Math instructor among 33 semifinalists in state
In February the Minnesota Teacher of the Year field was narrowed from 128 candidates to 33 semifinalists, and Gieschen is still in the running.
Teri Gieschen has been teaching for 16 years and has worked in Forest Lake since 2000.
An Iowa native, she earned her certification in secondary math education at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.
After working two years in the Mendota Heights school district, she applied for a teaching job in Forest Lake to be closer to her home in Stillwater.
There were two openings, one at the Area Learning Center and one at Century Junior High. Asked to specify which one she was applying for, Gieschen chose to teach high school kids and began her years at the ALC.
The district provides an alternative school environment for students in grades six to 12 who don’t fit well in traditional school. They attend classes at the Central Learning Center, the building that also houses the district’s Early Family Childhood Education program and Central Montessori, an alternative school that draws elementary students from throughout the district.
With her first assignment, Gieschen realized that she would need to adapt.
“I was to teach Algebra II, Consumer Math and Geometry,” she said. “But none of the kids were at the right place.”
The school tries to get a close fit when matching students to courses, but she found their backgrounds were very different.
“So I asked if I could double up,” she said, teaching more than one course at the same time. “Math lab evolved quickly after that.”
In math lab, instead of presenting one set of material to the entire class as in a traditional classroom, the teacher prepares an individual lesson for each student.
Gieschen predominantly teaches math labs, where she gives instruction in every course offered at the high school level, all at the same time. There are 15 or 20 students in a class, and she works individually with each one.
“When my class is going on, all the tables have two or three kids, and they’re all doing different math,” Gieschen explained. “Even if they’re in the same book, they’re in a different place.”
For each student, she presents a discussion on the topic that student is working on. She provides an organizing tool (a place to write an outline and notes) and gives an individual assignment tailored to the student.
To succeed she must know a lot about the student: not just math background and skills, but what’s going on in the student’s mind.
“As I get to know them, I know their learning styles,” she said. “I base most of what I do on relationship building. I can’t fine-tune the learning to the student unless I know the student well.”
Every student at the ALC is there for a different reason, she said. Some have no math confidence. For others, the family situation is not perfect. Some extremely bright kids have high standardized test scores, but they don’t pass math classes at the traditional high school.
“They come here and shine,” Gieschen said.
Some have attention deficit issues that make it difficult to show their work on paper. If they can tell her how they did it, she’s OK with that.
“Some are super quiet and would be totally lost in the big school over there. It’s got to be relationship-based in this world,” she added.
At the ALC, it’s easier for kids to ask questions.
“They say, ‘Tell me again.’ There’s not that kind of time in a big classroom. We make time here,” Gieschen said. “And at end of each session, I’m thinking how I can regroup and approach the topic again tomorrow in a different way.”
She stresses the importance of actually understanding math concepts and applying them to real-life situations. Instead of plugging numbers into formulas, students learn to use reasoning and logic to solve problems.
After a co-worker nominated her, Gieschen talked to other teachers who had been nominated but did not apply: It’s a lot of work preparing all the materials required.
“I thought, if someone took the time to nominate me, I should be respectful of that,” she said.
She gathered five letters of recommendation: from the dean of the building, an English teacher she has worked with, a student, a parent and the school district’s director of teaching and learning.
She submitted a newspaper article from the Forest Lake Times and two poems that students had written about her for an English project.
She also included an observation from an associate professor of math at the University of Minnesota, Sue Staats.
Last year Gieschen applied to teach a College in the Schools class through the University of Minnesota. Called Algebra III or Mathematical Modeling and Prediction, the class requires high-level thinking skills, challenging students to use the concepts they learned in Algebra II to analyze real-world problems.
Her proposal was accepted and she taught the new class for the first time this year, with five students in the first semester and three in the second. Students who pass get three U of M credits.
Because the program is in its first year, it was observed by Staats, who also talked to the students.
“The students’ grasp of rational exponents and their connection to roots was very similar to my own students’ understanding here at the University of Minnesota,” she wrote.
In one assignment the students used athletic data to create three equal teams – an assignment that the physical education teacher also completed, so they could compare notes.
“This type of collaboration has the potential to be transformative for students, as they see that members of a variety of professions value math,” she added.
This time of year, Gieschen is busy planning the spring formal at her school, a job she enjoys because of the art.
“I have an art side,” she said. “Art helps with math. It brings out creativity.”
In her classroom she has one painting of her own on display. But the walls of her classroom are covered with student art. Students have given her so many works, she said, that her home is similarly decorated.
The classroom also displays pictures of her family, students, former students, and former students’ children. Her teaching philosophy of relationship building means letting them into her world and sharing theirs, she explained.
“They keep in touch.”
The selection panel will meet again in late March to select the finalists, and the current Minnesota Teacher of the Year, Megan Olivia Hall, will announce her successor at a banquet in Bloomington on May 4.
Education Minnesota, the 70,000-member statewide teachers union, organizes and underwrites the program, with support from other organizations and businesses.