatory, I stayed.   And then the changes began.

Father Charles Knapp who was the most esteemed teacher at the school died suddenly in May, and since I am native German, I inherited his German I and German II classes as well as his Logic class because both of us were graduates of St. Charles Seminary, and Father Knapp used a reworking of the seminary Logic text for his class.   At the same time, Father Jim Flynn was transferred to Reading, Massachusetts, and since I had a newly minted math degree, I got his Honors Pre Calculus class as well as three sections of junior moral theology.   So a brand new set of preps for my second year, and I loved it.

I loved the new subjects, the attention needed for preparation, the diligence of the students, the comraderie of the faculty, especially the Augustinians.  I had never been so welcomed and accepted as I was by Fathers Duffy, Nowlan, Flynn, Cochrane, and Knapp.   I even tried my hand at coaching eighth grade baseball and came up with a 7-3 Interac record.    And I settled into my Malvern career with great intensity and even devotion.

Since I became a member of the math department, I thought the wave of the future in mathematics would be the computerization of mathematical algorithms, so I asked permission to begin a Masters in Computer Science at Villanova University.  Little did I realize that this degree would set me up to begin the Computer Science Department at Malvern Prep.

Life became much more complicated when my mother suffered a severe stroke in March of 1983; she was unable to move or speak but remained lucid and aware.  From the hospital to home to a series of accidents necessitating going back to the hospital and finally permanent settlement at the Regina Nursing Home – all this took place while I was teaching a full load at Malvern, teaching two classes as an adjunct at Villanova University, working weekends at Sacred Heart Hospital in Norristown as night security officer and maintaining an active status as a firefighter with the Norriton Fire Company.   Malvern was highly supportive during all this stress, and my mother was to live for another ten years in the nursing home before dying in January of 1993.

During these years, I extended the German program to German III and AP German, but because I made the German sequence a demanding set of courses, the number of students enrolled declined, so that by 1989 I was asked to institute a sequence of courses in Latin.  I did this, extending Latin to AP, but I met the same fate in Latin as I had in German.  The classes were too demanding and student enrollment was down, so finally in 1996 I was placed completely in Mathematics with the exception of two semester long theology courses I taught and really enjoyed – Introduction to Philosophy and Comparative Religions. In 1998 I persuaded the school to allow me to inaugurate Advanced Placement Statistics which I have taught until the present.

In January of 1993, Mr. Stewart appointed me chair of computer science and charged me with developing appropriate course work.  I created a four part into to computers for seniors: one part dealing with spreadsheet software, one with word-processing software, one with data-base software, and one part with programming.   I was rewarded with two sections of this class along with my Calculus and Latin and theology sections.

When I finished my Masters in Computer Science, I asked permission to pursue a doctorate.  Father Duffy gave the OK, and I took four years of coursework at Princeton but did the major applied research project with Nova Southeastern University which gave me a PhD in mathematics education in June of 1996.

In 1993 I received a grant from the Hewett Packard Corporation to utilize the HP-48 CAS graphing calculator into my calculus classes.   HP gave me $8000 worth of equipment and two weeks of training to incorporate the latest technology at the forefront of the Reform Calculus movement.  At the same time, I was invited by the College Board to become a reader of the Advanced Placement Calculus examination.   For the next ten years, every June, I would experience the greatest professional development experience possible, spending ten days with the best secondary and post-secondary calculus teachers in the country, learning more about the subtleties of calculus and calculus education, and watching some of the best calculus educators share their experience, their expertise at creating exams and rubrics, and keeping aware of the continuing changing nature of calculus education.  I also enjoyed my experience at Clemson University and Fort Collins, Colorado where we graded the exams.  Join the College Board, and see the world!

In 2000, I was asked by the College Board to grade the AP Statistics exam, and fourteen years later, I am still grading the exam as a table leader and question leader.   Statistics readings have taken me to Lincoln, NE, Louisville, KY, Daytona, FL, and Kansas City, MO.    I have been incredibly fortunate to learn much from my colleagues, the best secondary and post –secondary statistics educators in the nation.  Just participating in the reading has kept me aware of all the current trends and issues in statistics education and has helped me immensely in developing a meaningful statistics course for Malvern’s students.

