CLIFTON PARK — Shenendehowa mathematics and computer science teacher Dan Anderson's incorporation of flexibility into what some consider rigid topics has led to success for his students and, more recently, national recognition for him.
Anderson recently received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. He has been teaching at Shen High School for three years and teaches mostly juniors in algebra and calculus classes, as well as computer science and cellphone app development classes.
Anderson,who grew up in Burnt Hills, transitioned into teaching after graduating from Union College with degrees in mathematics and computer science.
He didn't immediately know what he wanted to do, he said, so he embarked on some traveling, returned to the area for graduate school, and ultimately landed at Shen.
And while teaching has provided Anderson with the relative stability in terms of having summers and vacations off, he said it’s also a job that can be both challenging and enjoyable.
“It feels like it’s an impossible job. Something changes every day,” he said. “But, there’s always something to get better at.”
He acknowledges that there are different methods that should be utilized while teaching the classes that he focuses on, even if they seem similar. During his math classes, he said, he emphasizes that there is room for creativity if students can get beyond the basics of solving an equation.
“They can solve the same problem three or four different ways,” he said.
Computer science, he said, is in a somewhat separate realm. The paths students can take there, he said, are virtually limitless.
“It’s totally up to you,” he said. “That, compared to math, is where every student can be challenged at their own level.”
The concept of fostering creativity in his classes is what might have helped him to win the award, Anderson said.
But balancing the creativity with rigorous state standards teachers must adhere to, he added, can be a challenge.
“Assigning a grade is really the least enjoyable part of my whole job,” he said.
To solve the problem in his computer science classes, Anderson has implemented a rubric system. As long as his students hit a few baseline standards in their projects, they can add whatever else they want.
For students who are struggling in his classes, or become discouraged as to how strict math or computer science might serve them after school, Anderson tries to bring them back around by emphasizing the importance of problem-solving skills, whatever the topic.
“If they get to work, the company wants to know who’s going to fix something when something breaks,” he said. “The concept of being able to get to the solutions is important.”
He noted that speed in getting to the answer isn’t always the most crucial aspect of the task. What matters, he said, is how deeply students understand the questions they’re being asked to solve, and the process of solving them.
To keep his lesson plans fresh, Anderson utilizes social media platforms such as Twitter to engage with other teachers and trade ideas back and forth. That way, he said, he can take new plans that he hasn’t tried in class before and fit them into the curriculum.
“I have ideas coming in every single day,” he said.
Anderson stressed that, while winning the award was a surprise and appreciated, it did not represent the pinnacle of his career.
The tougher crowd, he said, is his students. They’re the ones who keep him on his toes, he said, and force him to challenge himself and improve.
“I still have to win them over on day one anyway. That’s the best thing about this job,” he said. “Every year, every day, every week, I have to win them over again.”