Recently, the following spoof circulated around Facebook:
Every time I see a math word problem it looks like this: If I have 10 ice cubes and you have 11 apples, How many pancakes will fit on the roof?
Answer: Purple because aliens don’t wear hats.
Funny, yes. But if, like so many people, you struggled through math in school, that laughter is purely retrospective. Chances are that while you were a student, struggling to figure out how y+z=x (or why it even mattered), you weren’t laughing at all.
But eighth graders at Rising Starr Middle School in Fayetteville are getting a kick out of mathematics. That’s because their teacher, Dr. Carol Taylor, is the best of the best. In fact, this past June, Taylor, who has taught eighth grade math and accelerated mathematics for the past 22 years, was one of 46 math teachers nationwide—and the only one in Georgia—to win the coveted Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST). Each year, the awards are given to outstanding K-12 science and mathematics teachers from across the country. Nominees are selected at the state level, but then must win the votes of a panel of top scientists, mathematicians, and educators from around the country. Those nominees are then sent to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and to the President for final selection. Finally, the winners are invited to Washington, D.C., for an awards ceremony and several days of educational and professional development events. At the end of the ceremony, each winner receives a $10,000 cash award from the National Science Foundation to use as they wish.
Taylor, who was nominated for the award by her peers, says she didn’t start out wanting to be a math teacher. In fact, she says she went through a phase in school where even she struggled with math. But then, in college, something changed. “I met an influential teacher in math. Suddenly, everything I touched, I aced, and realized all those not-so-pleasant experiences I had in high school math, I could correct with my students. I realized, ‘Hey, you know what? I can do this. I’m going to change this so my kids don’t have the gap,’” she says.
Taylor concentrated all her efforts on middle school math and eventually graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science in Education from Georgia State University (GSU). She went on to earn a M.Ed. from the State University of West Georgia and a Ph.D. in teaching and learning in mathematics education from GSU. During her long and impressive career, Taylor has mentored teachers, served as Mathematics Department Chair, and acted as sponsor for Rising Starr Middle’s MATHCOUNTS team. In 2009, she was named Teacher of the Year for her school and Fayette County.
But what makes Taylor a winner in the eyes of her students and peers is her hands-on, “fun” approach to teaching. Taylor says eighth grade is somewhat of a turning point for students in math. She says that’s largely due to changes to the statewide curriculum in 2007-2008 which mandated that Algebra I concepts be introduced in eighth grade, instead of in tenth grade, as was originally the case. So students who excelled in math in elementary and early middle school without much effort suddenly are trying to grasp more difficult concepts. “I have to be perceptive enough to know when they’re struggling,” she says. Ever the teacher, Taylor shares a story about two of her actual students to make her point. “One student could argue his position and not have to write anything down. On the opposite side, there was a special education student who had to write everything down. I had to [perceive] that one student got it, and encourage and praise the other student’s meticulous work. I had to constantly intervene to make sure he was on the right track,” she says.
That type of intervention is most effective in an environment that encourages group learning, Taylor insists, which is why she makes students sit in groups from day one. She says she constantly walks around, listening to and observing them. When students solve a problem, Taylor has them explain their logic, so she knows which concepts they understand and which ones require reinforcement, and she adjusts her instruction as needed. This method obviously works; Taylor says ninety-nine percent of her students meet or exceed the requirements on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT).
Richard Franks, a credit analyst in Bethesda, Maryland, was a student in Taylor’s eighth grade geometry class. The Wharton School Executive MBA candidate says that Taylor was one of the most influential teachers he ever had. The two keep in touch, and Taylor even attended his wedding. Franks says that as a student, he was “lazy” and “apathetic”—until he met Taylor. “Dr. Taylor was the first teacher for whom I had to apply myself. She could tell what a student’s potential was and pushed him/her to it. She used experiences from her personal life to both motivate and connect her students. Stories of her experiences diving, flying, and otherwise pushing herself to achieve inspired her students and drove us to respect her a great deal,” he says. Franks says while he doesn’t use geometry in his current job, Taylor’s class uniquely prepared him for where he is today.
Cody Clements, a rising sophomore at Rising Starr Middle School, agrees. He was a student in Taylor’s accelerated eighth grade math class and like Franks, says his teacher had a knack for making math fun. “We did everything from learning songs to playing review basketball, and I learned math better than ever,” he says.
But Taylor says her success is less about her style of teaching than her ability to connect with her students on a deeper level. “If the kids know you’re interested in learning, they’re going to work for you,” she says. “My teaching has improved by assessing their learning and adjusting my teaching.”
And that teaching has gotten Washington’s attention. During her visit to the nation’s capital, Taylor and the other award recipients met and took photos with Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden. Taylor did not meet the first family, because President Obama was in Colorado assessing damage from the wildfires, but she quips, “I did get to meet the first dog, Bo.” Of the entire event, Taylor says, “It was the most magical experience you can imagine. Very rewarding and inspiring. Being among such an esteemed group, getting to be a part of that was inspiring and overwhelming. My feet haven’t touched the ground.”