COLUMBIA — It’s a sunny Friday morning. With the weekend just a few hours away, Kathy Steinhoff reviews the previous night’s homework with her honors geometry class at Jefferson Junior High School.
While describing points and lines, she holds up a yardstick and an apple magnet to show the relationship.
All the while, an interactive SMART Board and clickers for each student allow her to display the problems and gauge their responses. When a particularly tough question pops up, Steinhoff pulls out a microphone and records her explanation for a podcast she will upload to the class’s website.
Recently, the NEA Foundation recognized Steinhoff’s work, selecting her as one of five national recipients of the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence. Steinhoff is the first teacher from Missouri to get the award.
As the class reaches the final question on the homework, one that required students to draw a series of objects, Steinhoff asks whether anyone would like to share his or her answer. When one hand goes up, she takes the student's paper and uses a camera to take a snapshot of his work. The image then pops up on the SMART Board, allowing everyone to see.
Steinhoff's energy is high as she moves around the classroom and provides visual examples of the material she teaches. The use of interactive technology is at the heart of Steinhoff’s teaching philosophy.
“I think it’s really important to engage students in the classroom,” she said.
The Columbia branch of the National Education Association, which partners with the foundation, nominated Steinhoff for the award. She then moved on to the state level and eventually to the national level. In Washington, D.C., she was interviewed by a panel and taught a 20-minute lesson.
She found the process grueling and stressful, especially because the interviewers showed little emotion during the process.
“I didn’t feel good about it because I didn’t get any feedback,” she said.
Looking back, Steinhoff, who teaches honors geometry and pre-algebra, thinks it was not only her classroom techniques but her advocacy for teaching that helped push her above other candidates. She is the membership chairwoman of the Columbia Missouri NEA.
For many around Jefferson Junior High, the recognition for Steinhoff is not a surprise.
“I’d like to say I’m surprised, but really I’m not, because she is an outstanding classroom teacher,” Assistant Principal Thaddues Hamilton said. “As far as a teacher goes, I would stack her up against anyone.”
Among her colleagues and students, two of Steinhoff’s teaching techniques stand out: her use of technology in the classroom and her ability to build relationships with students.
“They will say the technology is cool,” she said of her students. “Kids these days don’t give a lot compliments. They won’t give that up a lot, so you know it impacts them.”
Laurie Spate-Smith, who teaches English at Jefferson, said Steinhoff's manner is warm and easy.
“Kids come to love her even if they’re not interested in math,” she said.
Steinhoff “inspired students to want to learn math,” said Bridget Bier, a sophomore at Rock Bridge High School who was in Steinhoff’s honors geometry class last year. Bier said she did this by making class interactive instead of only lecturing at the students.
She recalled that for each unit, Steinhoff assigned the class a project that connected the geometrical concepts to the real world. One project that focused on symmetry had students look at the concept in logos.
Natalie Heim, another sophomore at Rock Bridge who had Steinhoff last year, remembers March 14, 2009, as a special day in class. Like many math communities around the world, the class celebrated Pi Day that day; an approximation of the number Pi (3.14) matches up with the date and has been designated Pi Day.
On this particular Pi Day, Heim recalled that Steinhoff focused her class not only on learning about Pi but eating pie as well.
“It wasn’t just the same old lesson,” Heim said.
Steinhoff hasinfluenced her colleagues at Jefferson as well.
“Even though I’m an English teacher and she’s a math teacher, I learn from her all the time,” said Spate-Smith, who has been struck by the way Steinhoff gets students interested in learning.
Steinhoff’s passion for teaching developed at an early age. She said that while other kids were out playing games like baseball, she was teaching pretend students.
“The running joke (in my family) is that I was always taking my pretend class on field trips,” she said.
Steinhoff had a good role model in her aunt who was a teacher and an inspiration.
“I was always really interested in the papers she was grading and the bulletin boards she was putting up, and everything she was doing,” Steinhoff said.
As one of the award recipients, Steinhoff received $10,000 and will attend a gala to be recognized in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 11, 2011. At the gala, one of the five recipients will be selected to receive to the NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence, which brings with it an additional $25,000.
Originally, Steinhoff thought that just she and her husband would attend the gala, but now she has a support group headed east, including her parents, her sisters, her daughter and six colleagues from Jefferson.
For Steinhoff, this support is more proof of the strong connection among staff members at the school.
“We’re a family here,” she said.
Spate-Smith is attending the gala in February because she likes Steinhoff’s chances of taking the national award.
“I know in my heart my friend and colleague is richly deserving of this," she said, "and I want to be there to celebrate with her.”