These days, Andy Kotko is feeling positively presidential.
The Sac State alumnus and first-grade math teacher found himself in the White House on Sept. 8, being honored as one of the best educators in the nation. He and 212 other teachers have been awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics & Science Training – the highest distinction of its kind that recognizes elite STEM teachers.
His road to the Washington, D.C., started in another capital – California’s – at Sacramento State, where he earned his degree in physics. Kotko’s background in science, though it was not ultimately his calling, helped craft the unique skill set he employs today at Mather Heights Elementary in the Folsom Cordova Unified School District.
“Physicists might not realize it, but they probably make some of the best teachers,” he says, “because they can take a really complex system and break it down into all the variables, find the problems ,and then address them.”
For Kotko, the third time’s a charm: He has twice been a finalist for the Presidential Award before winning it this year. He and the other awardees receive a $10,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
Over 15 years, Kotko has honed his craft in the classroom, introducing students to math at a crucial time in their educational lives.
“It’s at a very young age where kids decide whether they’re good at math or good at science, and once they kind of check out, it’s that self-fulfilling prophecy: ‘Oh, I’m not a math person,’ ” he says.“Maybe you just haven’t been taught properly.”
Kotko engages students by learning how each works individually, watching the mistakes he or she makes, and reframing the experience so each can master the concept. By taking a systematic, step-by-step approach, Kotko says he can lead his students to complete very challenging work that doesn’t feel all that difficult.
His methods have been paying off as he has helped to shape the next generation of STEM leaders. But it’s his work outside the classroom that has helped Kotko make a difference on an even greater scale.
In 2014, he was appointed chair of the California Teacher Advisory Council, where he lends his voice to public policy issues that affect educators across the state. He is also a founding teacher in his district’s Academy for Advanced Learning, which draws students of all ages from across the region for inquiry and project-based learning.
His efforts across the board have earned him his field’s most prestigious honor, one that he attributes to the teachers who influenced him throughout his own school career.
“Even now, I couldn’t do what I do by myself,” Kotko says. “I’ve got great colleagues, great families, and it’s this great big team that’s working together. The kids, they’re working their tails off.
“When all that comes together, that’s where the magic happens.”