A one-of-a-kind ‘rockstar’ treatment for a nationally-recognized teacher

Third-grade Tabernacle Elementary School teacher Michael Dunlea was the recipient of the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching on Oct. 15 (Krystal Nurse/The Sun).

Months of sending in submissions and waiting led to an exciting end for Tabernacle Elementary School teacher Michael Dunlea on Oct. 15.

Dunlea, along with 215 other educators in the country including three others in New Jersey, was announced as a 2018 recipient of the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the highest honor a STEM teacher can receive in the country.

Winners, Dunlea said, went through an extensive submission process in which they had to be nominated by someone to be considered, and submit letters of recommendation and answers to prompts within the application.

“You [also] submit videos of your teaching, and a defense of your pedagogical choices like on the activities you chose, why it’s a student learning, the standards and outcomes, all of the decisions you made when you planned your lessons and facilitated,” Dunlea said.

He added he was a finalist in New Jersey in 2016, but was not selected and resubmitted his items for the 2018 awards.

One of the lessons submitted was a second-grade activity to measure a bulletin board. Equipped with various measuring tools, the students were able to measure the bottom and sides of the bulletin board – but not the top. They then used previous lessons and experiences to deduce the top of the board would match the measurement on the bottom, finishing the lesson by cutting a piece of paper to their measurements and checking to see that the paper fit the bulletin board.

Another lesson plan included students measuring their heights, researching which Great Adventure rides they could and couldn’t ride based on height, and then summarizing how many inches they needed to grow in order to be allowed on a particular ride. The lesson, Dunlea added, was natural for students, as they were able to use real world examples and their math skills.

As the ecstatic educator documented his Oct. 16-19 trip to Washington, D.C. on his Twitter account (@MichaelJDunlea), Dunlea said the weekend was filled with an amazing amount of energy because he was around “like-minded” people who have the same amount of commitment to the profession as he does.

Every person in that room has been working tirelessly for their students to celebrate with others,” he added. “The most powerful thing is that you’re being treated like a rockstar because someone sees you that way.”

He later added receiving such treatment from the White House validates the jobs that teachers do and shows them they are a vital part of communities, despite the challenges and stressors they face.

What marveled the educator most when down in the nation’s capital was his ability to be able to meet people from states such as Alaska or Kansas, and being able to learn about their differences and what brings them together.

“You get a lot of negative attention, and it’s an uplifting moment to be recognized for what you do and how well you do it,” he said. “I know that for every person who gets the award, there’s hundreds of thousands who will not and are of the same level. I think it’s important to honor excellent teaching.”

In an effort to thwart the popular questions students across the country ask — “when will I ever use this?” — Dunlea said he learned from the weekend’s festivities the U.S. is stressing inter-disciplinary lessons, which Tabernacle utilizes.

Students are learning about climate change, which is science, but what we’re doing is we’re interacting with students from South Africa and Bangladesh, and we’ll be connecting with Argentina and there you have social studies,” he said. 

The lesson goes several steps further in having students visit Brendan T. Byrne State Forest to replant trees that were destroyed by all-terrain vehicles.

As excitement dies down from the award, Dunlea said he and the four New Jersey winners will continue to work to strengthen STEM in the state to help prepare students and other teachers for the future.