With the events of 9-11, the Norriton Fire Company decided to establish a scholarship for the sons of FDNY lost in the line of duty.  Malvern has allowed me to set up and conduct a memorial service every year since 2001 at which on behalf of Norriton I present a check for $10,000 to continue this scholarship at Fordham Pep in the Bronx.   Area fire companies and EMT’s participate in the ceremony along with FDNY and Norriton and this past year Washington DC  Fire Department.

In 2005, the College Board made me a consultant in AP Calculus AB and BC and in AP Statistics, one of the few consultants nationwide that is certified in three subjects.   Now I spend most of my summers conducting Summer Institutes for teachers of AP Calculus and AP Statistics.  I regularly do these institutes at Molloy College, NY; Oakland University, Detroit; Drew University, NJ; Middlesex College, NJ, and Ocean College, NJ.   In addition to these institutes, I present day long workshops for teachers around the country including Huston, TX; Minneapolis, MN; Chicago, IL; Baltimore, MD, and Newark, NJ.   In the spring, I do day long teacher and student prep workshops for Advance Kentucky in rural regions of that state and the same for Project Reach in New York, a program that helps prepare underserved students in the Bronx and Jackson Heights, NY for the AP exam.    Over the past three years, we have had an 80%+ credit rate in the Reach program in BC calculus.

In the late ‘80’s, Malvern began a two week internship program for seniors which aimed to allow them to spend time with business or career oriented situations after they completed their senior exams.  I was offended that there was no option to do a service project, and with the help of Father Edson Wood, I was allowed to create and moderate a service project that would take place during the same time frame as the senior business internship.    My first venture was to Caritas Mission in the Appalachians of central Pennsylvania with ten seniors.    When this venue did not turn out as expected in terms of service opportunities, I was able to contact the Ivanhoe Community Association in Ivanhoe, VA, and in 1990 I began what turned out to be a twenty year program of taking from ten to thirty Malvern seniors for a week or two of doing Habitat for Humanity type of work in this very poor rural community.   We slept on the floor of the fire station, and the community cooked breakfast , lunch, and dinner for us as we worked throughout the town and the surrounding area doing light construction, yard work, painting, and just getting to know and appreciate people from a very different culture.

Because of my involvement with the School of Americas Watch beginning in 1993, I became involved in legal matters, having been arrested five times at Fort Benning, GA during the annual SOA protest march where we come to the training school for the Latin American military dictators’ goon squads who have been responsible for over ninety-five percent of the human rights abuses in the Western Hemisphere.   I got my start in this movement because a Jesuit whom I had met briefly at St. Joseph’s University where I have also adjuncted was among the  six Jesuits executed by the members of the El Salvador National Guard in March of 1989.  I turned my newly found interest in law to beginning the Mock Trial Club at Malvern, a very realistic experience for young people who are considering a career in law to prepare and present a fictitious case before  a real judge and jury in the county court house against another school’s team.   In the nineteen years Malvern has participated in Mock Trial, many of the student team members have gone on to legal careers, and many have remarked that this experience was instrumental in helping them make their career decision.   For the past fifteen years, Malvern has been especially gifted to have Mr. Joseph Mattson, Esq., as our attorney advisor.   Mr. Mattson is a practicing litigator, the former president of the Delaware County Bar Association, and a real educator of young people.

When I first became part of the mathematics department in 1980, I obtained permission to create a school math contest team to participate in the annual Philadelphia Archdiocesan Mathlete Contest.   About thirty-five Catholic high schools compete in a series of monthly contests based on an Honors Pre-Calculus set of topics.   Thirty four years later, while Malvern never won the diocesan championship, Malvern has been able to display a well-above average level of performance throughout the years of involvement.

Two years ago, I got the idea that what Malvern needed was a kind of symposium where students interested in a mathematical career could meet professionals engaged in this type of work and ask questions about how these educators and practitioners came to make their career choices.  Thus Mathematical Connections was born, and six times a year, I would obtain a mathematician, a statistician, an engineer, or anyone with a scientific or financial career dealing heavily with mathematics to present and to engage in dialogue with our students.   This endeavor has been fairly popular with our students who are oriented toward a STEM future.

As a kind of check list, and for my own record, I will list the courses I have taught at Malvern:  German I, II, III, AP; Latin I, II, III, AP; Theology of Marriage, Death and Dying, Church History, Moral Theology, Introduction to Philosophy, Comparative Religions, Social Justice;  Computer Programming, Introduction to Computers; Logic, Algebra I, Honors and academic Algebra II, Honors and academic Pre-Calculus, AP Calculus AB and BC, AP Statistics, and Differential Equations.

