Story by Deb Seminary, contributing writer
Every year, two North Dakota teachers (one in science and one in math) are eligible to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST). These awards are the highest honors bestowed by the U.S. government specifically for K-12 science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), and/or computer science teaching. The nominations are taken from anyone – principals, teachers, parents, students, or members of the general public – or teachers can opt to apply without being nominated. The awards are given to K-6 teachers one year, 7-12 teachers the next.
After teachers are nominated for the PAEMST, they must go through an application process.
“The effort put into applying is so worth it, you become a better teacher just going through the process,” said Michelle Bertsch, a 2007 PAEMST award winner and high school mathematics teacher at Fargo North. “One requirement of the application is to video yourself teaching, and the opportunity to reflect on watching your teaching really makes you think about what you do in the classroom – how you interact with students, the effectiveness of your teaching strategies and overall student engagement.”
Joan Baltezore, a 2003 PAEMST award winner and high school science teacher in West Fargo, agrees.
“Anytime you can view yourself teaching, it is a learning experience,” she said. “I would encourage anyone who is nominated to apply. Reach out to previous award winners if you have questions about the application process. Also, take the time to nominate your fellow colleagues. What a great way to recognize their exceptional teaching.”
Currently, PAEMST winners are treated to a trip to Washington, DC, a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation, and a certificate signed by the President. However, in the early 2000s, winners were scheduled to actually meet the President.
“We got to go to the White House and meet President George W. Bush as well as First Lady Laura Bush,” said Baltezore. “He chatted with us, thanked us for teaching, and took a picture with us. It was a great experience.”
Both Bertsch and Baltezore mentioned the benefit of networking with fellow teachers during their time in D.C.
“There is so much to learn from other teachers and so much I have learned from the process,” said Bertsch. “I still network with those teachers, we talk and message each other about what is working in our classrooms. I have grown so much as a result of this and am truly blessed as an awardee.”
Another recent PAEMST award winner, Michelle Strand, who was a West Fargo physics teacher when she won in 2015, has taken advantage of that award by becoming an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Congressional Fellow in Washington, D.C. She is the first North Dakota teacher to have been awarded the Fellowship in the 33 years of its existence.
She learned about the Einstein award from the newsletter that gets sent to PAEMST award recipients.
“Usually I would delete the emails, but for some reason it struck a chord and I kept going back and reading it,” she said. “I finally started to talk to some people to get feedback on whether or not I should apply.”
Strand has always been interested in science and has been teaching it for 30 years. She began by teaching biology and chemistry but ended up teaching physics after a move to Lincoln, Nebraska, where she found out she loved it!
And that love of physics transfers to her students. She relates the subject to their everyday lives and came up with a project that really gets the kids excited.
“The big project of the year is our cardboard boat races,” she explained. “We spend time talking about how to make a boat float, center of mass, the relevance of physics when it comes to making sure your boat survives in the water. They work in team, come up with a theme, and even dress up in costumes.”
Her love of teaching and science will serve her well when she begins her Fellowship in mid-August in the office of Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, 11th District in California.
“What excites me about being in his office is he has a reputation for strongly supporting education, public schools, and teachers,” said Strand. “He is on the Education and Labor Committee and the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. That will be my charge as part of his legislative team. I will be his legislative advisor for education.”
She will have a lot of responsibilities in the Congressman’s office: researching, coming up with ideas, meeting with education groups, representing his office in committee meetings, and more.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to see how national education policy happens and to maybe even have a hand in that,” she said. “The Congressman has wanted to do something about teacher retention and recruitment but hasn’t had the manpower. That is something near and dear to my heart. Teachers don’t feel valued as professional educators in a lot of districts around the country. And that is a big part of why teachers are leaving. We need to make sure we are acknowledging and celebrating the accomplishments of our teachers. Teachers are doing amazing things and we need to hear those stories.”
The importance of feeling valued and appreciated is something echoed by the other two PAEMST award winners. Baltezore mentioned that during her time in Washington, D.C., she had never been spoiled or thanked so much as a teacher. Bertsch agreed.
“They made us feel like what we were doing is the most important job there is,” she said. “They want us to be successful and make a difference in this world.”
Strand will be making a difference in Washington, D.C., and is looking forward to doing so after her time there, as well.
“Making connections is another thing I am very excited about,” she said. “A Fellow who is just finishing up will be going back to their state to work for their Department of Education as a STEM leader and another one is going back to his home state where he will head the state’s STEM teacher training. This could be a springboard. I’m going to give this experience all that I have and see what happens.”
The PAEMST nomination period will open up to STEM teachers in grades 7-12 in the fall. North Dakota teachers are encouraged to nominate their outstanding peers (or apply on their own!) for the prestigious award. For more information, visit www.paemst.org.
Michelle Strand will be blogging about her experience once she begins in mid-August. Follow her here.