Diversity isn’t an official criterion for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST). But the three Black educators named to this year’s class of 107 winners announced last week say receiving the nation’s highest honor for precollege teaching makes them even more committed to fostering a more inclusive U.S. technical workforce.
“As a female and an African American, I hope I can be that face to students and teachers [from groups underrepresented in science] around the country,” says LeShundra Young, a biology teacher at Germantown High School in Madison, Mississippi. “It’s harder to relate to someone who doesn’t look like you.”
The lack of diversity in the 2019 class—the other Black educators selected are Pamela Hytower, a middle school math teacher in Georgia’s Carroll county, and Ashley Kearney, a high school math teacher in Washington, D.C.—isn’t unusual for the award. Winners are drawn from a pool of finalists submitted by each state, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. (The competition rotates each year between elementary and secondary school teachers.) But although the selection criteria don’t mention diversity, the National Science Foundation (NSF) “encourages diversity and equality in the review of applicants,” says a spokesperson for the agency, which manages the program. A few years ago, NSF went a step further, mandating diversity training for state coordinators in hopes of boosting the mix in the pool.
The PAEMST program has been around since 1983. But it’s not well known, and teachers who have been nominated must devote a considerable amount of time assembling a portfolio that documents their teaching skills. “It’s a daunting task for a full-time teacher,” says Marla Davis, state PAEMST coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Education.
Each state is allocated six finalist slots, but many come up short. Mississippi, for example, forwarded just four names to NSF for the 2019 award. (Young and science teacher Shani Bourn went on to become awardees.) And although the competition is designed to recognize two teachers from each state, sometimes only one makes the final cut.
But suboptimal participation rates aren’t the only reason for a less diverse pool of candidates. In Mississippi, Davis says, “Men and teachers from minority groups tend not to pursue this award.”
To address that problem, Davis says her team has started to do more outreach to encourage teachers to complete the application. “We want them to know that it’s something they can do,” she says, “and that it’s worth putting in the time.”
A loss of talent
The effort paid off for Young, 40, who grew up in rural Mississippi. She was pursuing a Ph.D. in microbiology, with plans to become a college professor and do research, when she began to substitute teach to help support herself and her young son. “The first day I walked into the classroom,” she recalls, “I realized that was where I belonged.”
Her first full-time teaching job was at the same high school that she had attended, located in one of the poorest counties in the state. It reinforced for her the debilitating impact of low expectations on students, almost all of whom are Black.
“I taught an advanced placement biology course because I was certified to do so,” she recalls. “We called it AP, but it was really more of a refresher course. We didn’t follow the text, and we didn’t have the facilities.” The school also had a high staff attrition rate, with a constant flow of rookie teachers still earning their certification.
“The teachers weren’t taken seriously because they didn’t have a connection to the community,” Young says. “But I knew [the students’] families, and understood their experiences, and they respected me.”
Despite enjoying that connection, she left a few years later for a job at a school in a much more affluent—and white—community. “I moved for my kids,” she admits, referring to her two younger children. “I wanted them to be in a better district and be exposed to other cultures, so they would be more competitive in applying to college.”
The AP biology course she now teaches is the real thing—and it is filled with sophomores who have met the necessary prerequisites and who will take more AP science courses on their way to attending an elite college. And although she still imagines becoming a college professor someday, it’s not part of her next 5-year plan.
“I love the kids, I love Mississippi, and I’m still close to my former mentor [at Mississippi College, her alma mater],” she says. “One of the biggest problems with our educational system here is that students are trained here and then they leave the state to pursue their careers. I’m trying to get more people to stay.”
A lack of confidence
The 41-year-old Hytower, who has been teaching math for 18 years, initially planned a career in public relations. But a tight job market and a chance to teach on a temporary certification started her down a road of helping Georgia students reach their potential. She’s spent the past 13 years at the same racially diverse school she attended a quarter-century ago.
“The biggest problem for these kids is a lack of self-confidence and motivation, not the math itself,” Hytower says. “They have been taught that certain people aren’t meant to do math, and that’s absolutely the case for Black students.” To counter that stereotype, Hytower tells all her students that they are mathematicians, as least while they are in her classroom.
“I get a lot of eye rolls, because they just can’t see themselves as being one,” she explains. “For most of my Black students, mathematics—and science in general—is something done by white males, or maybe by an Asian. And girls see science as a male thing. But after a couple of weeks, their attitude changes, and they start to buy into it.”
Three years ago, Hytower developed a special curriculum for students who were struggling in math. Her goal was to bring them up to grade level in one semester. It was so successful—they gained an average of 1.5 years, she says proudly—that it has been integrated into the regular curriculum.
Hytower takes a similar approach in teaching an honors math course for students believed to have an aptitude for math despite low test scores. “Typically, African American students would make up maybe 10% of a honors class,” she says. “But they are a majority in mine.”
“I don’t dumb it down,” she says about the curriculum. “And some of them struggled at first. But I told them I’d help them get through it, and they have thrived.”
“It feels like home.”
For Kearney, teaching math is another form of community activism. Raised in a Washington, D.C., neighborhood plagued by violence, she attended high school in Georgia after her mother moved the family to a relative’s farm “for safety reasons.”
Kearney says she liked math because “there was always a right answer, and you could check on yourself.” But it also set her apart: She found herself the only Black person—and the only girl—taking AP calculus in her rural school. After studying business management at the University of Tampa, she jumped at the chance to return to Washington, D.C., as a new teacher.
“It feels like home,” she says about working at Ron Brown College Preparatory High School in Washington, D.C., which was a middle school when she joined it in 2012 through Teach for America and then reopened 5 years later as the city’s only all-male public high school. “There’s a lot of teamwork among teachers and a high level of community involvement.”
This year Kearney hopes to teach the first AP math course offered by the school, which is 95% Black and named for the first Black U.S. secretary of commerce. “It will be the highlight of my career,” she says, and in line with the school’s mission to prepare “young men of high character who are academically curious and servants of their communities.”
All three educators say winning the presidential award is their first taste of national recognition for their teaching skills. And they plan to make the most of it.
“I hope this will open doors,” says Hytower, who sees the honor as a boon to the increased mentoring of younger teachers that she has been doing in recent years. “It’s all about changing attitudes about what’s possible. And the award sends a message to students and teachers that you can do this, too.”