Christina Romero’s third-grade classroom at Gonzales Community School isn’t a democracy. She is the queen, and her students know it. But her passion for learning is infectious, and she inspires her kids to dig in and unravel the mysteries of science.
Down at the Turquoise Trail Charter School south of Santa Fe, sixth-grade math teacher Sharyn Gray is a master of theatrics. Her recent lesson on ratios was a performance piece, with Gray portraying a young girl struggling under the weight of a dead deer she was going to prepare for dinner.
At Piñon Elementary School, fifth-grade science teacher Delara Sharma encourages her students to take chances — and even to fail — as long as they keep investigating, using the facts of math and science to find solutions.
Students of Romero, Gray and Sharma say they are creative teachers, they’re fun and they push students to do their best work. Those are among the reasons the trio has been selected as New Mexico’s finalists for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. They will be honored Oct. 15 at the New Mexico Science Teachers Association’s annual conference. The three also are in the running for the national presidential award, which includes a $10,000 check from the National Science Foundation. They were nominated and selected for the awards by a panel of scientists, mathematicians and educators.
The selection of the three Santa Fe teachers for the statewide honor spotlights the often unsung work of educators in a district that struggles with the challenges of a high poverty rate and consistently falls below state and national averages in education measures. The three teachers also may be part of broader efforts throughout their schools to make learning meaningful for students — each of their schools earned either an A or a B from the state Public Education Department in the most recent round of grades, bucking a trend that often sees lower ratings for schools serving a large majority of low-income students.
Chari Kauffman, science and math coordinator for Santa Fe Public Schools, said the three teachers are “continually working toward student engagement and quality instruction. Their dedication to teaching and their own lifelong learning is evident.”
Each of the three teachers found a different path to a career in education.
Romero, whose parents are teachers, loved learning when she was a child. She’s been teaching for 23 years — all of them at Gonzales.
“They’re so willing to try things,” she said of her students, who were scurrying around the classroom on a recent afternoon, trying to attach magnets to various surfaces. “They’re not worried about grades right now,” Romero said. “They just want to learn something, and they are excited when they do it.”
She wants kids to understand why science is relevant to their everyday lives. “When someone is having a conversation about global warming or talking about what it takes for our gardens to be successful,” she said, “they have some background to join in. It gives them an opportunity to participate in the conversation.”
Romero doesn’t just rely on books and lectures. She strives to get her kids up on their feet, wrapping their hands around the materials in science kits provided by the LANL Foundation. Afterward, she gathers her students in a semi-circle so they can discuss their findings.
Jokingly calling herself the queen of the class — who sets the rules but still looks out for her charges — Romero took time during a lesson to solve the curious problem of orange residue that a caterpillar had left on a student’s fingertips. The kids were afraid their classmate might develop a disease. Romero explained that caterpillars hang out on bushes, flowers and trees, and that their bodies collect pollen, which can be transferred to a child’s fingers.
The kids, satisfied with her response, returned to the study at hand.
Situations like that make Romero’s day. For someone who was once briefly miserable in a business-world desk job, the news that she is a state finalist for the presidential math and science teaching award cheers Romero. “It’s pretty cool to be recognized for doing something that I love,” she said.
Gray is also honored by the recognition. Teachers, she said, have to find inventive ways to give students a reason to show up and learn.
As she taught her kids about ratios recently, she used her body like a dancer, theatrically demonstrating the challenges faced by a fictional character, Ko, who was trying to cover a certain amount of miles while gathering food. Apparently, she had even captured a deer along the way.
Gray’s parents, like Romero’s, are teachers, too. But she had no intention of becoming a teacher. She went to college to be a graphic designer.
She was drawn into a classroom by a teacher friend who asked her to provide some arts education to second-graders in a struggling Baltimore school. The principal, recognizing Gray’s contributions, asked her to serve as a teaching assistant at another school in the area. She did.
“I just kept falling into these positions and need at the right place at the right time,” she said.
Her visual arts background imbues her teaching with a touch of theatrics.
“I am not a person who can go into a classroom that has a strict program and say, ‘Here’s the book, here’s the script you have to read, here’s what you have to teach today,’ ” she said. New Mexico’s Common Core curriculum — which has come under fire by some educators and other critics — gives her the freedom to play with the daily coursework.
“I like it. It’s very flexible,” she said.
Her sixth-graders amaze her, she said, and make teaching a joy. “Some of them are so resilient. I have taught kids who, at age 11, have been through more than I have had to deal with in a lifetime. And they are there every day and do what they need to do to succeed.”
She can’t imagine doing anything else for a living.
Sharma, born in Mumbai, left college without a clear career plan until a friend who ran a school in India asked her to teach first-graders, and she agreed to give it a try. When she arrived at the school, however, she discovered there was a need for a middle school English teacher, instead.
She’s put in about 20 years of teaching since then — eight of them at Piñon.
“Maybe I just had a knack for it,” she said. “I liked intermingling with the students and watching the students grow. It’s the same reason why I’m still in teaching, but it wasn’t a conscious decision at the time.”
On a recent day at Piñon, she began a class about weights, balances and the separation of salt solutions by giving her students plastic scales. One boy asked, “What is this supposed to do?”
“Good question,” Sharma replied. “I’m going to let you experiment with it, and then you tell me.”
She integrates an array of skills into her science class: The kids must write, in long hand, about their experiments and thoughts. They must perform mathematical calculations to determine how many grams of salt equals 50 millimeters of water. She wants them to argue against reason and common sense but ultimately prove their theories through science, math and fact.
“Science is one class they really look forward to,” she said. “Just to see them excited about science and doing the investigations and tying in all the other subject matters makes me happy.”
The best thing about being a teacher is seeing the kids learn, grow and “get it,” she said. The most frustrating aspect: a lack of understanding in society about the roles teachers play.
“There is so much more that is going on with our students today,” she said. “Teachers are counselors and social workers and sometimes the only family these kids have. We are the stability in these children’s lives. I just want a realization of the emotional toll that it takes on us as individuals. There seems to be a lack of that around.”
The state honor humbles her.
“As teachers,” she said, “there are very few things that you get recognized for, so this is exciting.”
Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or email@example.com.