This story published in the Miami Herald’s Neighbors section Sunday, December 19, 2013. You can also read online. Photos by Daniel Bock / Miami Herald
A John A. Ferguson Senior High School math teacher was recently named one of 10 Claes Nobel Educators of the Year by the National Society of High School Scholars.
Teresita Lemus, who was nominated by her students along with 240 educators across the nation, was chosen for her philosophy of teaching.
“I’m not teaching them calculus, I’m teaching them how to think,” Lemus said. “I’m teaching them how to be doctors, lawyers and engineers.”
The teacher, whose classroom is filled with trophies from math competitions and lined with certificates of appreciation, said she had a “Forrest Gump moment” when she was presented with her plaque for Claes Nobel Educator of the Year.
Lemus is John A. Ferguson’s teacher of the year and was named one of the MIT Alumni Association’s most inspirational teachers of 2013.
She was also chosen by one of her students, Sunshine State Scholar recipient Vishnu Tanguturi, to recieve the honor with him.
“She’s my mentor and inspiration for math,” said Tanguturi, 15, a junior who has taken both of Lemus’s advanced placement calculus classes. “The dedication she puts into school and teaching is like no other math teacher. Like no other teacher.”
Lemus calls math “pretty” and has convinced her students that arc lengths, trigonometric identities and logarithmic derivatives are pretty too.
She teaches honors and advanced placement calculus classes and advises Mu Alpha Theta, the school’s mathematics honor society chapter of 146 students.
Principal Lisa Robertson said Lemus goes beyond the classroom, describing the teacher as articulate, driven and accessible.
“She’s here before school and late into the afternoon, after the rest of the teachers have gone home. She’s on call 24/7 to support and mentor students,” Robertson said. “I just wish she could be cloned for all schools to have the privilege of working with her.”
Robertson said Lemus builds an “infectious rapport” with her students.
“By 4 p.m. I’m trying to kick students out but I can’t say no. I can’t leave a question unanswered,” Lemus said. “If they’re willing to put in the extra time and effort I can give them the knowledge.”
Lemus’s first-level calculus students have a 75 to 80 percent passing rate on advanced placement tests — above the national 59 percent average — and her advanced calculus students have a 92 to 100 percent passing rate — above the national 80 percent average.
“You can look at her passing rate and know she’s a great teacher, but it goes beyond that,” said Sanchit Bhattacharjee, 15, a senior and Mu Alpha Theta’s vice president of coaching. “It’s a combination of how much math she knows and how much she coaches and pushes us.”
Lemus has a bachelor’s degree in math and chemistry from Barry University, a master’s in math and science from the University of Miami and a doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern University. She has been teaching for over 20 years.
But she wasn’t always so sure about teaching.
Lemus began her career doing lab work at Nova Southeastern University and decided on a whim to apply for a temporary teaching job in 1989 at Hialeah Middle School.
With “pure-subject” degrees, Lemus said she didn’t even know what an overhead projector was, but she taught a whole year’s worth of physical science in a four month period.
“I cried in the bathroom on my first day,” Lemus said. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I ended up teaching the whole curriculum by December with fun experiments and all.”
Today, Lemus doesn’t teach only high school students. She also is an adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University, Florida International University and Miami Dade College.
“I never sit down,” Lemus said. “The one day I lay down, my husband joked that we had to go to the hospital because something had to be wrong.”
Lemus had appendicitis.