Teacher receives national award in mathematics


FISHERS — A Bretzville native was recently bestowed the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics, the highest honor given by the United States government specifically for K-12 mathematics teaching. Lisa (Kempf) Leliaert of Fishers, Indiana, currently works as an instructional mathematics coach for intermediate teachers in the Greenfield Central Community School Corporation, but recently received the award for her work as a fourth-grade teacher in the district in 2016.


Presidential awards are given to mathematics and science teachers from each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Department of Defense Education Activity schools, and more. According to the awards’ website, the honors recognize teachers who develop and implement a high-quality instructional program that is informed by content knowledge and enhances student learning.

Receiving the award took quite some time — so long, that at points, Leliaert forgot she was even nominated. That initial nomination came at the end of the 2015-16 school year from an instructional coach whom she worked with. (At that time, Leliaert was teaching fourth graders at Maxwell Intermediate School.) She had to record a lesson in her classroom and prepare a 12-page reflection on the lesson and her leadership in the school. In fall 2016, she learned she was one of the final three in the running for the Indiana award, but it wasn’t until late April 2018 she learned she’d won and got to fly to Washington, D.C., and attend the first-ever state and federal STEM Summit.

Leliaert graduated from Forest Park and earned her elementary education and teaching degree from Indiana State University. She later earned her Master of Education in elementary education and teaching from Indiana Wesleyan University. Before becoming an instructional coach, Leliaert spent 12 years as a fourth-grade teacher, and has also taught third and fifth grades. Many of those years she taught math and science exclusively.

The Herald spoke with Leliaert in a Wednesday phone call about receiving the award and her teaching experiences.

How did you feel when you first heard that you’d won the award?

I was shocked and honored, really. Even the nomination process — I was honored to be nominated. And then, really shocked that I could be chosen for something of this caliber, for sure, because there’s only one chosen per state each year.

Has receiving the award opened any doors for you?

One of the days that I was in D.C., we spent really most of the day participating in the first-ever state and federal STEM education summit, because the federal government is working on putting together a new five-year strategic plan for STEM education. We got to participate in that, which was really exciting to have our voices heard on what’s most important to focus on in STEM education. So, I participated in quite a few roundtable discussions with different stakeholders from business owners to our state superintendent of education, Dr. McCormick. People from the governor’s office were there. We got to really spend some time talking about what we need to focus on, and really give the federal government guidance on where to focus grant money.

I did get a chance to meet so many different teachers from around the country, and we have a whole network now where we share resources from basic teaching resources and things that we’re doing in classrooms and in our schools in addition to presenting at different conferences. In general, it’s opened some doors for me because I have connections from all over the country — educators who are so passionate about teaching science and math. And connections within the National Science Foundation for many grant opportunities that are available there. I look forward to what’s to come.

The subject of math sometimes gets a bad rep for being hard or not interesting to some kids. How do you get through to kids to make that subject interesting and appealing to them?

A couple things. The importance of putting the math in the context of a real-world situation. So, instead of just giving kids a worksheet with a bunch of math problems, actually connecting the math to a real-world situation. For example, in the lesson I submitted when I applied for the award after being nominated, I had the students work on figuring how much it would cost to redesign our classroom. So, we were focusing on a really high-priority standard in fourth grade, which is area and perimeter. And the students had to calculate how much it would cost to re-carpet the classroom, repaint the walls, put trim around and things like that. Giving them the opportunity to see how the math we are learning actually connects to what they’ll do in the real world is really important.

Secondly is really reinforcing the idea that math is not just about speed and figuring out one way to it. It’s much more about finding different strategies that make sense and work for that particular student. So, just because one person solves a math problem in one way doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how everybody needs to do it. I found that really helped students connect with the math. When they know they have more than one option for how to solve a problem.

When you enter a classroom — either as a teacher or as an instructional coach — what do you want kids to leave with?

I want them to leave with basically two things. One is developing a love for math, and [the other is] an understanding of how math can help them in the real world.

We talk about the importance of STEM a lot here in Dubois County. Lately, there’s been a push to get more girls and women interested in the field. Why is that important?

I think it’s important to get multiple perspectives of ideas in the field. Getting perspectives from girls in addition to boys and seeing things in different ways really helps us grow as a culture. Having new and innovative ideas. The more people we have thinking in different ways, the more innovative ideas we can have.

How do we make STEM careers appealing to girls, so when they’re in elementary school, they do want to chase after them?

I think trying to get rid of that stigma that it’s only a boys’ field will help get more and more girls involved. And we can do that by encouraging them to start early. At my school, we have a computer science club where they learn coding and robotics. We do have a robotics team. So, encouraging both girls and boys to participate in those activities will help lay the foundation for what they’ll learn later on in junior high and high school and eventually in college to pursue careers in the STEM field.

I’ve heard that even if a kid doesn’t end up going into a STEM field career, having STEM skills can help them later in life. What are those skills and how do they help?

Curiosity, because the more curious someone is, the more they want to know how the world around them works. And that’s just an important skill to have if you’re trying to develop new ideas. Also, the ability to work as a team and communicate, because we can accomplish more as a team than we can individually. Having that ability to communicate clearly and be able to work in a functioning team and help one another, and bring out the strengths in one another and not just work independently is so important. And finally, grit. The willingness to keep trying even when things get difficult. Trying even when an experiment might fail the first time or when you’re trying to invent something, if it doesn’t work perfectly the first time, be willing to try and adjust and use data to figure out what you can do better the next time I think is so key.

Do you have any advice for local teachers?

I would tell other teachers to make sure they’re using their resources to learn from other teachers, administrators and coaches if they’re available. I am where I am today because of my support system that I have. From my family, from the administrators I work for who have supported me so much, the other teachers I’ve worked with on teaching teams, and I’ve worked with two instructional coaches who have really encouraged me to continue growing in my profession.

Why is it important for parents to promote or encourage their kids to go into the STEM field if they show an interest in them?

It’s a growing field, and many of the jobs of the future are going to be in that STEM field. As technology progresses, we’re going to need new inventions and innovative ideas. So, parents who are willing to encourage their kids to continue to explore and create new things — even when it might get messy — will help us as we grow as a culture and come up with new ideas and inventions.

It’s key to not pass on the idea that math is too hard or math is a subject that should be at the bottom of your list of favorite subjects. Parents can encourage their kids to productively struggle through problems and come up with different ways to solve them that may not be the same way everybody else does it. Being willing to try new things is another one of those important skills for children to develop.


Leliaert lives in Fishers with her husband, Andrew, and their children, Addison, 11, Blake, 9, Evan, 6. Leliaert’s parents are Steve and Aggie Kempf of Bretzville.

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