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Presidential awardee focuses on improving students and himself

According to Spencer Bean, a McKay School alumnus who recently received the 2011 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, there is no such thing as a “math person,” just people who have had positive and negative experiences with math. “I reject the idea that someone is a math person or not,” Spencer said. “I believe that everyone can progress in math; the struggle is [knowing] where they are, and how I [can] help them progress from there.”

Spencer, has been teaching at the Defense Department’s Baumholder Middle-High School in Germany for the past eight years. When he first started at Baumholder, there was only one math course above Algebra 2, and only five to six students were enrolled in it. He worked tirelessly with students for several years; he first created a pre-calculus course, then an AP calculus class and an AP statistics class. The improvements that Spencer implemented were important criteria in his receiving the award. “I really focused on trying to build the upper level, while still maintaining the level of the kids who are struggling,” Bean said.


"It’s not about a check mark on a worksheet any longer; it’s about mastering the math . . . it’s all about learning."


Spencer was presented with the award while spending a week in Washington D.C. with the award winners from all over the country as they networked, learned from each other, and shared ideas. In fact, Spencer considers working with these talented teachers one of the greatest honors that have come with the award. The award winners met with Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, a teaching professional.

Spencer is excited that his voice in the educational community carries some weight; he is also eager to work with an exceptional national network of educators.

“Now if I say something, I can put down presidential awardee in mathematics,” Spencer said. “That’s different than just some guy in a corner of a school somewhere who has good ideas, but nobody really listens to [him]. That’s what I’m excited about.”

Before studying education, Spencer had intended to get a degree in business. Just after he was married, his bishop talked with him about his career and asked Spencer what his dream job would be. “I said I would teach high school in a heart beat,” Bean said. “I talked with my wife, and the next day I switched to education. I have never regretted it.”

Spencer has been working on innovative teaching techniques and is seeing gratifying results with his students. He is currently in the process of flipping his classroom through a program he calls “Flipped Mastery”. With this sequence, students watch the lectures at home and work on the practice problems on their own. At school they ask questions and discuss concepts with the instructor. They can only move to the next section if they get a score of 80 or above on tests called “mastery checks.” If they don’t pass, they are given a similar homework assignment and go through the process again. Spencer is currently working on Flipped Mastery with over a dozen teachers from three different continents.

“Now that I’ve switched to this style of teaching, the kids care more about the homework,” Spencer said. “It’s not about a check mark on a worksheet any longer; it’s about mastering the math . . . it’s all about learning”

Solidifying that foundation of math is important to Spencer. He believes if students get stuck on a basic concept and aren’t helped to work through it, moving to higher levels becomes very confusing. This confusion causes students to start disliking math.

From the beginning of his career, Spencer intended to become a top quality teacher by improving himself every day. “When I left BYU, I [told] my wife and the principals I interviewed with . . . [that] my plan was to be one of the best teachers in the country, and I really believed that,” Spencer said. “I would tell them ‘I know I’m not there yet,’ and I’m still not, but I believed I knew how I could keep improving.”

Spencer’s attitude of constant improvement came both from working at the MTC, where teachers are regularly observed and receive constructive criticism, and from living the gospel. With an understanding that education is a part of our eternal growth, Spencer tries to reach his highest potential.

“It makes no sense for someone who has an understanding of the gospel to say I’m just going to be passive in my career, and I’m just going to meet the minimum requirements,” Spencer said. “It’s not about this life—it’s about eternity. I’m going to be trying to improve for eternity.”

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October 2, 2012