Columbus North High School mathematics teacher Mike Spock recently received the highest award available to high school math teachers in the country, but he said he sees it as a challenge to keep improving rather than a sign to stick with the status quo.
The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Technology (PAEMST) is the highest award available for primary, intermediate and secondary school teachers to date, according the award website. It is given to two teachers — one science and one math — every year from each state, and rotates between kindergarten through sixth-grade or seventh- through 12th-grade teachers.
Spock said he was surprised and happy to receive the award.
“It’s exciting to have that happen,” he added.
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Spock learned that he was the Hoosier mathematics winner a week-and-a-half into this school year, that he would fly to Washington, D.C., three weeks later for the awards ceremony and also would receive a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation.
Some of Spock’s prize money already has gone toward items in his computer science class and the chess club.
Spock’s wife Lisa and their 5-year-old daughter Emma accompanied him on the trip Sept. 7 to 10. While Emma and Lisa experienced the history and bustle of Washington, Spock’s days began at 7 a.m. and were filled with learning of another sort.
“One of the best things was getting to meet all the teachers and hear their ideas. And some of the best ideas I came back with were just what other teachers in other states are doing,” Spock said.
Another highlight, he said, was a session on mathematical modeling, a type of teaching he is a fan of and employs in his classrooms. The model allows students to create multiple possible answers and models to solve problems. For example, a weather forecast is a useful model in daily life, and while the model is never perfect it is used every day to solve a problem, Spock said.
Spock said he isn’t sure if his use of mathematical modeling helped him win or if it was his active learning style — which allows students think and communicate about math continuously — or if it is his attitude that mistakes can equal knowledge.
“I try to establish an atmosphere where it’s OK and expected to make mistakes because that’s where the best learning comes from,” he said.
Upon nomination, Spock began the application process, which included videotaping an entire class lesson and writing a 12-page reflection of his work. Spock said the process was helpful as he delved into his teaching and found things he wanted to do better that he would never have noticed otherwise.
Dale Nowlin, mathematics chair at Columbus North and the 1991 winner of the award, said he nominated Spock mainly because he does great things to help both students and teachers. In his letter to the PAEMST selection committee, Nowlin commented on Spock’s creativity in the classroom.
“I am constantly impressed with his creativity in designing lessons, his focus on making sense of mathematics in context, his positive and encouraging attitude and his willingness to work with students in the classroom and outside of the classroom,” Nowlin said in his nomination letter.
The result, Nowlin said, has been students who not only learn but are inspired. Nowlin also mentioned in the letter that Spock’s AP Statistics students earn scores that are “significantly above state and national averages.”
Three Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. teachers — all nominated by Nowlin — were finalists for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Technology. The other two were Brad Branham, a math teacher at North, and Allison White, a math teacher at Northside Middle School.
“I get to work with amazing teachers in the math department. I think we’ve got excellent faculty and administration here at the high school that supports us, so it promotes innovation and keeping up with investments in education,” he said.
Education background: Bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and physics from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology; master’s in educational technology from Boise State University.
School: 17 years at Columbus North High School.
Currently teaching: Precalculus, Advanced Placement Statistics and multiple Advanced Placement Computer Science courses.
Wife: Lisa Spock
Children: Emma Spock
Hobbies/interests: Running, music and computer programming.