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Teachable moments: Math teacher Richard Pinchot

Teachable Moments, a project of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, highlights the region's most innovative and effective teachers. Stories are written by journalism students at the University of North Florida. Read the story online at Jacksonville.com or visit www.jaxpef.org for more information.


By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga

Richard Pinchot scrunched over his desk and wrote on a piece of notebook paper. An overhead projector flashed his writing up on the screen behind him. The room was perfectly quiet as his fourth-graders focused on every word and number put up on the screen.

The notes about finding factors of 100 - breaking the number down into multiples - were carefully written. Parents would be able to clearly understand what the children had worked on that day. Students would be able to use the notes as a reference later.

There is a subtlety that makes his teaching look easy, but every moment in this classroom is carefully thought out. Behind the easy-going, relaxed atmosphere is a plan to make every child succeed through the help of their teacher and their peers.

"Showing a child that they can construct a math strategy makes them feel successful," he said. "It's about how can we be more efficient, how can we make less mistakes."

The children say they can tell that he is there for them.

"I know that even if I don't get it, he'll help me," said student Antoniyah Bethel.

Susan Phillips, principal of Chets Creek Elementary School, where Pinchot has taught since 2001, describes him as "very serious about his subject matter, very good at making it understandable, simplifying it, yet making it challenging."

"But he's not a serious person; he has a lot of fun with the kids," teacher Angela Phillips said.

Before each lesson, Pinchot thinks through the goals he wants to achieve for each level of student. He combines this with maintaining that individual connection with every child. He is a strong believer in the workshop method, which introduces a child to a lesson, gives them opportunities to try to come up with their own strategies and then brings them back to standards, again giving them an opportunity to self-correct any misconceptions. He'll use games, educational toys and peer partners to help engage children in fun ways.

"You have to have a conversation with them, you have to spend time with every child individually, every day," Pinchot said. "Assessments help know where a child is, but formal assessments are often too late."

That commitment to connection, detail and subject matter why Pinchot is one of three finalists statewide for the 2012 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
Pinchot found out about his nomination during a fourth-grade assembly on Sept.14 that took him completely by surprise.

"Everyone else knew, the kids, my wife, even the superintendent, Ed Pratt-Dannals, was there," Pinchot said. "I was so thankful; it was an overwhelming day. It was nice to be celebrated and validated."

Student Britton Chamberlayne remembered how much fun that day was. "We had cake!" he said.

Seeing the children's faces at school and then having time at the end of the day to spend with his own family, are the easiest parts of his day. It is what made him change careers to teaching, with a push from his family, after being in the Navy and then the restaurant business for 10 years. With a background in meteorology and math in college, it was an easy fit.

In the classroom, one of the students had suggested the use of a calculator to find the multiples of 100. Pinchot didn't discount his idea, but instead went and dusted off one from the back of the room. He let students tell him ways that they would use it to find the answers. But then another child suggested that they use the "upside-down rainbow" to find the answers. Sure enough, the simple graphic gave them the strategy they needed and the calculator was put away.

"It's really fun 'cause you get to work with lots of numbers," said student Josh Mofatt. "He tells us how to split down the number so it breaks down easier into different numbers. He's probably the best teacher ever and he'll help you in a second."