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Dr. Oechsle / Malvern Communications
Dr. Oechsle / Malvern Communications

There are few classes at Malvern that get the student-designated title of “Hardest Class I’ve Ever Taken.” Whether it be sophomore year Honors United States History I, junior year Honors British Literature, or any intense AP classes, one name is sure to bring a chill to the spine of graduates: Dr. Joseph Oechsle.

Excuse me. What I meant to say was Reverend Dr. Firefighter Joseph Oechsle.

This is a man known by many at Malvern, not only for his rigorous classwork, his unforgettable catch phrases (“That’s borscht”, “Failed assassination attempt”, etc.,), and his complete rejection of the existence of the clock, but also for the service that he gives to the Malvern, Norristown, and mathematical communities. It was quite an experience interviewing him; however, I soon learned quickly that the man only has one speed: fast. And it got even harder when he asked me not to use a voice recorder!

Me: Thank you so much for doing this interview, Dr. J. It’s a pleasure to have you as the “Teacher of the Month”. Now, I don’t know if you know this, but to the students here at Malvern, you’re one of the hardest teachers at Malvern. What, do you feel, makes your style of teaching so hard?

Dr. J: Well, let me just say that I used to be hard. Nowadays, any second grader from Norristown can pass my class. But as for my style of teaching, I use the style of teaching that was taught to me by the Jesuits. It’s all based on the concept of Ratio Studiorum.

Me: I’ve never heard of that. What is the Ratio Studiorum, and how does it relate to your style of teaching?

Dr. J: You can learn all about the Ratio Studiorum and my style of teaching. All you have to do is read my doctoral dissertation on it.

(Upon some research, I learned that the Ratio insists on teaching a few well-related subjects taught thoroughly, with frequent repetition, as opposed to a variety of subjects taught simultaneously.)

Me: Where did you get your degree?

Dr. J: Which one?

Me: You have more than one degree?!

Dr. J: I have many degrees. I got my doctorate at Princeton. I spent time at St. Charles’s Seminary. When I was younger, I was sent to Rome for sixth months, and studied to become a priest at the Pontifical Roman Seminary at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. I also have my BA in Philosophy, my MS in Computer Science, and an MA in both Mathematics and Theology. Some people collect baseball cards; the Yankees collect World Series; I collect degrees.

Me: You spent a lot of time at learning at many different schools, but when did you start teaching at Malvern?

Dr. J: I accidentally came to Malvern thirty-five years ago. I guess you could say that the judge issued me the “life sentence”.

Me: How’d you “accidentally” come to Malvern?

Dr. J: Well, thirty-five years ago, one of the theology teachers left Malvern, and somehow that same day my resume appeared on Father Duffy’s desk.

Me: So you started out as a theology teacher? How’d you get into teaching math?

Dr. J: I taught Church history and theology of marriage and college SAT prep my first year.  I added German I and II, Moral Theology in place of CH, and pre calc in my second year.   Pre calc became AP calc in my third year with Theology of Death and Dying and German III and IV.  Then Latin replaced German and all kinds of Math replaced Latin. I also taught Logic for my first four years, and later Intro to Philosophy and Comparative Religions.   I became all math about six or seven years ago, and all AP Stats, AB, and BC and Diff Eq more recently.

Me: Is it true that you write for the AP exams?

Dr. J: In 1992, the College Board recognized me as a teacher, and approached me to be a part of their grading team. Then, in 2000, I was asked to be on the writing team for the AP Statistics exam. And that entails much more than just writing. When you’re apart of the College Board process, you also travel a lot. I’ve been to places like the Bronx and Kentucky, teaching students and also teachers about Statistics and how to teach it.

Me: Where do you get all this time to do things like this?

Dr. J: I’m a Norristonian; we make time for everything.

Me: So you have a lot of pride in Norristown?  Why do you have such pride?

Dr. J: A couple of years into teaching, a lot of the “Chestertonians” were giving me a lot grief for being from Norristown. They were saying that only “criminals and scum” come from Norristown. After those experiences, I developed more pride in my community.

Me: And you’re a Norristown firefighter, correct?

