CCA teacher wins Presidential Award for mathematics

Canyon Crest Academy math teacher Brian Shay was recognized as one of the outstanding 107 recipients of the 2019 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Established in 1983, the award is the highest honor given by the U.S. government to kindergarten through 12th grade teachers of mathematics and science.

Brian Shay

Shay, one of two California recipients and the only math teacher selected from the state, was honored in a virtual ceremony on Aug. 3 facilitated by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation. In non-pandemic times, the teachers would be feted during a three-day event in Washington DC.—instead Shay celebrated his award on Zoom along with his husband and his parents tuning in from Florida.

“I was really not expecting this,” Shay said. “It’s a big honor.”

Shay was nominated for the award by a colleague in Los Angeles and began the rigorous application process back in April 2018. The application included 20 pages of essay prompts about his teaching philosophy, how lessons are planned, how students connect and how he assesses students among other topics—he also had to include a recording of himself teaching a class.

“The process of applying for the Presidential Award has been the most rewarding experience of my career,” Shay said. “The time spent to develop, implement, record, reflect on and remediate one lesson has made me a better teacher and learner. I now approach each aspect of my teaching and learning through this lens. I am now a stronger teacher and my students are better learners.”

A panel of distinguished mathematicians, scientists and educators at the state and national levels assessed the applications before recommending nominees. Shay was announced as one of six state finalists in October and got the announcement about his big win just before the Aug. 3 ceremony.

When Shay was in high school, calculus was the class that made him fall in love with math—he is even still in contact with his teacher. He earned a bachelors and masters in mathematics from SUNY Potsdam in 1998, and a masters in mathematics and a masters of art in teaching in mathematics from UC Davis in 2001.

Shay has been teaching for 18 years and started his career in the district at La Costa Canyon High School. He was one of the founding staff members at Canyon Crest Academy and jokes that he was the first teacher hired: “I call it my school and I’ve watched my baby grow and become the incredible place that it is.”

At CCA he teaches integrated math and AP calculus and is an adjunct instructor in mathematics at UC San Diego. Shay is also a teacher of teachers as a leader in math education at the local, state and national levels, organizing and speaking at conferences all over the country.

Shay designs his classes like a seminar where questions are asked and students talk it out and debate.

“My philosophy is that anybody can learn math, they just need to be given the opportunity to explore and play with it,” Shay said.

He tries to make the experience not just him lecturing to the class but allowing students to make mathematical discoveries on their own through small groups and discussions, learning how to approach problems and think through the logical steps.

“Math is often a really rough course for a lot of kids,” Shay said, noting many students have math anxiety and doubt their abilities. He said, unfortunately, society is accustomed to allowing people to just accept they are math illiterate, which is not OK to Shay: “I am passionate about making math less intimidating.”

This spring was a big challenge for Shay—with distance learning due to the pandemic he taught live classes two to three times a week and made pre-recorded videos for his students. In addition to getting used to the logistics and technology of teaching from home, it was hard to get kids to talk about academics and engage virtually.

“I did a lot of soul searching about what I wanted my class to look like in the fall,” Shay said.

This summer he is participating in professional development on online teaching—“It’s a very different bag of tricks”—learning about tools to keep kids engaged and accountable. For his AP calculus class, he is planning for lots of small assignments done in short chunks of time so his students won’t be able to hide, get distracted or suffer from screen fatigue. He also hopes to get students to engage more with each other and better build a sense of connection and community.

More than anything Shay said he wishes he could be starting the year face-to-face with his students. It will be challenging but he believes that kids are resilient and together, they will figure it out.

“I’m looking forward to working with a new crop of kids and guiding them through the most exciting course in the world,” Shay said.