On a raspberry farm where she grew up on the outskirts of Sumner, Tricia Hukee remembered her mother telling her that she couldn’t ride her new three wheeler bike until her math skills improved.
Her mother thought it was a lack of motivation, said Huckee, but that wasn’t it — she just didn’t understand math.
“I was definitely a struggling math student,” Hukee said, recalling the time she spent on her grade-school work. “I would sit (at home) for hours and hours, just crying. It wasn’t a lack of motivation.”
Now 44 years old, Hukee teaches fifth grade at Daffodil Valley Elementary School in Sumner and was named one of six Washington state finalists for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST), the highest national honor given for a math or science teacher.
PAEMST celebrates K-12 teachers both statewide and nationally who demonstrate leadership toward improving math and science education and act as role models to students and other educators. Hukee was one of two out of the six finalists recognized for math in particular.
Hukee’s journey toward becoming a math teacher was a long one, but she remembers that it was in a chemistry class in high school when math finally clicked for her.
“For the first time, math was making sense to me,” she said. “For the first time there was context to it.”
There’s this misconception that if you’re fast you’re good at math, but that’s not the case. At the end of the day we want (students) to be deep thinkers.
Tricia Hukee, teacher at Daffodil Valley Elementary School
After high school, she attended Washington State University and became interested in social sciences and was a psychology major and business minor. She graduated in 1995 and spent five years in the corporate world, but decided it wasn’t for her.
In 2000, Hukee returned to the Sumner School District to begin her teaching career. She taught third and fourth grade. She started teaching fifth grade for the first time this year and has had the same class of 20 students for the past two years.
“As a fifth grade math teacher, I’m much stronger having taught third and fourth grade,” she said, adding that she can see her students grow. “It’s the kindest group that I’ve ever had.”
Hukee discovered she was nominated for PAEMST by the principal of Daffodil Valley Elementary last spring, and spent two weeks completing her application, which included a resume, letters of recommendation and a 45-minute, in-class video of one of her lessons.
At the same time, Hukee was teaching and working as the “immediate past president” for WSU’s Alumni Association.
But the hard work was worth it when she found out she’d been selected as a finalist at the end of August.
I’m giving the information in a visual format. It’s their work up there to see. Power comes with making. It’s their learning on the wall.
“It was great,” Hukee said. “(The news) came at a perfect time. I feel like I’m a lone wolf when it comes to math. You don’t see a lot of elementary teachers where math is really their thing. Math doesn’t always get its fair seat at the table. I started to feel more and more validated.”
Hukee feels strongly about her teaching methods and spends time reading books and researching about education. In her classroom, she focuses on deep thinking and problem solving instead of quick memorization.
“There’s this misconception that if you’re fast you’re good at math, but that’s not the case,” she said. “At the end of the day we want (students) to be deep thinkers.”
In her classroom, the work of Hukee’s students is all over the walls. On one poster, two students worked out the same math problem with two different ways of thinking.
“I’m giving the information in a visual format,” Hukee said. “It’s their work up there to see. Power comes with making. It’s their learning on the wall.”
As a PAEMST state finalist, Hukee received a letter and framed award in the mail and is invited to the governor’s house. She also has the chance to be recognized at a national level and visit the White House.
As she looks toward the future, Hukee plans to continue teaching and maybe one day broaden her horizons into educational research.
“I want to stay in the classroom but I’d like to be involved in the research, too,” she said. “My students use such unique ways to tackle problems.”