State's teacher of the year helps make math add up for students

State's teacher of the year helps make math add up for students

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

By Eleanor Chute
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The 2010 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year Award recipient, Michelle Switala, right, hugs one of her students, Tom Robinson, during the presentation ceremony yesterday in Harrisburg. Ms. Switala is a mathematics teacher at Pine-Richland School District.

When Laurie Robinson's son Tom repeatedly talked about how great, funny and approachable his Algebra 2 teacher was, Ms. Robinson knew that teacher must be someone special.

Pine-Richland High School teacher Michelle Switala is so special that yesterday she was named the 2010 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year.

"Math isn't his favorite subject. She definitely was his favorite teacher," said Ms. Robinson, who nominated Ms. Switala.

Ms. Switala was so surprised when state Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak started to read her name that her first thought was 'Who else of the 12 finalists has a name beginning with "M"?'

"I was sure it wasn't going to be me. There are so many good teachers in Pennsylvania," said Ms. Switala, who now will compete for the national honor.

"Michelle inspires her students with her enthusiasm for teaching and love for mathematics and her job. As our teacher of the year, she also will serve as an inspiration to her fellow educators," Dr. Zahorchak said.

She is the fourth consecutive state teacher of the year from Western Pennsylvania.

The 12 finalists also included Barbara Cornibe, a third-grade teacher in Pine-Richland.

At one point in her life, Ms. Switala, 40, of Cranberry, was on track toward a doctorate in physics at the University of Arizona after graduating from Baldwin High School and earning a bachelor's degree in physics at Franklin and Marshall University.

But then she discovered teaching at the college level. And she loved it. So, she earned a master's in physics and a teaching certificate in math and physics.

Her first teaching job was math at Pine-Richland High School, where she has been since 1995.

"I love the complexity of teaching," said Ms. Switala, who is the daughter of public school teachers. "I find it so intellectually satisfying to find out where each student is, what each student needs, how to reach them.

"Every student is different. Even though I might be teaching the same course material year after year, it's very different for each one of the students."

This year, Ms. Switala is teaching Algebra 2, Advanced Placement Calculus AB and Advanced Placement Calculus BC.

For those who may have a negative attitude toward math, Ms. Switala tries to find what they know, then ask them questions within their "zone of understanding" and help them to widen that zone.

Pine-Richland Superintendent Mary Bucci said, "She's not only able to teach the very high fliers, but she's able to bring that sophisticated knowledge down to the level it's accessible by all students."

Geoff King, a senior in her AP Calculus BC class, said, "She's very intense. Her class is probably the most challenging class I have. She also has a really good sense of humor, so she keeps it entertaining even though it's really difficult."

Some of her good-natured humor comes from the fact she tries to get to know the students, even using their names and situations in examples or on tests to help students remember.

Geoff has a clear memory of how a particular calculus function acts after Ms. Switala said it oscillates wildly like another class member at a dance.

Geoff said Ms. Switala gets everyone involved. "She doesn't talk all that much in class because she has us do a lot of work or work out problems."

Ms. Switala said, "If all I did was present how to do problems myself, all they would learn is I could do them. ... My job is to get them to see they can solve the problems, to empower them."

Since 2006, Ms. Switala has been attending the University of Pittsburgh part time, working on a doctorate in math education.

Last week, Ms. Switala faced taking an exam in linear regression analysis.

"I was very nervous last week," she said. "I think it was good my students knew I was nervous. They sent me well wishes and sent me chocolate."

Afterwards, she said the students wanted to know her grade. Fortunately, it was an A, but she'd already figured out what to say if it were a C. She would use it as "an opportunity to tell them what I will do differently the next time."

Ms. Switala has nearly a page of contributions she has made toward professional development as well as nearly another page of professional development activities. She is treasurer and a negotiating team member of the Pine-Richland Education Association.

This year's AP Calculus BC class has only eight students, the same number as two years ago, when all earned 5s, the top score on the AP exam. Most of her students earn 4s and 5s.

Geoff hopes his class will repeat that feat.

When Ms. Switala learned of his remark, she didn't miss an opportunity to offer encouragement.

"That calculus class is a wonderful class, and I think they will all be 5s also. If you can print that, it will be motivation for them," she said.