Five Questions With: Thomas Ossman

Thomas Ossman is the longest-standing tenured faculty member at Providence Country Day School, an independent middle and high school in East Providence. From 1968 to 2016, the math teacher and coach taught some of the most accomplished calculus students in Rhode Island, as evidenced by Advanced Placement testing.

On the field, Ossman coached the school’s varsity team to five state football championship titles. The New York native and Harvard University class of 1952 graduate is a longtime Providence resident.

PBN: In your nearly 50 years teaching at Providence Country Day School, how have you seen Rhode Island’s secondary education landscape change?

OSSMAN: Every year, there are new ideas for teachers to adopt to improve learning outcomes for students. Many of these put the onus on the students as independent, active learners – a practice that I’ve used since the beginning of my teaching career.

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Each of my classes always started with a worksheet or “quiz” with the day’s curriculum. Instead of watching me at the board, they would sit down and immediately begin to engage with the material and work on the calculus problems. When students got stuck, I would answer questions and work through the problems with them. Today, those active-learning techniques are embedded in educational models such as inquiry-based learning or the flipped classroom.

PBN: What do you think are the biggest successes celebrated during your tenure at PCD?

OSSMAN: Throughout my time at PCD, I’ve worked with five different heads of school beginning with Evan West in 1968. All of them were focused on making PCD the best school possible but in a way that permitted the faculty a level of independence in the classroom.

With that flexibility, I developed different teaching techniques specific to the students I had, yet I remained focused on letting the students teach themselves and allowing them to learn on their own. By creating thinkers and learners, I was able to teach some of the highest-achieving Advanced Placement calculus students in the state.

PBN: What are some of the challenges that will continue to face Rhode Island’s education system after your retirement?

OSSMAN: It’s not enough to simply teach the subject matter. Teachers have an important role in helping to shape character and encourage skills such as leadership, problem-solving and communication.

PBN: What suggestions do you have for teachers who are starting out on their career today?

OSSMAN: Let the students learn. Rather than leading a lecture, hand them the problems to work on themselves. New teachers should empower students to take the reins in the classroom to develop the skills and habits of mind to own their learning.

PBN: What will you miss most about being an educator?

OSSMAN: I will miss teaching, being in the classroom and meeting with the students. I will also miss my colleagues at PCD and the fun of learning. In my career, I’ve learned a lot from my students about teaching and calculus.

Emily Gowdey-Backus is a staff writer for PBN. You can follow her on Twitter @FlashGowdey or contact her via email,