Helen Ommen, a teacher at Spring Creek Elementary School, was recently honored with a national award for excellence in teaching elementary math.
Ommen, who teaches in the district’s Gifted and Talented Education program, also called the GATE program, received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching earlier this fall, along with a trip to Washington, D.C.
The award included a signed certificate from President Donald Trump and a $10,000 prize from the National Science Foundation.
The presidential awards recognize up to 108 teachers a year for their work in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science. The program was established by Congress in 1983.
Ommen, who has taught at Spring Creek for the last four years, said the rigorous application process required her to submit a video of herself teaching and answer questions about her own teaching practice and math theory. Applications were reviewed by teachers and scientists.
“One of the best parts about it is they give you feedback on everything you submit,” she said.
Ommen didn’t decide she wanted to be a teacher until after taking a graduate-level math class at the University of North Carolina. Up to that point, she was an engineering student who hated math.
“I had a couple professors who pushed us to embrace more problems that were open-ended and required making connections to lots of different types of math,” she said. “The language aspect of the class — math is a language that can describe the world around you — was really emphasized.”
After a “transformative” experience as a student, she started tutoring kids in math.
“That transformed my whole professional path,” she said. “I went from being an engineering major to being a teaching major. I really fell in love with watching kids solve problems, and struggle through things, and make sense of things intuitively. That was really powerful for me.”
After teaching in North Carolina and Thailand, Ommen started teaching in Laramie about eight years ago.
The Albany County School District’s GATE program aims to meet the unique academic and emotional needs of gifted children in grades 3-5. Students qualify for the program through testing after a referral. Starting this fall, all second-graders in the district will be screened for the program.
Ommen said she and teaching partner Andrea Hayden aim to provide a program that’s flexible, individualized and holistic.
“We tend to get the outliers, where a regular education setting is maybe not helping them reach their full potential,” she said.
She works to help her students understand their strengths and weaknesses and get comfortable making mistakes in order to grow.
“This student population needs a holistic environment that understands their social emotional needs as well as their academic needs, and that really resonates with me personally,” she said.
When it comes to teaching math, Ommen said she finds problems that are interesting to kids, puts them in groups and lets them work through the challenges. As a result, she said, students take ownership of their own learning.
“Kids like doing math, and they look forward to doing math,” she said.
Ommen also deeply values opportunities to take learning outside, teaching students to steward natural places in the process. Her class often takes walks outside when they need a break, and nearby Spring Creek is a favorite hangout.
“I have my class outside all the time, multiple times a day,” she said.
During the three-day trip to D.C., Ommen had the chance to network with teachers from around the country and talk about national initiatives for the teaching of STEM.
“My favorite part by far was the opportunity to hear what educators are doing in different places,” she said.
They talked through challenges, solutions and projects, and she returned to Laramie brimming with big ideas.
Among them, she’s considering starting a STEM camp for girls and finding ways for Wyoming kids to spend time in urban environments.
“For our kids, it’s easier to get them into nature, but maybe they need more experience in urban settings,” she said.
At the same time, she wants to help kids from cities experience Wyoming and wants to partner with a teacher in Philadelphia in the process.
“It can’t just be people in Wyoming caring about Wyoming. It has to be people in Philadelphia caring about wild spaces in Wyoming too.”
Ommen said she’s uncomfortable with the implication that teaching awards are a way to differentiate teaching quality. On the contrary, she said, almost every teacher she knows is committed to doing his or her best for students.
“Ultimately, it’s about relationships with kids,” she said.