It all adds up for ‘inspiring’ Portland math teacher

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PORTLAND — For Priya Natarajan, math is not just a set of numbers and formulas, but a discipline that shows all problems can be solved with enough information, time and human resources.

She teaches math at Casco Bay High School and was recently selected as a state finalist for the prestigious Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

The presidential award is the highest honor that can be bestowed by the United States government specifically for K-12 mathematics and science teachers, according to the National Science Foundation, which administers the awards program.

“The award recognizes those teachers who develop and implement a high-quality instructional program that is informed by content knowledge and enhances student learning,” the science foundation website states.

In his nomination letter, Derek Pierce, the principal at Casco Bay High, said Natarajan “does not just fulfill the rigorous criteria for this national honor, she exemplifies them.”

“Priya’s humble but persistent advocacy has elevated the status of math at our school,” Pierce added. “Priya is especially passionate and effective at inspiring young women and students of color to pursue STEM.”

Natarajan has taught at Casco Bay High for the past four years, and before that was a longtime math teacher and department head at Deering High School. She lives in Portland and is married with one child, an eighth-grader.

She is one of two finalists for the presidential award for mathematics from Maine. The other is Ellen Payne from Nokomis Regional High School in Newport. In addition, three science teachers from around the state have also been nominated.

There are up to two winners from each state every year, and the teachers chosen must show mastery of their chosen subject, must employ tactics designed to improve student learning and must be a leader in education both inside and outside the classroom, according to the National Science Foundation website.

The presidential awardees from each state will be announced next year, after which the winners receive a certificate signed by the president, a $10,000 award from the science foundation and a trip to Washington, D.C.

“I am very grateful to have been nominated by my principal and then named as a finalist for this award, Natarajan said this week. “It is deeply meaningful that my contributions to my classrooms, my schools and my community are noticed and valued at this level.

She also said that being chosen as a finalist for the presidential teaching award, “gives me renewed energy and passion for (my) work. I am thankful to have worked with so many thoughtful students and colleagues from whom I have learned so much.”

And, Natarajan is hopeful that her time teaching can serve as a role model for “students who are looking for a worthwhile and joyful career” and that students who enjoy STEM “will think about math or science teaching as a result of the outreach that I will be doing this year.”

What she most enjoys about teaching math, Natarajan said, is that the skills students learn in her classroom can open doors for them in the future.

“I love seeing students build confidence and empowerment in their mathematical skills. I (also) enjoy the moments when students use their numeracy skills to find solutions or marshal evidence in physics or in social studies, and they can see how those skills are essential in a democracy,” she said.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Priya Natarajan, a math teacher at Casco Bay High School, was chosen as a state finalist for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

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