The tablets used by students in Tiffany Howland's eighth-grade algebra class at Parrott Middle School on Monday allowed them to post their answers on a screen for the entire class to see.
That correct responses to a head-spinning problem about slope and variables popped up quickly, one after another, proved what the Hernando County Education Foundation found last week when it named Howland the Hernando County's 2016-17 Teacher of the Year:
Howland has a remarkable ability to get students to understand a notoriously hard-to-teach subject.
"The way she explains thing just makes it easy to learn and comprehend," said one of her students, Samara Rodier, 13.
School principal Brent Gaustad goes even further, saying that Howland is able to pull off the rare feat of making algebra "fun."
"You can make math fun by creating a positive relationship with the kids, by showing high energy and love for the subject, which she definitely has, and by relating it to real-world uses," Gaustad said.
Her work has helped improve Parrott's school grade from a D to a high C in the last three years, and helped the school receive a commendation last year from Gov. Rick Scott after it posted the 22nd-highest math gains among the state's 568 middle schools.
Howland had an even more direct role in dramatically increasing the number of Parrott students taking — and passing — algebra, a subject normally taught to high school freshmen.
Since she arrived five years ago, the school has doubled the number of eighth-grade algebra classes from two to four.
Forty-four percent of the school's eighth-graders now take the course, partly because Howland has offered algebra not just to students who have received top scores on Florida Standards Assessment math tests, but to those with average scores.
All of her students passed the end-of-course algebra exams at the end of the 2014-15 school year, Gaustad said; only two failed last year, partly because Howland took a leave last spring after giving birth to her first child, Oliver.
She and her husband, Steve, who works in the district's technology and information services department, are also raising her two stepsons, Evan and Aidan.
Her ability to relate algebra to the world outside the classroom comes naturally, she said, because she spent the early part of her career outside the classroom.
Howland, 32, graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in agricultural science, and, afterward, trained as a paramedic and worked at that job in Citrus County.
But after responding to several emotionally wrenching emergencies involving children, she said, she decided in the fall of 2012 to try teaching.
"I felt like I needed a break. ... I had quite a few pediatric calls, and I just needed to see children in a more positive way," she said.
She arrived at Parrott in October 2012 for a two-day stint as a substitute. It was immediately obvious to her and to Guastad that she was a great fit.
"I had a teacher come to me and say, 'This girl's got something,' " he said.
As she took and passed the tests needed for accreditation, she developed a teaching style as heavy on showing as on telling.
"When they ask, 'When am I going to use this in the real world?' I have a real-world answer," she said.
For example, when teaching about the steepness of slopes, she sometimes takes students to one of the ramps that the school built to the meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"We talk about building ramps and ADA standards," she said. "I want them to see that certain slopes are not going to work for that."
Such lessons stick with Alexis Lane, 14, who sat next to Rodier in Howland's class.
"I'm more of a visual learner," Lane said. "It's easier to understand it if I can see it."
Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected]; follow @ddewitttimes.