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When Donald Sarazen enters his classroom at H.B. Rhame Elementary School, he challenges his students to “think until it hurts.” It’s a philosophy inspired by a former student who struggled with a math problem. When he asked her to think a bit more, she replied, “It hurts to think.”
That encounter sparked the idea to spread the same message to all of his students and encourage them to have fun while learning. That attitude and his unique teaching methods are big reasons why Sarazen earned the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
“I am humbled and honored to receive the Presidential Award. I understand its importance and do not take it lightly, knowing that with it comes great responsibility,” Sarazen said. “It also serves as a reminder to me that God and others are responsible for the achievements in my life. So in a larger sense I represent the educators I have worked with and students I have taught. This award encourages me to teach with renewed purpose, to accept new challenges and to serve my colleagues to the best of my ability.”
Sarazen is one of 102 math and science teachers nationwide chosen for the Presidential Award. The honor is given to outstanding teachers, and eligible recipients switch each year between kindergarten through sixth-grade teachers and seventh- to twelfth-grade teachers.
Sarazen, who teaches fourth grade, said he received two nominations for the award — one from the school secretary and another from the district’s mathematics consultant, Linda Coulter.
He competed with several other teachers in the state, and he eventually was chosen as one of three state finalists. A selection committee of scientists, mathematicians and educators at the national level eventually selected Sarazen for the national award.
Looking back on his career, Sarazen said that being a teacher had not crossed his mind. After serving in the Army, Sarazen attended Columbia International University with the thought that he might return to the military. While in the Army, he was a parachute rigger and helicopter pilot, experiences he recalls when teaching or telling a story to his students.
However, his interests changed and he soon graduated with a Master of Arts in Teaching from the university.
Sarazen has taught most subjects as an elementary school educator, but for the first 10 years of his teaching career he focused mainly on science.
Stints at schools in the Richland Two and Lexington Two school districts, including five years at Logan Elementary School where he served as the science lab teacher and science coach, eventually led him to H.B. Rhame Elementary School four years ago. Sarazen also taught for two years at Chengdu International School in Chengdu, China.
While at H.B. Rhame, Sarazen said he took advantage of professional development opportunities to better prepare to teach math, a subject he wasn’t quite strong in when he attended elementary school.
“I suppose I was average,” Sarazen said.
He knew there were better ways to teach math to students while creating a fun environment.
“A student needs to be happy, treated with respect and they need to have fun,” he said.
Sarazen then began to incorporate games into his course materials to reach students.
“I like to think of myself as hunting for them,” Sarazen said. His students have learned various math concepts using Battleship, card games, fraction war and Blokus, a board game similar to Tetris that Sarazen said is great at teaching spatial coordination.
Sarazen’s methods have led him to author work on teaching math concepts as well as to speak at several conferences. Sarazen, a national board certified teacher, wrote an article called “Fractions — Thinking Beyond the Lines” that was featured in the October 2012 edition of Teaching Children Mathematics, a journal published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
He also led his faculty through the book “What Great Teachers Do Differently.” Sarazen is also the H.B. Rhame’s math facilitator for the Common Core State Standards.
The Presidential Award recognizes the talents of educators who will lead the next generation of students toward careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s education initiatives.
“These teachers are inspiring today’s young students to become the next generation of American scientists, mathematicians, and innovators,” President Obama said in a statement. “Through their passion and dedication, and by sharing their excitement about science, technology, engineering, and math, they are helping us build a promising future for all our children.”
Sarazen said elementary school teachers serve an important role in capturing a student’s interest in the subjects early on to begin developing a desire to go into a STEM field.
“I think we need to grab their hearts and brains at this age and keep their interest,” Sarazen said.
Sarazen, along with the other recipients, will receive a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation to be used at their discretion. They also are invited to Washington, D.C., for an awards ceremony and several days of educational and celebratory events, including visits with members of Congress and the Administration.
As Sarazen enter his 21st year of teaching, he says that he looks forward to 10 more years of teaching before he considers retiring. In the meantime, his advice to teachers looking to inspire their students is simple.
“Take full responsibility for your students learning,” he said.
Sarazen said while students might enter the classroom with various backgrounds, learning deficiencies or other personal problems, it is up to the teacher to instill knowledge for academic success.
“The one variable you can control is you,” Sarazen said. “A student has not learned, if teaching has not taken place.”