For Alysia Augustus, math was a challenging subject in school.
Learning to teach math was a challenge, as well. But after going through a math program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Augustus found strategies for teaching that worked.
“It taught me strategies that were beneficial and meaningful for kids,” she said. “That’s when my passion for it grew.”
Augustus teaches both sections of first grade math at Anderson Grove Elementary School in Bellevue.
In late December, she received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
Augustus was one of 102 math and science teachers who received the prestigious award.
The award is given annually to outstanding math and science teachers from across the country. The recipients represent all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Department of Defense Education Activity. Each year the award alternates between teachers of kindergarten through sixth grade and teachers of seventh through 12th grade.
Augustus will also receive a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation to be used at her discretion.
Augustus and the other educators have been in Washington, D.C., since Sunday to take part in an awards ceremony and several days of educational and celebratory events. Events include visiting with members of Congress and the Obama administration. Today is the educators’ final day in Washington, D.C.
“It’ll be interesting talking to teachers from across the United States and hearing how they teach math,” Augustus said. “I hope that through this process, I can go to Washington, D.C., and learn new strategies and be able to bring that back to our district to help more teachers and kids along the way.”
Augustus was nominated for the 2012 award by Anderson Grove’s former principal, Ann Harley.
The application process required Augustus to submit a video tape of her class, a written paper on her dimensions of teaching, and letters of recommendation.
At the state level, three math teachers and three science teachers are selected to move on. From there, a panel of scientists, mathematicians and educators narrow down the state’s selections to one math teacher and one science teacher.
The national panel had completed checks throughout the application process, so Augustus thought it was possible she could receive the award, but it was a long time waiting for the results.
“I don’t think it really hit me,” Augustus said. “I was breathless and in shock, but very happy and overwhelmed. I felt like it was quite an honor.”
Augustus has been teaching for eight years, and all of them have been spent at Anderson Grove.
“I love Anderson Grove,” she said. “I’m from a small town, and Anderson Grove is a small school, so it felt like a nice fit.”
Out of college, Augustus had an interview with the Papillion-La Vista School District and then visited Anderson Grove.
“When I came here, I just fell in love with the school,” she said. “The teachers were very welcoming, and the kids were amazing. I like that it’s small and everybody always says we have a real family feeling here.”
Augustus said she has known she wanted to be a teacher since she was a child, when she and her sisters would play school. And they had an example of a teacher right in their home — their mother was a home economics teacher.
Augustus’ two sisters went on to become teachers, too.
“I guess it runs in the family,” she said.
At a young age, she knew elementary teaching was the career for her.
“I loved babysitting and working with kids growing up, so I just knew that elementary was where my heart was,” Augustus said.
Augustus uses a hands-on, interactive curriculum. Students learn addition, subtraction, geometry, measurements and data analysis. She hands ownership of the math to the kids.
“They’re having a discussion where I’m kind of facilitating it,” she said. “I’m not just up there showing them how to do everything and showing them the procedures. They’re able to talk through different strategies together.”
Augustus spends time teaching students to respectfully agree and disagree with each other’s problem-solving strategies. The goal is to show them that there’s more than one way to solve a problem.
Some days, students participate in math workshops. They visit different stations around the classroom completing math problems.
Students also complete work in a large group. They solve problems in their math notebooks and then project their work to the class. Many times, Augustus will wait to point out mistakes in their work to see if their peers can find it.
Students are also required to give explanations of their answers.
If students are struggling with the material, Augustus will place them in smaller groups to make sure they understand. If students need more of a challenge, Augustus will pull them aside and give them more challenging work.
Working closely with their peers helps students take ownership and pride in their work, Augustus said.
“I just want to instill in these kids that they can love math and they can do it,” Augustus said. “I think in society a lot of times there’s a negative view on math. People will never say, ‘I’m not good at reading.’ But you’ll hear people say, ‘I’m not good at math.’ I just want them to be able to think they can solve it in multiple ways and work together with partners. It might not always be easy, but they can keep working through it and learn from their mistakes.”
Augustus credited the district for helping her become the teacher she is today.
“It’s just an honor,” Augustus said. “ I think the way that our district is teaching math and the resources they have given us has helped me to become the teacher that I am now and be open to new ideas and be subject intensive and allowing kids to learn in the best possible way there is.”