By Cathi Douglas
For Leslie Whitaker, a third-grade teacher at Esencia Elementary, it’s surreal to be one of six California finalists for the 2020 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
A self-proclaimed lover of working behind the scenes, Whitaker says she feels humbled by the prestigious award, which was announced in December 2020 by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. She expects to hear this summer if she goes on to become a national finalist.
“These teachers are incredible educators, role models, and mentors to all those around them, and through mastery of their craft, they inspire students to study math, technology, engineering, and science—including computer science,” Thurmond said.
Whitaker, who has taught in the Capistrano Unified School District since September 1999, credits her mastery of Cognitively Guided Instruction for the honor. She was first trained in CGI – student-centered approach to teaching math – in a five-day seminar offered by the Orange County Department of Education in 2003.
CGI starts with what students already know and builds on their natural number sense and intuitive approaches to problem-solving. Since that first training, Whitaker has taken and presented many training seminars on the subject.
“My first training completely changed my approach to teaching and was a turning point in my career,” Whitaker recalls. “It is a completely student-centered approach that helps students make sense of mathematics.”
The extensive application process for the award showed how Whitaker has supported many student teachers, been a math teacher on special assignment in the district and worked with a team at the county Department of Education to provide professional learning for transitional kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers.
Last summer, she wrote Canvas third-grade math lessons for the first two trimesters of district distance learning. Her topic was comparing fractions by reasoning about their size, number of parts, and relationship to benchmarks.
Esencia Principal Josh Willikson calls her honor “long overdue,” and remembers identifying Whitaker as one of his must-have teachers when he first was building the elementary school.
“She was one of the academic leaders in the district and a speaker on CGI, math, and instruction at the local, state, and national level,” Willikson said. “I hired her as a rock star in the area of instruction and curriculum and to build a caring, collaborative culture at Esencia.”
“Leslie has an uncanny ability to make her fellow teachers feel comfortable coming to her for assistance and advice,” he continued. “She’s an amazing collaborator and mentor teacher who pushes her students to work hard and ensures they feel loved in her classes. She figures out each child and gives them the kind of instruction they need.”
Whitaker’s recognition as a state leader in elementary education acknowledges her efforts to move the district forward in doing what is right for children, he declares.
“This recognizes she is an amazing teacher who has done something extraordinary at almost every elementary level and has had a lasting, positive impact across the district,” he said.
She enjoys problem-solving based on what she learns from her students, Whitaker notes, adding that she loves to work hard and create new ways of teaching math. In the future, she says she wants to continue teacher training in CGI throughout the district’s 34 elementary schools.
“I want to make even more connections with leaders in math, and create new ideas,” she says.
In the meantime, Willikson says, the statewide honor not only reflects well on Esencia Elementary but is a true testament to Whitaker’s leadership.
“Credit goes to her and her efforts to be the star she is for our children,” he said.
“Leslie’s passion is her students,” he continues. “She lives and breathes math and learning. Her students become passionate learners who want to be seekers of knowledge throughout their lives.”