A great teacher for all kinds of students

The following column originally was published by several APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during July, 2023.

A great teacher for all kinds of students


If you care about learning and teaching, here’s a free gift you can give yourself: Go to the Carleton College website and read some of the many comments about economics professor Bob Will, who died on June 25 at the age of 95. Those online recollections  make it clear he had a deep, lasting impact on generations of students.

Though I did not major in his field, I found him to be a model educator.


Bob Will  –  courtesy of Carleton College

One of my fondest memories of Will was the conversation we had after I did badly on the first test he gave. I flunked. Apparently, I had not understood what he was looking for.

But I had read the required books and articles. I had taken extensive notes in class. The course focused on ways organizations were trying to help strengthen economies of countries that were very poor. But somehow – and entirely my fault – I did not know the answers to questions that he asked on the exam.

So I went to see him, acknowledged my mistakes, and offered to share some of the things I had learned in class. He asked me a few questions, giving me a chance to show I understood some of the things he discussed.

He laughed – kindly. As the dozens of comments on Carleton’s website show, he did that a lot. Then he said: “I’m not sure what happened on the exam. But you clearly care. And you’ve learned some of the things I want students to remember. So let’s see how you do on the final.”

I did a better job of listening, taking notes and reading, because I aced the final. So Will ignored my midterm F and gave me an A for the class.

Much more important than the grade, however, was how he treated me: kindly, with respect. He listened. He gave me a second chance.

One of the great lessons of the class was about nuance. Ideas, strategies, proposals often are not all good or bad. And, when trying to help others, ask for their insights and ideas. Often they will have valuable suggestions.

Other students had similar positive experiences with Will. Burt Saxon, a veteran public school teacher, wrote on the Carleton website that Will inspired him “to become a high school teacher. I will always remember Mr. Will with gratitude and fondness.”

Elizabeth McKune, who went on to have a distinguished career in the U.S. Foreign Service, told me she took one course from him. She described him as “an outstanding teacher of economics, particularly to those who were terrified of the subject.”

Margaret Simms, an economics major, accomplished so much that she has an extensive Wikipedia entry, along with many awards and honors. She told me that she was a “disaffected math-science” major when she met him. Simms recalled that Will “always tried to make real world connections with the ideas and theories he discussed in class.”

Like me, Patricia MacCorquodale took an economics class but did not major in that field. She became a sociologist, taught for 42 years at the University of Arizona and was founding dean of the UA Honors College. Before taking Will’s class, she thought economics was “weird (with) made up concepts that made assumptions about people.” But “by using examples and showing how concepts could be applied, Will made economics come alive. … He was kind, interesting and inspiring, a wonderful role model for me.”

Will cared fundamentally about students, regardless of how they felt about economics. He won awards not only for his teaching, but also for his work in Northfield, Minnesota, where he lived for decades. He was a model educator – and a model person.


Joe Nathan, PhD, has been a Minnesota Public School Teacher, administrator and PTA president.  He co-directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org