CLIFTON PARK — If Shenendehowa High School mathematics teacher Daniel Anderson ever got lost trying to get home, telling him to take three left turns and one right wouldn't help him.
But if someone nixed the standard formula of giving directions and talked to Anderson instead about the neighborhoods and streets surrounding his house, and explained why taking three lefts instead of three rights was necessary, he would have no trouble getting home. It's that type of background-first, application-second instruction style that recently made Anderson a finalist for a prestigious teaching recognition.
Anderson, a native of Burnt Hills, was one of seven New York state teachers named as finalists for the 2016-17 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Though this is his first year teaching mathematics and computer science to juniors at Shen, he previously taught in Queensbury for 11 years and at a prep school in New Hampshire before that.
The PAEMST finalists, announced last week by state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, are teachers who "make science and math come alive" for students," according to an announcement about the finalists.
A committee will ultimately determine the award winners from each state.
For the innovators who developed mathematical formulas, Anderson explained, the numbers were more than just numbers.
"It was beautiful to them," he said. "You can always find time to show why something was developed."
Anderson noted that he was always a decent math student, but that memorizing formulas was difficult for him. A few of his teachers in Burnt Hills took time to incorporate the history and justifications behind the numbers during their lessons, and that was something that struck him deeply.
"I learned this way myself," Anderson said, noting that while teaching formulas is valuable, it's not particularly gripping to many students. Utilizing the background of math, he explained, shows students why mathematicians were interested in working with numbers in the first place. Teaching them about the process of how formulas came into their current forms lets his students solve problems just as effectively as memorizing formulas would.
Anderson said he entered the PAEMST competition after watching other teachers whom he admired go through the competition. The application requires a filmed lesson and a deep analysis of a lesson plan, which Anderson said gave him good insight into his own teaching style and helped him figure out what he might be able to improve upon.
"I'm humbled by the fact that I'm even a finalist," he said.
Keeping with his non-traditional teaching methods, Anderson believes in giving his students the space to move around the classroom and work together, using large floor-to-ceiling chalkboards. Anderson doesn't snub technology in the classroom: Once every few weeks, he said, his students use Chromebooks for class. But, he said, the most important part of class is to have students up and moving around.
Getting kids used to talking to each other and collaborating takes time, he said, and he noted that his classroom style means he has to trust that students will focus on work if he has his back turned to them while he helps other students. When it works, it really works, he said.
"It's just the best thing in the world," Anderson said.
He also doesn't place all of his emphasis on tests. While exams are important, Anderson explained that the end goal, which he has a year, sometimes two, to achieve, is helping his students learn. Over the past five years, Anderson has started to keep in touch with past students and enjoys talking to them about how their math lessons have stuck with them as they go on to college, or other things.
"It's super interesting to see where they went," Anderson said. "It's really cool to have those connections after."
Just because his teaching style was recognized as effective, though, doesn't mean Anderson has plans to remain stuck in his ways. The best of part of teaching, in his opinion, is the constant potential to try new things.
"It's always changing," he said. "That's my favorite thing about the job. There's no best way to do things."