Teaching is a blast for IVCC’s Wes Black

Math instructor hasn’t looked back since joining IVCC’s staff 26 years ago

Illinois Valley Community College math instructor Wes Black enjoys interacting with the outdoors when he's not in the classroom.

Wes Black remembers the day that affirmed he wanted to be a collegiate math instructor.

When he was enrolled as a student in Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi, his math professor was planning to cancel classes to attend a conference, and Black, who wanted to be a teacher himself, saw an opportunity.

“Do you mind if I teach class?” he asked his professor.

Instead of canceling, a 20-year-old Black was given the chance to lead the lesson.

“I was the youngest kid in the class and I was standing in front of everyone,” Black said. “I had a blast.”

Two decades later, Black’s enthusiasm hasn’t slowed.

He’s teaching math for his 26th year at Illinois Valley Community College and drawing inspiration from not only the course material, but the impact he makes on students.

“There’s certain students you know you can make a difference in their life,” he said, noting students at the collegiate level are different than high school in that they want to be in class because they have the end goal of wanting to get a degree or launch their career.

Black has a reputation at the college of assisting students. He approaches his teaching with a positive attitude and builds good relationships with students, said his colleague Cory Tomasson, a professor in the humanities department.

“He gets to know students outside of the classroom, and keeps in touch with many of them when they move on from IVCC,” Tomasson said. “The positive impact that he has had on them really shows.”

Math is a requirement for several degrees and certificates, making his classes an essential stop for most students on their path.

“There have been many times that I have seen him drop whatever he was doing to go and assist someone else,” Tomasson added. “No matter how big or small the job was, or what he had going on himself, he made the other person a priority. In fact, he really never slows down. He is always doing something, and usually with a different person or group every day.”

Knowing math is not for everyone, Black emphasizes the practical aspects he wants his students to take away from the course in their career. Bob Reese, a professor of business administration at IVCC, said Black can take a complex calculus problem and make it understandable.

“I want them to be able to problem solve,” Black said. “That’s important in whatever career they choose. They have to be able to identify a problem and have the ability to solve it.”

Since taking a position at IVCC after finishing graduate school in North Dakota, Black has spent his professional career working at the Oglesby college. He’s never had any desire to leave, because he likes the camaraderie at the school and the community around him.

“I figured I’d teach here a couple of years,” Black said. “I haven’t looked back.”

Black keeps an open office where several of his colleagues will meet for lunch or to have afternoon discussions about everything from teaching to what’s going on in the world.

In that way, he has become just as helpful to his fellow teachers as his students.

“Wes Black was my mentor when I started teaching in 1999,” said IVCC math professor Tom Tunnell. “Whenever I had trouble, he was always available to give me advice and help me steer in the right direction. He is an excellent teacher. He is approachable and easy to talk to and understand. Students seem to really enjoy him in and outside of the classroom. As a person, Wes is friendly with everyone. He shows genuine interest in everyone he knows. He is always willing to lend a hand if you need help or someone to talk to.”

Black said he and his colleagues were challenged when IVCC went full remote during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying to himself he didn’t believe he could teach math online. What he realized more than ever is students have a perseverance to learn.

Black said he always will prefer in-person instruction, but online learning is practical in many cases and can open doors for more students, including those with tough work schedules or disabilities.

“When they want to learn, they will find a way,” Black said. “We all rose to the occasion, and in the end, it pushed us years ahead in what we can offer and how we can help students study.”

Beyond the classroom, Black likes to stay active.

He was instrumental in bringing a disc golf course to IVCC in 2010. He said a colleague of his would talk about installing a disc golf course during their racquetball games, and when that instructor left IVCC, Black figured he should keep the idea going.

Black enjoys playing disc golf with students, and his games with former students Adam Chismar and Jesse Spraggon, both of Streator, led them to create their own disc golf course at Marilla Park in Streator. Black said he also worked on the disc golf course that was installed at Baker Lake in Peru and is helping La Salle put one in at Rotary Park.

He started ice climbing in 2016, working closely now with the group at Starved Rock State Park. He also enjoys adventure racing, which he said are 8 to 24 hour races, involving all sorts of activities from bicycling to rafting, sometimes in the pitch dark.

Illinois Valley Community College math professor Wes Black carries his bicycle through a waterway during an adventure race. Beyond his teaching, Black likes to stay active.

Black said he still has the same enthusiasm for teaching as he did the day he substituted for his college math instructor.

“I’ve always known what I’ve wanted to be and I still enjoy it,” Black said. “Working with the students and faculty here, I couldn’t ask for a better job.”