Columbia teacher wins highest NEA Foundation award

Saturday, February 12, 2011 | 6:25 p.m. CST
Jefferson Junior High School teacher and NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence winner Kathy Steinhoff teaches a geometry class on Sept. 17. Steinhoff was selected from five finalists to receive the NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence along with $25,000. The award recognizes effective teaching skills and advocacy for the educational profession. Steinhoff won the award for her unique teaching style and the use of technology in her lessons.

COLUMBIA — Jefferson Junior High School math teacher Kathy Steinhoff keeps replaying the moment her name was pulled out of a sealed envelope Friday night announcing her the winner of the NEA Foundation's highest education award.

Upon the announcement, her cheering friends and colleagues rushed to embrace her.

“I was just really shocked,” Kathy Steinhoff said. “And then I knew I had to get up to that stage and needed to give a speech, and I hadn’t really prepared one, and there were 900 people out there.”

Kathy Steinhoff was selected from five finalists to receive the NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence along with $25,000. The award recognizes effective teaching skills and advocacy for the educational profession. She is also the first teacher from Missouri to make it to the top five, which came with an additional $10,000.

Kathy Steinhoff said she doesn't know how she'll use the award money yet, but she'd like to host a party for her friends and colleagues.

Kathy Steinhoff's husband, Doug Steinhoff, also a teacher at Jefferson Junior High, said his wife had an expression of disbelief on her face and nearly broke into tears when her name was announced.

"She said she was ready to clap for whoever else had won it," Doug Steinhoff said.

During her acceptance speech, Kathy Steinhoff spoke about how much it meant for her to see so many people and businesses come out to support public education, especially because educators are not always respected for their hard work.

When Kathy Steinhoff returned to her seat after giving the speech, she saw that 20 text messages had flooded her phone. Back in Columbia, about 15 colleagues and friends had gathered for a watch party, texting back and forth with her and others at the event.

Her daughter Judy, 13, sent out a video of Kathy Steinhoff walking up to the stage to receive her award.

Kathy Steinhoff said the awards ceremony in the high-ceiling grand ballroom at the National Building Museum looked like an awards show you'd see on television. The ballroom was at least the width and length of a football field, Doug Steinhoff said.

"To walk through this room with complete strangers with their tuxes and shake their hands, I just felt like a movie star," Kathy Steinhoff said.

Doug Steinhoff said the event was one of the highlights of his life.

"It’s like an actor winning an Oscar or a singer winning a Grammy," Doug Steinhoff said. "For an educator, you just can’t win a higher award."

NEA Foundation Special Projects Director Susan Burk said Kathy Steinhoff stood out from other candidates because she had earned national board certification twice, her teaching style appealed to different types of learners and she used technology in her lessons.

Kathy Steinhoff is the membership chair and former vice president of the Columbia Missouri NEA, which she said has raised awareness about the NEA and increased local membership in recent years. She is known for using technological tools, such as interactive SMART Boards and clickers, to help her eighth and ninth grade students learn math.

She also uploads podcasts, which record her teaching hard math problems, so her students can revisit her lessons later to study.

"That's how you memorize it," ninth grade geometry student Joanna Shorr said.

Even as she left for D.C., Kathy Steinhoff said she worried about leaving her students behind to learn math without her. She made sure to leave videos of her teaching math problems for the substitute to use, so she could help them learn even while she was away.

Kathy Steinhoff said teachers shouldn't shy away from using technology, because they don't have to be experts to use it and students can often help out. “If you get stuck, you might have some experts in the classroom who can help you," she said.

Jefferson Junior High students had the opportunity to learn more technological skills when they produced videos about Kathy Steinhoff, which were compiled to form one video shown at the awards gala. The Pearson Foundation sent two audio-visual consultants to spend a week teaching students from two classes to make videos.

Craig Adams, a teacher at Jefferson Junior High, said the week was a valuable "real-world experience" for students in his engineering and physics class, which he teaches with Doug Steinhoff.

"They were actually able to develop a product that would be seen by several hundred, potentially thousands of people," Adams said.

Jefferson Junior High Principal Greg Caine said he is in the process of making plans to recognize Kathy Steinhoff at the school. He said Kathy Steinhoff’s passion for math and dedication to her students makes her an excellent teacher who pushes her students to succeed.

"Out of all the teachers nationwide, to be recognized in this way is a fantastic accomplishment, and we're all excited and proud of her," Caine said.

But Kathy Steinhoff's experiences are far from over. This summer, she and about 30 other state winners will visit schools in China with the NEA Foundation, the Pearson Foundation and the Education First Educational Tours. Before Friday's awards gala, Kathy Steinhoff attended two-day classes about Chinese customs to prepare for her trip.

She will spend 10 days in China learning about Chinese culture, sightseeing and comparing the American and Chinese educational systems. Kathy Steinhoff and the other teachers will each produce a media project on the trip to use in a future lesson.

Kathy Steinhoff said she is especially interested to learn from Chinese teachers because China’s math scores are always among the highest in the world.

“I’m really interested to see that firsthand, talk to those teachers firsthand, just to see if there’s things I can take from that experience and apply to my own classroom,” Kathy Steinhoff said.

In the meantime, Kathy Steinhoff is exploring Washington D.C. and celebrating until Tuesday.

After she won the award Friday night, she and a group of supporters stayed up until 3 a.m. talking about the events of the evening, Susan McClintic, president of the Columbia Missouri NEA, said.

"My face hurt from smiling for hours and hours," McClintic said. "We just kept talking and laughing and reliving every moment."

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