Upon learning she was being nominated for a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science, Destrehan High School math teacher Dawn Jacobi wasn’t sure she was going to go through with the application process, with the burden of a COVID-affected school year and teaching process weighing upon her.
Her calculus students put an end to that thinking.
“They told me, ‘Oh no, we’re doing this,’” Jacobi said.
Those students felt strongly they had a special teacher, and clearly others agree: Jacobi was officially selected as one of three finalists in Louisiana for the Presidential Award for mathematics, which is considered the highest honor a STEM teacher can receive. A national panel will review nearly 100 nominees from around the country and announce the winners later this summer.
The awards program was established in 1983 and administered by the National Science Foundation on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The teachers are nominated by their colleagues.
Part of the application process is a videotaped class session and the teacher’s written evaluation of that, something her Calculus students were more than happy to oblige with. Their enthusiasm for it touched Jacobi.
“It’s humbling,” Jacobi said. “And it’s encouraging at the same time to have students believe in you so much. When I told them I was one of the finalists, they told me, ‘Well, we knew you would be.’ They were really sweet about it.”
It’s not the first time Jacobi, a teacher at DHS for 26 years, has been recognized for her efforts in education. She was honored as the Louisiana High School Teacher of the Year in 2004.
But accolades did not make her immune to a crisis of confidence at times throughout the past school year. The challenge of adapting to so many new ways of doing things in the wake of COVID at times brought her to question herself.
“None of us knew if we were doing a good job this year,” Jacobi said. “There were so many stressers, and by the spring, we’re all just trying to put one foot in front of the other. So for them to have that kind of confidence in me, that meant everything.”
As she speaks of her teaching experiences and philosophies, one thing quickly becomes clear: her infectious enthusiasm for the subject she teaches is assuredly one reason her students and peers regard her so highly.
“It’s no secret in my room that I love math,” Jacobi said. “I think the challenge of it is reaching a child where they are and moving them along the spectrum of learning as you can … not everyone is in the same place. Being confident and sharing your enthusiasm goes a long way.”
Her classes aren’t exercises in memorization. She promotes discussion and encourages feedback between students, because she believes it’s just as important to understand ‘why’ as much as ‘how’ when it comes to solving problems. Jacobi puts a focus on helping students develop their logic and reasoning skills, which she says will help them beyond mathematics in their lives.
“I really champion students thinking through problems on their own terms and exercising their freedom of thought,” Jacobi said. “One of the best things we can do in any classroom is give kids their voice and allow them to use it, to process things and come up with answers on their own. It’s not something where you’re a mama bird feeding a baby bird … you’re helping more by allowing them to participate in a productive struggle. And the group is also part of finding that solution.
“It’s very rewarding to see kids progress. A big part of it is understanding that mistakes are just part of the process. You learn more through discussion and inquiry than you ever will blasting through each right answer.”
It’s that logical progression and skills exercise that draws Jacobi herself to math.
“Isn’t a part of life thinking ways through problems?” Jacobi asked. “I think it’s cool when you can start somewhere … maybe you have this problem and now you come up with a solution where it all fits together … math never betrays you. Something that’s true in Algebra 1 is still true in calculus. Everyone laughs at me about it, but it’s so much fun for me to dig into.”