For math teacher, her job at middle school is a calling

There's a difference between a job and a calling.

A job is what you do to pay the bills. A calling brings purpose and fulfillment to a life.

Sometimes a job and a calling are the same.

That's the case for Jennifer Riordan, a math teacher at Mount Pleasant Middle School, who is a finalist for the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

Administered by the National Science Foundation on behalf of the White House, the award is the nation's highest honor for math and science teachers. Winners receive a certificate from the president, a trip to Washington, D.C., and a $10,000 grant.

Nominated by a colleague whose daughter was in her class, Riordan didn't expect much to come of her application, which was pretty thorough: a résumé, a lot of answers to questions, and a 45-minute video.

The video she submitted was a lesson on ratio and proportion. Riordan uses Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" to make the subject more hands-on and fun. Students were spread out all over the classroom and into the hallway, she said, making erasers, notebook paper and clipboards suitable for the giant-sized residents of Brobdingnag.

In June, Riordan learned she was one of three state finalists for the Presidential Award. All three were honored at the N.C. Teachers of Mathematics conference in October and again earlier this month in Raleigh.

The experience in Raleigh was "fabulous," Riordan said.

She has enjoyed getting to know her fellow finalists, she said; so much so that she will be thrilled no matter who wins the award.

I suspect what Riordan has enjoyed most so far about being a finalist is having the opportunity to talk with others for whom teaching math is a calling.

A self-described nerd, she looks forward to each publication of the NCTTM Journal so she can scour it for good ideas and new ways to teach.

Riordan said it's important for her students to know that math is more than pages in a workbook.

She wants to make math about real life and to try to eliminate their fears and stumbling blocks (often self-created) to learning math. She challenges kids to ask questions and to be advocates for themselves.

Riordan always liked math, she said, but didn't learn well from the teachers she had.

So she's always looking for ways to be a better teacher, to find the way to make math approachable for every single student, to make them want to learn.

She won't find out until May whether she's won the award, but she'll surely spend the time between now and then fulfilling her job and her calling: teaching middle school math.