Florence Falatko’s fifth-grade students at Cromwell Valley Elementary Magnet School do not learn mathematics sitting at their desks, taking notes as their teacher lectures at the whiteboard.
Instead, her students manage mock stock portfolios to learn decimals; they draw up blueprints for their dream houses to learn geometry; and they use Lego Robotics to model polygons on the coordinate plane.
Now Falatko, 60, is the recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, a prestigious national honor. Falatko, who teaches math to all fifth-graders at Cromwell Valley, was one of two teachers from Maryland and 140 teachers nationwide to receive the award, according to a news release.
“It’s a little surreal,” Falatko said. “I am so humbled by this.”
“These are the top awards for teachers in the United States,” said Bobbie Mixon, a spokesman for the National Science Foundation, which runs the program along with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “This is a pretty big deal for teachers.”
Two teachers from each state won the award, in addition to teachers from Department of Defense Education Activity schools and schools in the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Winners received presidential citations at an award ceremony last week, and participated in talks on math and science teaching led by federal officials. Mixon said the discussions covered the country’s STEM education strategic plan and the federal role in supporting STEM teaching in the states, and will be compiled in a report.
Falatko said the conference was an exciting opportunity to share ideas and collaborate with a group of talented teachers, because “teaching is sharing.” Her two adult sons joined her for the award ceremony.
Awardees also receive $10,000 from the National Science Foundation.
A former hedge fund manager, Falatko is uniquely suited to teaching children to use math in the real world. After staying home with her children, Falatko earned a master’s degree in teaching from Towson University and started teaching 15 years ago at Cromwell Valley. “Best decision I ever made,” she said. “Every year, students find different ways to apply themselves to problems, and I learn with them.” Falatko said her favorite part of teaching is “learning more about myself” from her students.
As a child, Falatko had “math anxiety,” she said. Math concepts did not click for her until she started taking economics in high school, “making it real.”
“Then being a math teacher was just wanting to share that it can be fun, it can be exciting,” Falatko said.
Another strategy the Cromwell Valley teacher uses is letting students learn at their own pace, moving on to the next activity when they understand a concept.
Mixon said after being nominated, teachers have to complete an application to be considered for the award that includes a writing and video component. The criteria for awardees are different for each teacher, but all the winners are “the best of the best,” he said.
Falatko is not the only educator from Cromwell Valley to be recognized. Earlier this year, Principal Cathy Thomas received a county Principal of the Year award. Thomas was commended for her philosophy of teaching, similar to Falatko’s: Rather than teaching at students, “get out of their way,” as she said in April, to let them solve problems on their own.
In April, STAT teacher Jill Dunham Wright praised Thomas for encouraging teachers at Cromwell Valley to engage students in what she called “productive struggle.” Falatko also credited Thomas for allowing her to teach project-driven lessons.
Teaching for Falatko is about “allowing students the opportunity to explore math and enjoy it, and understand that math is not an absolute,” she said. “It is a science and it’s a study.”
“It’s exciting to be 60 years old and to see the future of education through these programs,” Falatko said. “I feel like my small, little corner of Cromwell Valley is helping to make change. It’s very exciting to be a part of this future.’