Join us in celebrating great teachers!
We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Kristy Butler, a recipient of the 2020 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST), which was announced on February 8, 2022.
Kristy has been an enthusiastic, well-loved math teacher for sixteen years, and she currently teaches at Medlin Middle School, Northwest Independent School District, just north of Fort Worth, Texas.
The PAEMST is the nation’s highest honor for teachers of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Speaking with Kristy, it became immediately clear that the award is well-deserved.
It also became clear why her students love her. Kristy spoke passionately about using technology to make math learning fun and relatable and cultivating supportive relationships with students that encourage them to embrace new challenges.
Kristy shared insights about her classroom practices, plans for the future, and what it means to be an award-winning teacher.
How did you get into teaching?
I was a camp counselor growing up, and I absolutely loved it. When I started thinking about careers and realized that it probably wasn’t feasible to be a full-time camp counselor for the rest of my life, teaching felt like the next best thing. I liked math, so being a math teacher was a natural fit. Many of the things I loved as a counselor, like working with kids one-on-one, planning engaging activities, and pushing kids who needed a challenge, are also part of teaching.
What is your teaching philosophy?
When I was researching my capstone master’s project, I concluded that if you want to motivate middle school students, they need to feel valued and understood. They actually don’t need all the elaborate bells and whistles we sometimes think they do. Rather, they need to know that you will be patient with them, that you’ll give them the time they need to learn, and that you’re not going to give up on them.
What motivates you as a teacher?
While relationships are front and center, I genuinely love building lessons. It feels more like a hobby than a job. Coming up with new ideas, creating the technology to implement them, trying them out in the classroom, and adjusting as needed are exciting and fulfilling for me. Oh, and watching young minds have those “aha!” moments never hurts.
What is your key to success in building relationships with students?
I shake their hands when they walk through the door so they know I see them. I wait for them to fully answer a question before moving on to the next person. I try to make learning memorable by building lessons around their interests. And I constantly walk the line between fun and challenge. I want them to know that in my classroom, they will work hard and play hard—often at the same time.
What is your key to success in creating innovative, technology-driven lessons?
I start with what my students are interested in and build the lessons around that. Virtual escape rooms, where they have to complete math challenges to win, are a big draw at the moment. Last year, they had to complete a series of tasks to choose the next singer on The Voice, a show many students watch.
What are some moments in the classroom you’ll never forget? Or students who will stick with you?
Like any teacher, I have so many moments I will never forget, but here’s a recent one: I do a lot with Pear Deck, and I use a little stuffed pear as a teaching aid (yes, his name is Peary). When students suggested having a birthday party for Peary, we ran with it. They designed the lessons and activities, decorated, and brought snacks. We did a lot of math along the way, of course, but students also took responsibility for planning and executing a complex series of tasks. It was so much fun to see.
What does it mean to you to win the PAEMST?
Of course, I’m both shocked and honored. And after the year-long process, I’m also a little relieved. Mostly though, I’m grateful to the students and colleagues who I’ve learned so much from and who keep pushing me to be better.
What advice do you have for fellow math teachers, especially new teachers?
There is so much pressure on new teachers to be perfect right out of the gate. They think they have to know everything all at once, which sometimes means they don’t ask questions or get help when they need it. I would remind them that learning is a journey. And just like their students need patience, they need to be patient with themselves and learn from their mistakes. For all teachers, new and veteran, I would encourage them to learn how to ask good questions. Patient, purposeful, progressive questioning with plenty of wait time built in can transform a classroom and make it truly student-centered.
What about the future excites you?
This is bittersweet because I have cherished my time as a classroom teacher, but I will transition to being a full-time Instructional Technologist next year. I will be in the same district, but instead of testing out new teaching technologies in my classroom alone, I’ll be able to work with teachers and students on a broader scale. I’m so excited to share my knowledge with others and keep learning how to use technology to deliver learning experiences that genuinely excite students. I don’t see this as the end of my educational career, just the next adventure in it.
Northwest Independent School District has been implementing Carnegie Learning’s Middle School Math Solutions since 2014.
Carnegie Learning is helping students learn why, not just what. Born from more than 30 years of learning science research at Carnegie Mellon University, the company has become a recognized leader in the ed tech space, using artificial intelligence, formative assessment, and adaptive learning to deliver groundbreaking solutions to education’s toughest challenges. With the highest quality offerings for K-12 math, ELA, literacy, world languages, professional learning and more, Carnegie Learning is changing the way we think about education, fostering learning that lasts.Explore more related to this author
I constantly walk the line between fun and challenge. I want [my students] to know that in my classroom, they will work hard and play hard—often at the same time.
Kristy Butler, Presidential Award-Winning Math Teacher