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Professor Susan Barton is retiring after more than three decades of helping students find success learning math

Susan Barton wears a blue short-sleeved top and a shell necklace.

Friends and colleagues of BYU-Hawaii Math Professor Susan Barton gathered on the top floor of the new Science Building on the afternoon of June 21 to honor her and the 36 years she has taught at the university.

Wearing farewell leis piled up to her chin, Barton took the time to talk to each person while those in attendance enjoyed a smorgasbord of pot luck dishes and treats, and people gathered in groups to take selfies with her.

Barton retires this summer, and said she is going to Utah first to visit family, but she hasn’t decided exactly where she will set down roots. Barton said for the first time in over three decades, she will be taking a summer vacation but won’t be returning to the classroom in the fall. “It hasn’t really hit me yet,” she said, but added she thinks when fall rolls around and the weather starts getting cold, the reality of retirement will sit in.

Wearing a T-shirt at her retirement party that said math teachers always have problems, Barton said jokingly that when she retires, she won’t have any problems any more.

Discovered early her passion for teaching

Barton shared in a 2020 Ke Alaka‘i article, when she was a fourth grader, she knew she had a knack for teaching because she starting helping other students with their math. She said this simple experience of teaching fellow students through her love of math was the first time she remembers having a passion for teaching.

She says math comes naturally to her, and while math can be daunting to some, she has worked to help students find the encouragement to improve by transforming her classrooms into breeding grounds for questions, networking, and higher understanding.

“If you keep working at mathematics and keep working with algebra and learning what you can do with calculus and higher-level math, I think most people who are in college can do it at some level,” she said in the 2020 article. Barton said one of her core personal beliefs is students need to realize they can be good at math from an early age to break the negative stigma around mathematics.

A former student of hers at BYUH, Scott Hyde, who is now a professor in the university’s Faculty of Math & Computing, said in the same article, Barton’s belief anyone can become successful learning math was manifested in her classes through her emphasis on truly internalizing the information presented.

“She encouraged students to succeed by making sure they didn’t just ‘get by.’ She wouldn’t let us slack, and she made sure you did your work. Every grade I got from her I knew I earned because she would never give a higher grade than what you earned.”

Every student can learn to do math

Barton said putting in dedicated work and time can greatly impact the effectiveness of a student. She shared the story of a student who was told growing up he would never succeed in math. But when he came to BYUH, Barton said with the right mentors, the student was able to flourish and grow in his math skills.

“You have to decide like a marathon runner,” she said in the article, “when they hit the wall, do they just stop, or do they push through? In mathematics, you need to push through it.

“Even when you hit the wall, you’ll realize you can do this. I think too often, we’re fairly young when we decide we can’t do math. I think a good part of it is you don’t have a good teacher who really feels comfortable with math themselves.”

She included this advice to students in a May 2021 Ke Alaka‘i article featuring “Words from the Wise” from several BYUH professors: “Never put off until tomorrow what you can and should do today. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring in terms of what you need to do or unforeseen challenges that may eat up your planned study time.”

Unique spirit at BYUH

Reflecting on her years at BYUH in the 2020 article, Barton said she appreciated having smaller classes so she could better connect with her students. She added the main reason this was able to work out is through the unique spirit and priesthood presence at BYUH.

“What’s made me stay is because of the priesthood blessings. I said I will stay here as long as the Lord wants me to be here. I have had chances [to leave]... but I got the impression I need to stay here as long as the Lord wants me to... In the end, if you are doing the things He wants you to, the Lord will help things work out for you.”

In her 2005 BYUH devotional address, she talked about her experience of getting a priesthood blessing while deciding if she would take the offer to teach here. After her own intensive study, prayer and meditation, she made her decision to come to teach in Laie, but she said she still felt like she should get a priesthood blessing.

She shared in her devotional talk, “The blessing turned out to be an incredible testimony-building experience…The intensity of the spirit was almost overwhelming. I felt a tremendous sense of peace, and the feelings of joy defy description," she said. "Throughout the entire day, there were strong authentic feelings of love and goodwill for everyone I met, or even walked past… I was granted a minute glimpse into the magnitude of God’s love for each of us."

McKay Lecture focused on finding truth

During her time at BYUH, Barton was also selected as one of the distinguished David O. McKay lecturers. A faculty committee asks one member of the faculty to do research for the year previous to their McKay lecture and then present what they discovered at a special university-wide event during BYUH’s annual Founders Week.

Barton’s lecture focused on the relationship between mankind’s knowledge and truth discussing how truth, God, man and mathematics all have overlapping knowledge. Barton said all real truth can be circumscribed into one great whole. She said people often feel secular knowledge and spiritual knowledge don’t coincide. “When there are conflicting ideas,” said Barton, “there must be real truth...We cannot simply tune out the conflicts and realities around us.”

By figuring out the confusion and discovering the connection between God’s revealed truth and the truth people can find through secular knowledge, they can find the whole truth and see the big picture as they fit the puzzle pieces together, said Barton.

She illustrated her point during the lecture by using examples found in the scriptures. One scripture she cited was Moses 1:33; where the Lord says, “Worlds without number have I created.”

Several years ago, she said, astronomers only knew about eight other planets outside our solar system but now have estimated there are around 2 septillion planets in only one part of the universe. In just a few years, she said, mankind was able to prove the truth of the Lord’s words in Moses.

Barton said, “If there are answers that we seek but cannot find, there must be other truths that we need to learn first...The important thing is that we keep searching to learn truth.”