Alumna honored with White House award for teaching
August 24, 2022
August 24, 2022
There, illuminated on her computer screen, was the official seal of the Executive Office of the President of the United States.
After four years and two grueling nomination processes, Emmons finally received the news she had been waiting for — an invitation to attend a special announcement from the White House. Even though the email didn’t specify the reason, the realization slowly began to sink in. She had been awarded a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the nation’s highest honor bestowed on K-12 teachers.
In February, Emmons was one of only 117 national educators and organizations honored by President Joe Biden for teaching excellence in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Each year, PAEMST recipients join an elite group of award-winning educators who have a profound and positive influence on state and national STEM teaching.
Emmons cites the award as one of the proudest moments in her professional life. But it was the nomination process itself that made the experience even more rewarding. That journey included an initial nomination and completed application process in 2018.
“I didn’t get it the first time I was nominated. But honestly, the loss made me a better educator,” said Emmons, a math specialist at Prendergast Elementary School in Ansonia, Connecticut. “Through the application process, you become a more reflective practitioner. My personal philosophy is that the role of a teacher is to guide students on their educational journey. By setting high expectations for students and encouraging them to succeed through a process of productive struggle, they will realize their own potential to be successful. My application process ultimately mirrored that philosophy.”
PAEMST honorees receive a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation and become part of a national cohort of award-winning teachers. Looking back, Emmons said her Quinnipiac education helped prepare her for this moment.
“I loved my classes at QU. I felt like my professors really tried to find what sparked your passion. And they pushed you out of your comfort zone in a way that really made you think. No matter where I’ve been in my educational journey, I’ve always felt like I could reach back out to my QU professors for advice or to collaborate,” said Emmons. “When you graduate, it’s not like you end a chapter and move on. They’re always with you. I’m not sure everyone is fortunate to have that in their college education.”
As one of the most prestigious academic honors in the country, the competitive process requires more than a nomination to earn a Presidential Award. The PAEMST application is rigorous and consists of three sections: administrative, narrative and video. The completed portfolio is designed to highlight each applicant’s content knowledge, exemplary instructional skills, student assessment expertise, reflective teaching and leadership skills resulting in improved student learning.
For more than 13 years, Emmons served as a second grade teacher at The Peck Place School in Orange, Connecticut, where she worked closely with her nominator, Susan Lukianov. As the math specialist for Orange Public Schools, Lukianov often collaborated with Emmons on the creation of model math lessons and instructional practices. Over the years, Lukianov has nominated several teachers for the PAEMST, including Emmons in 2018 and 2020. As an educator, Lukianov believes the advancement of learning is tied to recognizing innovation in the classroom and building professional learning communities across the country.
“This is a very unique award because there is a lot of work involved from the person who is nominated. It’s a two-year process. It’s not something that is just handed to you because a colleague is raving about your talents in the classroom,” said Lukianov. “This award helps the nominated teacher grow through the process itself. So, yes, your work is being recognized. But the true award is intrinsic.”
Emmons notes that while math was one of her favorite subjects in school, it did not always come easy for her as a student. She recalls working with a tutor and that mathematics was something she had to develop as a skill, first as a student and then again as a teacher. But it’s that personal understanding that she credits for inspiring some of her most successful lesson collaborations. Together, Lukianov and Emmons concentrated on building model lessons based on their students’ interests and hobbies.
“In my district role, I was in her classroom as much possible. I was drawn to her dedication to student understanding, and I use that word specifically because it’s not just about student learning. Kids can learn. But do they really understand?” said Lukianov. “There is a nuance to Mallory’s teaching that promotes understanding. I nominated her for the PAEMST because of her thoughtfulness in teaching, combined with her ability to differentiate lessons to meet her students’ needs. Learning thrives in that kind of environment.”
Many of their lessons involved project-based and cross-curricular learning models. After realizing a group of students in her second-grade class were New England Patriot fans, Emmons crafted a lesson specifically for them based on calculating box scores and stats. Another successful unit often remembered by her former students is one that incorporated color craft pompoms in a project called, “I speak pompom,” which focused on the study of patterns as a precursor to coding.
“It's about making science and math approachable and fun. Math is everywhere and in every job you do,” explained Emmons. “It’s going to the grocery store. It’s paying bills at the end of the month. And you don’t have to be an expert in calculus and trigonometry to be a mathematician.”
While there were many examples to spotlight, it was a student-run business selling fidget spinners that became the focus for her Presidential Award application. Through “Grade 2 Base 10 Inc.,” each of her students was assigned a job with related responsibilities such as office manager or banker. The team studied real-world applications for place value and base 10 number concepts through check writing, expense tracking and bank deposits — all valuable lessons they will use for the rest of their lives.
In the classroom, Emmons often relies on her sense of humor to help provide a positive and productive environment. According to Lukianov, it’s that innate love of teaching that shines through all of her interactions and serves as the catalyst for inspiring a lifetime love of learning for her students.
“As a teacher, kids will remember your impact on them for years to come. So, while this job is a labor of love, it is also an insane privilege,” said Emmons. “You get to be a part of their world for 180 days. And you have a choice on whether your students will look back on you fondly or not. As a teacher, you have the power to make or break. I don’t take that lightly.”
As a student at Quinnipiac, the philosophy of creating a positive and safe space in the classroom was first modeled for Emmons by her professors and mentors, many of whom she has remained in touch with as professional colleagues today. Originally from Kennebunk, Maine, Emmons arrived at Quinnipiac as a transfer student and quickly immersed herself into campus life as an admissions tour guide, where she was able to share her love of QU with prospective students.
She always knew she wanted to be in education and didn’t waste any time diving into her chosen field. While at QU, Emmons earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology, a master’s degree in elementary education and her Sixth-Year Diploma in Educational Leadership. She also holds a professional educator certificate, and an intermediate administration and supervision certificate in Connecticut, where she resides with her two children.
Recently, Emmons made the decision to leave the classroom to serve as a kindergarten through second grade math specialist for Ansonia Public Schools. In her new role, she collaborates with classroom teachers to develop meaningful and individualized academic lessons. As she reflects on the increased responsibilities of teachers and educators in schools, Emmons continues to find inspiration in the students.
“As teachers, we need to remember that parents and guardians send us the best they’ve got every day. While you never know what’s really going on in a student’s personal life, you can be a ‘constant’ for that child between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. I want them to learn, yes, but, ultimately, I want them to be good people,” said Emmons. “As educators, I think one of the most important things we can do is create that safe space where students can grow and blossom. When you walk into a classroom at the beginning of the year, it’s just a space. But it’s the teacher who makes it special. And it’s the students who make it come alive.”
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