COLUMBIA, SC — Donald Sarazen has a special equation for making math fun for his students at H.B. Rhame Elementary School.
The Richland 1 educator’s teaching methods include classroom games and admonishments to students to “think until it hurts” – and they have been gaining national fame.
Sarazen recently received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in grades K-6. The award is the nation’s highest honors for K-12 mathematics and science teachers and alternates each year between K-6 and 7-12 teachers.
Sarazen is among two winners from each state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico selected by a nationwide panel of scientists and mathematicians The honoree are noted as role models for their colleagues, inspirations to their communities and leaders in improving math and science education.
Sarazen spoke recently about the challenges and rewards of teaching and his passion for instilling a love for math.
What are some of the biggest challenges of getting otherwise uninterested students excited about math?
“If teachers want their students to be excited about math then they have to be excited about it themselves. I always try to stay excited about the smallest part of any math concept I teach because excitement is contagious. It is also a challenge to master the math concepts I have to teach and to teach them so that students will learn.”
So just how do you go about making it fun in your classroom?
“I am inspired by Tom Hanks in the movie “Big.” He was a kid in an adult body. I try to think like a kid and come up with things I think my students will find fun. I have a Magic Phone with which different characters call the classroom. My students get the “Jolly Rancher Challenge” and take shots on a Nerf basketball hoop for answering questions. Students can earn the title of “Math Master” and “Number Line Ninja” and they are praised if they “Think Until it Hurts.”
Were you always a math “whiz” yourself or did you have to work at it?
“I am not a math whiz at all. When I was a student I was actually much better in language arts. It wasn’t until I became a teacher and I had to teach math that I gained an appreciation for it. I think I enjoy teaching math differently than the way I learned it.”
So what things have played some of the biggest roles in your professional development?
“Columbia International University prepared me well for my teaching career. In addition, Richland 1 has offered me many significant professional development opportunities for which I am very thankful and I work with top-notch teachers.
“I have found the Common Core Math Standards very well thought out, logical, and foundational. They are new standards for teachers to teach and anything new is difficult at first.”
So can we assume that you do your own taxes?
“Well, yes and no. I do my own taxes, but I use a computer program.”
What was your response to your Presidential Award selection?
“I am humbled and honored to receive the Presidential Award. I understand its importance and do not take it lightly, knowing that with it comes great responsibility. It also serves as a reminder to me that God and others are responsible for the achievements in my life. So in a larger sense I represent the educators I have worked with and students I have taught. This award encourages me to teach with renewed purpose, to accept new challenges and to serve my colleagues to the best of my ability.”
How successful do you think the recent added emphasis on math and science has been in motivating students to consider related career choices?
“I just read an article about the Teach Science and Math campaign launched by the University of South Carolina’s College of Education. This campaign will focus on increasing the number of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) teachers in middle and high schools. That is good, but I think elementary math and science teachers have an incredible responsibility. If we don’t steer the hearts and minds of our students toward math and science now they may not take a deeper interest in the years to come.
What attitude do you try to take into the classroom each day?
“When I enter my classroom I often pretend that it is my first day of teaching and I want to make a good impression. But at the same time I pretend that it is my last day of teaching and I’ll never have an opportunity to do it again. It keeps me at the top of my game.”
Reach Rantin at (803) 771-8306.