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Topic: Nancy Pfaff

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January 2, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Math education is getting better, says award-winning teacher

Photo by Erik Jacobs for The Seattle Times (2006)

Photo by Erik Jacobs for The Seattle Times (2006)

Math instruction is changing — and for the better, says Nancy Pfaff, a Lake Washington School District teacher who has won a prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Instruction.

Pfaff learned last week that she is one of two teachers in Washington state to receive a Presidential Award this year, one of the highest honors for U.S. math and science teachers. (The other Washington winner is Pamela Nolan-Beasley, a science teacher from Waitsburg, north of Walla Walla.)

A lot has changed, Pfaff says, since she first started teaching elementary-school math 37 years ago, and much of that is based on a growing understanding of how children learn.

We talked with Pfaff (pronounced Paff) about the state of math instruction in the United States, our students’ performance on the PISA, and how she gets students to love math.

Q: What are you doing now? 

A: I work at two different schools — Blackwell Elementary and Thoreau Elementary — and children come to me from seven or eight schools at each of those sites. It’s a once-a-week enrichment program for kids identified as gifted.

For the 2011-12 school year — the year the award is based on — I was at Horace Mann Elementary. We had a really unique situation, where there were three of us working with two classes of sixth-graders. I taught all the math to those two large classes, and I also helped students in grades 4-6 who were struggling in math.

When you were a student at Washington State University, you were one of only a few people to major in mathematics and elementary education. Why were there so few?

I think people who are passionate about math often want to teach their subject and go to the higher grades.

Nancy Pfaff

Nancy Pfaff

Why did you want to teach elementary math instead?

I love math. I’m good at math. I grew up in a family in which we played with math a lot. My dad and I used to play cribbage, play mastermind, do jigsaw puzzles. The kids in our family grew up playing with math ideas and patterns and relationships, and I think that led all of us to be fairly good with math.

I chose elementary because I love teaching, especially working with young children. I’d had many experiences working with young children, including babysitting, teaching Sunday school, and helping out in my mother’s first-grade classroom. Every time I was on vacation, my mother let me come in and help.

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