A math teacher who knows effective teaching is more than what two plus two equals has caught the attention of not only her students but also President Barack Obama.
The White House has named Lisa Bejarano, who teaches geometry, precalculus and intro to computer programming at Aspen Valley High, an alternative school in Academy School District 20, as a winner of the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
The annual award is called the nation's highest honor for teachers of math and science.
Bejarano said Monday that she was humbled and validated: the first because she depends on collaboration to succeed and the second because she realizes "content knowledge alone is insufficient."
"You have to have a relationship with students in order for them to trust you, and they have to trust you in order to take risks, which leads to learning," she said.
Her classes are more of an adventure than anything, said Aspen Valley Principal George Stone.
"It's almost like being a math scientist - you have to figure out how to make it work," he said. "So you'll see kids out of their seats talking about math and chasing crazy ideas, and that's all OK because she views math as a journey to understanding."
Along with being in touch with what high school students need to comprehend the often daunting subject of math, Stone said Bejarano's pedagogy is superb.
"She's an extremely talented teacher who has an approach of 'We'll get through this together,'" he said. "She blends strong instructional methods with a passion that sucks kids in. It's not common to find a math teacher whose kids flock to her room during lunch hour."
Students need to feel "like they're being supported and not criticized, Bejarano said, which is what she strives for.
Bejarano is one of 213 K-12 educators across the nation President Obama singled out this year for recognition.
Two years ago, she submitted a video of her class in action and wrote a paper reflecting on her teaching style. Last year, she was notified she was one of five finalists for the award.
At a Sept. 8 ceremony in Washington, D.C., recipients will receive a $10,000 prize from the National Science Foundation to be used as they wish and a certificate signed by Obama.
They also will participate in professional development activities, network with fellow science, technology, engineering and math educators from across the nation and meet members of Obama's administration. And they get to help judge next year's entries.
Bejarano said while she's honored by the recognition, she knows teaching is constant learning.
"I still feel like I need to work really hard every day," she said.
This is Bejarano's 13th year teaching math. She also blogs about her experiences and facilitates training on developing curricula and motivating students to be excited about solving problems and learning that failure is part of success.
In a statement, President Obama said the award recipients are "integral to ensuring our students are equipped with critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are vital to our nation's success."
Obama's administration has worked to strengthen education in STEM fields, including through the president's Educate to Innovate campaign, launched in November 2009. The program has resulted in more than $1 billion in private investment nationwide for improving K-12 STEM education. Efforts to add more STEM teachers in schools and train master STEM teachers to mentor their peers also are underway.