By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor
Pioneer High School math teacher Theodore Emch has received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) — the country’s highest honor for teachers of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and/or computer science.
Pioneer mathematics teacher Don Zekany says Emch is an incredible educator on two points.
“First, the way that Ted connects with his students is awesome,” says Zekany. “He has an incredible amount of knowledge and he is able to transfer that knowledge to his students. Secondly, Ted inspires his students to work “beyond” their potential. The student work that comes out of his class is just incredible. He is truly an excellent educator and well-deserving of the award.”
The award-winning teachers will receive $10,000 from the National Science Foundation and a trip to Washington, D.C. to participate in professional development activities and network with fellow STEM educators from across the nation.
Theodore (Ted) Emch, the eldest son of Don and Donna Emch of Detroit, Michigan, has been an Ann Arbor Public Schools teacher since he was 24 years old and fresh out of college. Growing up in Burnsville, Minnesota and Brighton, Michigan, he discovered at a young age that he enjoyed teaching through the work he did tutoring his younger sister. He and his brother and sister attended Apple Valley Schools and Brighton Area Schools.
After graduating eighth of 389 students at Brighton High School in 1991, Emch enrolled at Eastern Michigan University on a Presidential Scholarship. He graduated summa cum laude in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and went on to do graduate work at the University of Michigan and EMU, graduating with a master’s in physical science education in 1998.
Emch began teaching at Community High School in 1997 before moving to Tappan Middle School to teach physical science for 10 years. In 2007, he moved again to teach physical science and chemistry at Pioneer. During his time at Pioneer, student interest in computer science grew, and Emch now teaches computer science courses full-time.
The program at Pioneer has grown to include multiple coding courses, including a course in mobile app development.
Emch lives in Ypsilanti with his wife Victoria and five children ranging in ages from three to 19. He enjoys boating, fitness activities and weight training, and has studied organ in the School of Music & Dance at EMU. In addition to his work teaching at Pioneer High School, Emch serves as the staff organist at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and has performed on the organ in recitals at various local churches over the years.
How do you feel about the changes for the upcoming school year?
It’s definitely a challenge that will require us to be creative and find new ways to engage students. This is uncharted territory; connecting with students and forming relationships is something we teachers do very naturally in-person, but many of us feel lost in a foreign land when thinking about how to cultivate the relationships that motivate learning through a limited, virtual environment. I’m excited to try new things and I think we are all hoping that students will be excited to return to learning, knowing that they might have to work a little bit harder than usual to stay focused and engaged. I know we have many supports that we are putting in place so that all students, regardless of background, can be successful learners in this mode. Of course, we are all looking forward to the moment we can be together in the building again! We’ll never again take “school” for granted after this challenging time ends.
How does computer science compare to other subjects as far as teaching virtually?
Computer science perhaps lends itself more easily to virtual learning than other subjects because you are already on a computer when you are coding.
Does anything worry you about virtual learning?
I worry about how challenging it might be to make sure that students don’t get burned out spending several hours a day in front of a virtual learning environment, and having enough time to prepare the lessons and materials for both synchronous and asynchronous online consumption by students. It takes a long time because we are building multiple strategies into our lessons to increase cultural relevancy, and support students at all levels.
How did you react to learning you received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching?
I was very humbled. It was my third time being nominated and going through the submission process, so I felt like I had a couple of practice rounds before this one. I was so delighted that the selection committee found interest in computer science teaching and pedagogy.
What were you like in high school?
I was that introverted kid who didn’t say much until people said something to me. I sometimes found it hard to relate to students who were more outgoing and social, so I spent a lot of time trying (too hard, at times) to be likeable by as many peer groups as I could. I remember very well the social pressures of high school and the extent to which those peer relationships matter to high school students! I think in my role as a teacher today I recognize the continued emphasis on relationships and I try to help students feel valued and comfortable being their genuine selves, and not trying too hard to please others.
When and why did you decide to become a computer science teacher?
Jump back ten years ago… I was teaching chemistry and physics at the time, and there was a knock at my classroom door. Kevin Hudson (assistant principal) told me that there was student and parent interest in a computer science course at Pioneer. HR had informed him that I had a computer science degree and endorsement, and so he told me I’d be teaching a CS course the following year! Surprise! I was stunned because I had never been able to find a teaching job in my original undergraduate area, and hadn’t written a line of code for almost 15 years. All of a sudden, there it was – the chance to teach what I had always hoped to teach. From there, the program continued growing and so each successive year I taught less and less in the science department and eventually became full-time CS.
When you recall your first year of teaching, what memories stand out?
The biggest one was how much fun it was to finally be an important part of the students’ academic lives (I was at Community High School and we were on first-name bases) and how hard it was to say goodbye to them at the end of the year. I wasn’t prepared for that. Over the years teachers learn to roll with the fact that each year they start over with a new group of kids, pouring themselves into them for a year, only to say goodbye as those kids move on while the teacher starts again the next year.
What’s the best compliment anyone could give you?
That I reflect the love of God to people. Accepting, supporting, strengthening, and tough when needed. Being in a public school setting and never mentioning God in any way, this would only happen because of my actions, so it is my goal to treat everyone as God sees them. I think the world needs this love more than ever today.
In your 24 years in AAPS, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about teaching? About learning?
There are too many lessons I’ve learned during that time to even begin to list. The first three years, you learn much more than you could ever teach the kids. Then, you start to hone your craft. Some key ideas: it’s critical to inspire before you demand, focus on how you act more than what you say, when you run out of patience then rely on kindness, help kids learn to become accountable/responsible especially when this means they won’t like you, and that you have an impact that is MUCH greater than you realize.
What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened in your classroom?
There are many crazy things that have happened! Lots of great science experiments that end up providing “unexpected” results, and spontaneous humorous situations that every teacher gets to experience. One time I had taken one of my 8th grade elective classes on an exclusive field trip to the Ford Nuclear Reactor on UM’s north campus as part of our unit on nuclear energy, and I had a student who was so interested that, although he was not in that class, he sneaked out of school anyway and rode his skateboard all the way from Tappan to north campus, then somehow worked his way past the building security (telling them he was “with my class”) to come and see the reactor.
I was literally shocked when he showed up, deep inside the building, where we were being briefed in a conference room. Needless to say, there was a conversation later that included the building principal!
Who would you like to thank in your pathway to becoming a master teacher?
I’d like to thank all of the 8th grade staff at Tappan for helping me when I was a new teacher—especially Elaine Richmond, and Gary Court, the building principal at that time—for really helping me become a better teacher and a better person in so many ways during my time there.
If you could know the definitive answer to any one question, what would that question be?
How can I learn to love better and serve myself less? Or: I’ve been teaching for a little over 20 years. What will life be like in another 20 years?
If you could talk to your teenage self, what would you say?
Relax! Everything happens for a reason. Be patient; be who you are and not who you think people want you to be.
What is the most rewarding part of teaching?
There are many rewards! To name a few: getting to see a student succeed when they were otherwise struggling, getting to see a student find a new passion they never knew they had, having a student remember you after many years and write you an email to thank you for your influence.
What do you wish everyone realized about the work of a teacher?
That most teachers really work hard. They lose sleep at night worrying about their students. They invest in their students physically, emotionally, and sometimes even financially. That tough love is hard but sometimes necessary. That teaching is the profession that creates all other professions; teaching is a dignified and very valuable calling to society.