PAEMST: What’s that? by Deb Little

1 Jun 2020 2:48 PM | Wendy Weber (Administrator)

Reflections from  Deb Little, the 2018 PAEMST elementary math awardee

It sure is a strange sounding acronym. And this acronym is necessary, it stands for a mouthful of words! PAEMST, pronounced pam-st, stands for Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Read on to learn more about PAEMST, my journey as the 2018 PAEMST elementary mathematics awardee, and why you should consider nominating yourself or someone else for this award. 

What is PAEMST? 

The PAEMST is the highest recognition that a kindergarten through 12th grade science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and/or computer science teacher may receive for outstanding teaching in the United States. I had never heard of it before I got nominated for it. Teachers do not go into teaching to get awards. When we read about someone getting an award we think something like, “Oh! Good for them! They must be a really gifted educator.” And then we continue about our work with children trying to do our best. 

How did I become nominated for the PAEMST?

In November of 2017, Sandra (Sandy) Ubben had written and asked me if it would be okay to nominate me. Sandy is currently an Illustrative Mathematics Certified Facilitator. When I worked with her, she was a math consultant for Central Rivers AEA. To say that I was flattered to be nominated by my mentor and someone whom I consider a math educational genius is an understatement. I said, “Yes,” and didn’t think anything more about it. Then the emails from the PAEMST organization started to flood my inbox. 

What happened next?

As I read over the emails from the PAEMST organization, I became a bit overwhelmed. I quickly realized that applying for this award would not be as simple as filling out a one-page application form and attaching my resume. It includes a written narrative and video recording of one’s class in action. The narrative would be a reflection of my lesson and a description of  my contributions to education focusing on Five Dimensions of Outstanding Teaching:

  • Mastery of the content being taught in the lesson.
  • Use of instructional strategies that support student learning.
  • Effective use of assessment to support student learning.
  • Reflective practice and lifelong learning to improve teaching and student learning.
  • Leadership in education outside of the classroom.

I also learned that the PAEMST program is organized and run by the National Science Foundation (NSF) on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). If chosen as an awardee, I would receive a certificate signed by the President of the United States, a trip to Washington D.C. to attend a series of recognition events and professional development opportunities, and a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation. To be honest, I was not sure if I was worthy of such an award and decided at that point not to apply. 

Why didn’t I think I was worthy?

Let’s face it. The words “excellence” and “highest honor” are a bit daunting. As a teacher, I’ve strived for excellence in my practice, but there are many lessons that I’ve reflected on that I would not describe as “excellent.”  My journey as a teacher is constantly evolving. I could be described as Christina Tondevold says, “a recovering traditionalist.” In my practice of 27 years, I’ve moved from an “I do, we do, you do” approach to one that’s inverted. Now, my students grapple with a problem first and reason to find solutions in their own way. Next, class time is spent with students sharing their reasoning and sense making, asking questions of their classmates’ solutions, comparing what’s similar and different and most efficient. Conjectures are made and recorded and reflected upon in subsequent lessons.  It is a flip of what went on for many years in my mathematics classroom. In January of 2015, I had taken a course offered by my AEA that gave me my first taste of the meaning of cognitively guided instruction. During the 2015 -2016 school year, Sandy Ubben worked closely with me to help me get better at facilitating this flipped version. At her request, I opened my classroom so that other educators could see these sense making learning sessions. I really felt like I was at an infant stage with facilitating this kind of mathematical learning.  

What changed my mind about applying?

Right before my school’s winter break in December, I had a discussion with UNI professor, Amy Lockhart at a school event. I had taught both of Amy’s sons when they were in fourth grade. She encouraged me to apply for the PAEMST if for no other reason than to “honor the person who had nominated me.” I decided to apply and give the application process my best effort. I wanted to honor my nominator, Sandy Ubben.

What happened next?

I’m not going to lie. The application takes a considerable amount of time to complete. From January to the May 1 deadline, I spent many hours choosing a lesson video and then reflecting, writing, and revising my written narrative. I consulted with former PAEMST Awardee Annette Louk for advice on my application. I attended the online question and answer informational sessions held by the PAEMST organization. I spent hours reading research from math education leaders from sources like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Through this whole process, I learned so much about myself as a teacher because I was constantly asking myself why I do what I do in my mathematics work with students. It inspired  me to dig deeper into my understanding of the practices that I had implemented in my classroom.  By the time I submitted my application, I had grown as an educator.

After submitting my application, I learned that the applications are reviewed first at the state level.  The Iowa State Selection Committee spends countless hours to choose 2 to 3 applicants to move on to the national level. The NSF convenes a national-level selection committee composed of scientists, mathematicians, education researchers, school and district administrators, and classroom teachers. Recommendations are sent to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for final selection.

In August of 2018, I found out that I was a state finalist along with Natalie Franke and Chris Mathews. In October, the three of us were formally recognized at the Iowa Council of Teachers of Mathematics Conference for being state finalists. In March of 2019, we were honored by Governor Kim Reynolds at a reception and luncheon in Des Moines. When I learned of the exceptional math leadership of my fellow finalists, I thought that there would be no way I would be chosen for the national award. I felt so honored to be standing alongside educators of their caliber.

When did you find out you had been selected as the national PAEMST awardee?

I had an inkling in late June of 2019. I was contacted by the PAEMST organization that they needed the FBI to do a background check. They were clear that this did not mean that I was the finalist and that saying anything about it to anyone could disqualify my application.

Then on September 27, 2019, I received an email from the PAEMST organization that I had been selected as the 2018 PAEMST Awardee and was given the steps to make flight and hotel arrangements for the recognition ceremonies and professional development events to be held from October 14 - 18.  I was stunned, humbled, and so honored! 

Why do I encourage others to apply for the PAEMST?

It is an  excellent opportunity to reflect on the work you're doing in your classroom, to network, build relationships, learn with outstanding educators and other professionals across the country, and to be recognized for the skill and leadership with which you approach mathematics and/or technology, and science learning. You also will receive feedback from both the state selection committee and the national committee about your work. Rarely do we receive feedback from STEM leaders outside of our own districts.  In addition, there is the $10,000 reward money. Unlikemost monetary awards that are earmarked for school-related use, this money can be used at your discretion. I am using it to help cover the costs to attend mathematical conferences and to take additional mathematics courses.  

So how do you nominate yourself or someone else?

If you're interested in applying or nominating someone, you can find more information by visiting the PAEMST site.  Every other year the award is open to either a K-6 or 7-12 teacher. The current 2020 nomination cycle is for K-6. Because of COVID-19, the application dates were adjusted. Part of the K-6 cycle application was due on May 1, and then those applicants have until October 26, 2020 to submit final applications.  That would mean that the next cycle for applications will be for 7-12 STEM teachers.

What should I do while I wait for the next nomination cycle?

In the meantime, keep growing as a professional in the area of mathematics. If you haven’t already, sign up and become an active member of Iowa Council of Teachers of Mathematics (ICTM).  The membership is very affordable and offers excellent resources. Become a member of NCTM so that you have cutting-edge research articles at your fingertips. Attend ICTM and NCTM conferences to learn in person from leading educators. Consider presenting at the next ICTM conference or writing a journal article for ICTM or NCTM. Invite other educators into your classroom. Learn and grow by honing your practice by working with a district math coach, a math consultant from your AEA, or a mathematics education professor from a local college. Get on Twitter (I call it my nightly P.D.) and connect with math educators across our state, nation, and world. I believe that we grow the most when we share our classroom practice and reflections with others. 

Deb Little is a fourth grade teacher at Denver Community School District.  She can be reached at and on Twitter: @Mrs_Little_17. 

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