By Laura McAlister
Even after three decades, Suzanne Culbreth’s eyes light up and a big smile stretches across her face when she talks about teaching math.
A former boss once described the Spain Park High School geometry teacher as someone who was just “born to teach.” Suzanne couldn’t agree more. She’s always loved the discovery process with her students, and even though she believes it’s her life’s calling, she still has to work at it.
“I can’t stay the same,” Suzanne said of her teaching techniques. “I always say we can’t teach the way we were taught. Students are changing. Technology is changing.
“I evaluate what I do every day and ask if this is working. I’m always looking for better ways.”
When school starts this year, Suzanne will begin her 30th year of teaching. It also will be her reigning year as Alabama’s Teacher of the Year.
After her teaching peers at Spain Park named her the school’s teacher of the year for the last school year, she went on to win the state’s top honor, which now puts her in the running for National Teacher of the Year.
Shortly after learning she’d gotten the state award, Suzanne received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. She was one of about 100 math and science teachers receiving the honor this year.
Even more important than the awards, Suzanne said, is the opportunity the titles will give her to collaborate with some of the nation’s top teachers.
As a teacher of the year, she’ll meet with other teachers throughout the state, and in January 2013, she’ll travel to Washington, D.C., for a conference with fellow award winners from each state. She’s already been to Washington this summer as part of the PAEMST, where she met with the U.S. secretary of education as well as Vice President Joe Biden and wife Dr. Jill Biden.
“The best part was getting to talk to other teachers and meeting Joe Biden’s wife. She’s in education,” Suzanne said of the PAEMST conference. “My goal this school year is really to have one foot in the classroom and one completing my duties as teacher of the year. I didn’t want to turn away from the classroom completely this year.”
Suzanne said a mentor will help her in the classroom this year while she fulfills her teacher of the year responsibilities. But receiving the state’s top teaching honor doesn’t mean she has any thoughts of leaving the classroom for good anytime soon.
Suzanne has been teaching at Spain Park for four years. Before that, she worked in Homewood and Oak Mountain schools. Except for a short stint teaching middle school students, she’s always taught math to ninth and 10th graders.
“I really love that age,” she said. “It’s just fun to watch them coming in as goofy freshmen and watching them mature and grow. My very first freshmen at Spain Park graduated this year.”
Suzanne said it’s the students who serve as her inspiration.
She believes learning can and should be fun — even math.
“Of course it’s fun,” she said, laughing. “We have fun in here all the time. The fun part really is the learning.”
Her teaching techniques have changed drastically since her first teaching days. She recalls figuring up grades on calculators and pecking out test questions on a typewriter.
Change, though, is never something this teacher has resisted. Suzanne likes to stay on the cutting edge.
She’s embraced the state’s new Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative and is a trainer for the program that aims to transform the way these subjects are taught in Alabama schools.
Suzanne’s not into Facebook, she said, but she does have a teaching blog. There, she posts assignments for the week every Monday. On the days before tests, she even has online study sessions.
“I got that idea from a calculus teacher in Canada,” she said. “He had scribes, who would post notes every day online. I tweaked it for my students and do online study sessions. I post the test specifications and will go online at 7:30 and 10 the night before the test to answer any questions.”
When the school year starts, Suzanne gives her students a Google survey to better evaluate their learning styles.
Suzanne said all students learn differently. She knows that firsthand. While in school, she struggled in math, which is one of the reasons she enjoys teaching it so much, she said.
“I was not the best math student,” she admitted. “I think that makes me have empathy for those who need to see it a different way. There are a lot of different ways to get the same formula. Sometimes students even come up with their own that works.”
Although she’s been teaching for almost 30 years now, Suzanne said she never fails to get excited when she’s able to see the moment of “discovery” on a student’s face. She said it’s why she teaches.
There are always bad days in the classroom, she said, but she has a solution for that, too. She calls it her “happy file.”
“Print all those emails from former students who are now contributing members of society, and put them in your happy file,” she said. “On days you get discouraged, read them.”