You are here
Making an Impact
In the News
Making an Impact
2002 SPS intern receives national teaching awardBy:
Victoria DiTomasso, CUNY Macaulay Honors College, 2016 SPS Intern
In the summer of 2002, Lauren Zarandona was an outreach intern with the Society of Physics Students (SPS). Today she is a high school math teacher in Mississippi. This September, Lauren was awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in recognition of her leadership in the improvement of mathematics education.
She took the time to talk to 2016 SPS intern Victoria DiTomasso about the origins of her love for teaching, her career path, and the lessons she has learned along the way.
Victoria: Where do you think your interest in education came from?
Lauren: I always had teachers, and my parents, who let me ask all the questions I wanted. It was because I always knew that it was okay to push and do more and ask more questions and think differently that I realized that everyone should have that opportunity.
Victoria: Did you always know you would pursue a career in education? Could you walk us through your career path?
Lauren: My mom and dad are awesome, but neither of them had a college degree. I thought that getting a college degree meant having a career that people might name drop. I had this idea in my head that achieving something meant being a doctor, a lawyer, or in any career that you hear about when you’re little. One that makes a lot of money. My parents are proud of me as a teacher, so I don’t know why I thought a career had to look a certain way. They always encouraged me to follow my passion.
I also thought there was something lacking in a teaching position. Everyone says, “Oh you don’t get paid enough,” or “It’s not a respected job, compared to engineering or research.” I heard the negative things and took them as the truth. I wish I could have had the confidence early on to have gone with what I already knew was my passion. We shouldn’t be afraid of pursuing what we’re naturally inclined to like.
It was as a Society of Physics Students intern that I realized that I wanted to work with curriculum. I made a math-themed Science Outreach Catalyst Kit (SOCK) based around the math behind physics. I realized through that internship that I really wanted to work with curriculum someday. I was very inspired by the idea that people could do things better than what was already done.
At that point, I was a physics major without certification to teach. I went into an alternate route teaching program. Straight out of undergrad, I did two years in the program and got my master’s.
…I stayed in my original placement for five years, and then I came to the school where I am now, which is a public residential high school that serves the entire state of Mississippi. We have juniors and seniors that are residential, so they board, and they are, for the most part, really interested in higher-level math and science courses.
As part of my job here, for the last eight years I’ve been in charge of running all the math contests. This year, for the second year in a row, we’re holding an elementary math contest. Last year we did grades 3–5, and we created the problems for the contest and the kids came here as a field trip.
Victoria: You obviously love what you do, but can you talk about the most frustrating parts of your job?
Lauren: There’s never enough time, of course. That’s probably a frustration in any job that someone really enjoys. It’s really easy to get overinvested and expect too much of yourself. People will always say that you can’t change the world, and I don’t know that I agree with them, but at the same time it’s certainly not going to happen in a class period.
Victoria: What are the most rewarding parts?
Lauren: Watching the kids succeed. Today I had a student who made her first “A” on a quiz this year and she struggled to get there. Her grade does not look good right now, but she finally broke through and made that “A” because she’s worked so hard for it. That was incredible.
I do it more for the kids than for myself. When I was applying for this award, a student asked me why. The reality is that if I’m constantly pushing my students to challenge themselves, then I should be doing the same thing.
Victoria: Do you have any advice for people who are trying to inspire kids and their peers to be excited about STEM?
Lauren: Never underestimate the underdog. Oftentimes outreach is focused on students who don’t have a lot of opportunity and so we go in thinking that there are certain limitations to what they’re capable of. And when we do that we’re the ones putting a limit on them… Instead, go in thinking that even the person from the worst neighborhood, from the poorest background, has unlimited potential and it really changes what you can accomplish together.
Victoria: Is there anything you’ve learned as a teacher that you’d like to share with current undergraduate students?
Lauren: Kids are capable of a lot more than you think they are. I have a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old and it’s incredible to see the capacity of learning that a small child has. Somewhere down the line we just forget that we’re capable of so much. We get resigned to sitting in a straight row, being quiet, and following a plan. We lose the beauty that is learning and curiosity and just trying something new. I’d definitely say: Don’t underestimate what you are capable of.