Lake Washington District teacher recognized for exceptional work in math

January 17, 2014

By Neil Pierson

There’s a stigma surrounding math instruction that Nancy Pfaff doesn’t quite understand.

She often hears students and parents say they’re not good at math. That’s puzzling, she said, because few people say they’re poor at reading. Getting students to change their thinking – to enjoy math and excel at it – has been her passion for three decades.

“There’s a lot of bad feelings about math,” she acknowledged.

Nancy Pfaff

Nancy Pfaff

Pfaff, who has worked in the Lake Washington School District for 26 years, has a somewhat unusual job this year. She spends three days a week at Blackwell Elementary School in Sammamish, and two at Thoreau Elementary in Kirkland, where she works with highly-capable students in the Quest program.

She sees children from across the district one day a week through the pull-out system designed to enrich general education.

“They do their basic math and reading in their home schools, and then I work on advanced skills to keep them engaged and pushed in learning,” Pfaff said.

Blackwell Principal Jim Eaton, who has known Pfaff for more than 20 years, said she has a skill set that few teachers can claim.

“What she brings to Blackwell is just a real understanding of ways in which to reach and teach gifted students,” Eaton said. “Her willingness to share with her colleagues and provide them ways to think about kids and teach gifted kids – they learn in different ways, have different characteristics and different needs.”

Prior to arriving at Blackwell this year, Pfaff had spent much of her teaching career with gifted students. But during the 2011-12 school year at Mann Elementary in Redmond, she was part of a team-teaching approach that proved highly successful.

In the mornings, she taught math to two sixth-grade classrooms overflowing with 34 students each. In the afternoons, she worked with fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders who were trying to pass the math section of the Measurements of Student Progress exam.

“It was almost like a middle-school model in an elementary,” Pfaff explained. “I taught all the math, one of my teammates taught all the social studies, and another taught all the science.

“And it was probably one of my best years of teaching. We did really good things with those kids, even though it was two really big classes.”

A former colleague nominated Pfaff that year for the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

Receiving a nomination meant a lot of work for Pfaff – she had to drum up letters of recommendation, videotape her classroom work, and prove she was going above and beyond by providing math instruction outside of the regular school day.

At Mann, Pfaff and her sixth-graders hosted a math night, where they demonstrated various games they used during class. It was a way to show math can be learned with a “playful approach,” rather than flash cards and drill sheets that often leave students “terrified,” she said.

In the evenings since 2009, Pfaff has also been working at City University in Seattle to help students work toward their teaching credentials.

Those are the kinds of things PAEMST award winners are made of, and Pfaff was named Washington’s 2011-12 PAEMST recipient for math on Jan. 3.

One math teacher and one science teacher from each state were selected, and will be invited to an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C. They’ll also receive $10,000 from the National Science Foundation. Pfaff plans to use some of the money to purchase a tablet, so she can photograph and blog about her experience in the nation’s capital with her students.

Eaton said Pfaff’s work with highly-capable students is challenging. Learning can come easily for them in terms of rote memorization, but Pfaff is getting them to practice critical-thinking skills that may be more valuable.

“She’s just that kind of teacher that makes you think,” Eaton said. “She’s the kind of teacher that poses the question but doesn’t give the answer.”

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