Math teacher Daniel Friedman wins 2019 Lamp of Knowledge Award


Lizzie Mickiewicz

Daniel Friedman, a beloved Upper School math teacher, received the 2019 Lamp of Knowledge Award earlier this year.

Chloe Zhao and Keval Shah

During Daniel Friedman’s first few years at St. John’s, his students would each place a plastic dinosaur figurine on their desks before every test, calling them the “good-luck dinosaurs.” A few years later, the good-luck charms developed into the long-running Dinosaur Club, and Friedman earned the 2019 Lamp of Knowledge Award during the Alumni Awards on April 12.

The Lamp of Knowledge is an annual award for teachers that excel in their respective fields that specific year. Throughout his 17 years at St. John’s, Friedman has taught many classes, including AB and BC Calculus, AP Physics, Linear Algebra, Astronomy and Partial Differential Equations.

Friedman started out small by teaching at middle schools, community colleges and substituting for other teachers. When Friedman first arrived at St. John’s in 2002, he encountered an initial “learning curve.”

“I didn’t know much about [the typical] classroom structure,” Friedman said. “It’s very different at St. John’s than it would be at many other schools.”

Friedman has always tried to use unconventional methods to help his students better understand the material. He says that curious students help catalyze the development of his teaching style. Whenever he gets a challenging question from a student, Friedman asks himself, “How am I going to rephrase it? It won’t do a student any good to hear the same explanation over and over again. If a student doesn’t understand something, they would want to hear it in a different way.”

Friedman enjoys working with inquisitive students who go above and beyond to understand the material. One such student was Xavier Gonzalez (’14), a current Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. Throughout the day, Gonzalez would ask detailed questions about the course material with a “fine-tooth comb,” challenging Friedman to evaluate the problems in a new light.

“That was like being grilled very finely,” Friedman said. “Students get that kind of thing from teachers all the time. But this was a turnabout. He was doing it [to make] sure he understood [every little detail].”

According to senior Ethan Pesikoff, another one of Friedman’s students, Friedman has the ability to “help students when they need it by helping them [evaluate a new] way to solve the problem without leaving them high and dry.”

When Pesikoff asks Friedman a question, it’s not uncommon for Friedman to reply with another question that inches him closer to the solution without revealing the answer.

“His answers are like a stepping stone to the end,” Pesikoff said.

Along with meticulous questions from students, Friedman’s teaching continues to evolve through the increased use of technology and various digital platforms in the classroom.

“Everybody can go to Khan Academy and get the same information that I’m teaching, so why do they need me?” Friedman said. “I hope they need me because I explain it in a way that’s better suited to what they are [seeking].”

Friedman’s teaching experience continues to evolve as he meets new students who challenge him in different ways.

“This is my 17th year, and it’s always different, and that makes it interesting to come to work everyday,” Friedman said. “[It’s] different in the respect that students need different levels of assistance and ask different questions; it’s [never] repetitive.”