Two Rhode Island teachers, both Warwick residents, were awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching this May. Charlene Tuttle, a fourth grade teacher at the Melrose Avenue School in Jamestown, and Beverlee-Ann Powell, a first grade teacher at Oakland Beach Elementary School, were the winners of this prestigious prize. On May 16, Tuttle and Powell took a trip to Washington, D.C. where they received their awards, and met personally with President Barak Obama.
Powell and Tuttle both have lengthy resumes that include years of work in the classroom.
Powell began teaching in 1970 at a private school. She worked there for six years teaching kindergarten, until she took some time off to have a family. She returned to teaching in 1988 at Oakland Beach Elementary School, and has been there ever since.
Powell has taught special and regular education, and now teaches in an inclusion classroom. Though she teaches her students all subjects, she took home the Presidential Award for excellence in mathematics education.
“Math is my favorite subject,” she said. “I think a lot of people shy away from math, but I don’t; I love the challenge of it. I love to see the way my students respond.”
Powell said that she encourages her students to embrace math, not hate it.
“Very rarely do you hear someone say, ‘I hate reading; I’m no good at it.’ But people are ready to say that they hate math. At a very young age, I try to teach my students to like math,” she said.
Powell recalled a student of hers who came up to her and told her: If you add 16 four times, you get 64. He said he knew because there were four sections of sixteen crayons in the Crayola 64 box. Powell was proud that her student had the courage to use his mathematical skills in a critical way.
“It’s a ‘wow’ moment when they get it,” she said.
Tuttle, a fourth grade teacher of an inclusion class, won the Presidential Award for science education. Originally from Rhode Island, Tuttle began her teaching career in California. When she returned to Rhode Island a few years later, she taught in a bilingual classroom in Providence. She ultimately ended up in Jamestown, moving between grades 3, 4 and 6 over the past 12 years. She also trains other science teachers in inquiry-based teaching techniques at the GEMS-NET program at URI.
“I think that’s what I love, handing the ownership over to the students,” she said. “You analyze what they’re thinking and encourage them to ask questions. I enjoy taking risks and allowing the students to direct things. It takes you deeper into the subject than you would go with just a textbook.”
Both Powell and Tuttle enjoy the challenges of teaching, and the new questions that arise from their students every day.
“It’s never boring, every day is different,” said Powell.
Powell and Tuttle’s willingness to challenge themselves and their students put them on a path toward teaching excellence. Their journey to becoming Presidential Award winners began more than a year ago, when Powell and Tuttle were nominated.
Powell’s principal, Kathleen Adams, nominated her, and one of Tuttle’s colleagues put her name in the hat. From there, Tuttle and Powell had to record video footage of themselves teaching a class, and submit a detailed commentary about their work. They also had to submit a resume, detailed descriptions of their teaching style and methods, and an outline of their overall involvement in their students’ education.
Eventually, the statewide pool of applicants was narrowed down to three finalists in the math and science categories.
After months of waiting, submitting more information and waiting some more, Powell and Tuttle were notified on April 28 they had both been selected to receive the Presidential Award.
Powell was with her daughter, who was in labor, when she read the e-mail.
“It was a double hit,” she laughed, saying that the two very special occasions timed out perfectly. “I didn’t believe it. I was reading the e-mail as my daughter was in labor.”
According to Powell, it has been years since Rhode Island has had a Presidential Award winner in math.
“It’s such an honor,” she said. “At the level I work at you can’t see yourself as different; everyone works hard, and we’re a team at Oakland Beach.”
Powell said her win didn’t really sink in until she got to Washington, D.C.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god, I really did win this,’” she said.
Tuttle was at her chiropractor’s office when she was notified of her win.
“I went outside and called my mom and my husband, and I told my chiropractor I couldn’t lay down for long; he had to hurry up, I had to go,” she said.
Tuttle said she and Powell were riding a wave of excitement for a while. When they finally made the trip to D.C. in mid-May, they were thrilled.
Eighty-five winners from all 50 states and the U.S. territories were invited on a weeklong trip around D.C., where they met with heads of organizations like NASA and the EPA. They were treated to speeches and accolades from people like Nobel Laureate Dr. Carl Wieman, a tour of the White House and a trip to meet with Congressman Jack Reed. The week was capped-off with congratulatory remarks from President Obama himself.
“He was gracious and welcoming,” said Powell, who recalled the event with goose bumps.
“He was unhurried, he made it seem like he had nothing else to do,” said Tuttle.
The women recounted how the president took photos with them, shook all of their hands and asked them questions. He personally thanked them for their work as educators.
“I was speechless,” said Powell. Later, when she returned home, her family saw the president on television, to which Powell coolly responded, “That’s my BFF,” short for “best friend forever.”
The women were presented with certificates signed by the president and congratulatory letters. Each also received $10,000 to spend however they choose.
Both Powell and Tuttle tossed around the idea of using the money to take classes themselves, or to buy supplies for their students.