Dr. J: No. I’m technically a Norriton fire fighter. The Norriton fire company does, however, assist Norristown. And I’ve have been a firefighter since 1976.

Me: Do you have any fond or notable experiences working for the Norriton fire department?

Dr. J: I have many, but I’ll share one with you that I thought was pretty funny. So a couple of years back, there was a fire at the Norristown Hospital. At the time, the hospital used to own a piggery, and somehow the silo had caught on fire. So as we arrived, we were wondering how the heck we were going to be able to put this fire out. I climbed up the ladder and into the silo to see what was going on, and the odor was one of the most horrible smells I’ve ever experienced. Instead of having grain in the silo, they filled it with cow crap.

Then, somehow, the door closed behind me, and I was locked in. I was yelling into the walkie-talkie, “Get me out of here!” (now I probably had a wider vocabulary at the time). Eventually, they got me out. We were still thinking how to put out the fire. Then were realized that the only way we would be able to safely put this out would be to shovel all the “contents” out. So we each took turns shoveling.

Now, at one point, it was my turn to shovel; however, when I was climbing up the silo, the shoveler must not have gotten the “memo”. So as I was climbing up the ladder, the brilliant man threw his load off the silo, and I got a shovel full of flaming cow crap right on my face.

Me: You’ve been at Malvern for a long time. What do you think was your favorite part about it?

Dr. J: Without a doubt, it’s Father Duffy. His character and persona made him a man for others. He always knew the right thing to do at the right time. He changed, saved, and made Malvern what it is today. He was, in my mind, the greatest thing to ever happen to Malvern, and it was a true honor to be able to say that I knew the man.

Me: He seems like a great man.

Dr. J: If you met him, you would know that instantly.

Me: Now I just have one more question before we wrap this interview up. The big thing in Malvern nowadays is 21st Century Education. How do you feel about all the changes that are happening in education today.

(There was a moment of silence.)

Dr. J:  What we need is the best of what has made Malvern a very good school for many people, and a well-piloted addition of new techniques and technologies.

Me: Thank you so much for your time, Dr. J.

Dr. J: Anytime.

Dr. J. is definitely one of the most interesting teachers at Malvern.  But all of this is not his only impact on the Malvern experience. This year, I’ll be going to Peru on my service trip, but it wasn’t Father Flynn, Mr. Stewart, or even Mr. Legner who gave me and all juniors this opportunity. Believe it or not, Dr. J. started the Christian program at Malvern. He ran it for twenty-three years, and originally took trips to Appalachia. While on one trip, he drove the fire engine of the Ivanhoe VA volunteer fire department, even though he had no idea where he was going.

So next time you see Reverend Dr. Firefighter Joseph Oechsle around, ask him about about life, Norristown, the Yankees, math, etc.  But don’t blink, because if you do, you might miss his response!

About Andrew Stetser

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One comment

  1. Dr. J and I arrived at Malvern around the same time; he by way of a resume and me by way of a bus and a new beginning.

    There are favorite teachers and then there is Dr. J. His classes were the hardest I’d ever undertaken, they were challenging, thought provoking and down right hard, but I knew I could do it and, I knew that he would help me do it; that’s what he does you see, it’s not always about putting out real fires, but the fire that his homework generates! If we could only harness that energy …

    As the Malvern years ended and College began and continued, I found myself at Villanova where Dr. J was a Professor. As I’m going through the Math Course selection book, I see Oeschle, Staff, Smith, Oeschle, Staff — well, having suffered through that special hell in high school and being a college student who “knew it all,” there was no way I was deliverately picking an “Oeschle” class. Well, guess who covered one of the “Staff” classes? Yep, “Oeschle” – it was a fun semester, really.

    While my participation at Malvern has dwindled through the years, my memories of School, Classmates and Teachers remain close to my heart; memories of Logic, Church History, Death and Dying and the occasional ride home at the end of the day. Thanks for the memories Doc, may you have an enjoyable retirement to which we know you won’t slow down one bit for …

    Jesus is paraphrased as saying: “God is first, others are second and you are third.” This quote defines the life of Mother Theresa as well and was the inspiration for Chicago Bears Running Back Gale Sayers, but when it comes to Malvern, it should read –

    God is first
    Father Duffy is second (these two being interchangeable to this day)
    and Dr. J is third

    Thanks for the memories and your service! Long live the Green Bench!

    Best Regards,

    Michael Shine ’82

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