Part of being a teacher, for Laura Partridge a big part, is outside the classroom. Teaching intensified algebra at Swanson Middle School, Partridge asks her students to look past the chalkboard to see slope.
“When we talk about slope and lines, they research the Americans with Disabilities Act and find out what the requirements are for ramps,” said Partridge. “Then they go out and measure ramps in the community. It gets them aware of people with disabilities, and also how slope applies in real life.”
Partridge, 36, who also teaches regular algebra and intensified geometry at Swanson, was picked as Arlington’s 2004 Teacher of the Year. She will be recognized in a ceremony before the May 6 School Board meeting. “Obviously, I’m extremely happy,” said Partridge. “But I don’t know that I teach that much differently.”
Parents and students see the differences, said Pam McClellan, Swanson PTA president. “There are teachers who ‘get’ kids. That’s a sense that I get with Laura Partridge,” said McClellan. But it’s also easy for students and their parents to get to Partridge, she said. “She’s very accessible to parents and children.”
On a county-wide committee covering school testing, Partridge’s other abilities showed, said school superintendent Robert Smith. “She has a keen insight into most problems, the kind of mind that works through problems on evaluation very quickly.”
<b>EACHING ISN’T PARTRIDGE’S</b> first career — for eight years, she worked as a Certified Public Accountant for Deloitte & Touche, after getting a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s degree in accounting.
But after working her way to senior manager at Deloitte, Partridge decided she had to make a decision about her future.
“I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” she said. “I was in my early 30s, and it seemed like a good time to make a career switch. I figured I could go back to accounting if I decided to.”
In her off-hours, Partridge volunteered with KEEN—Kids Enjoy Exercise Now, a Montgomery County, Md., program for children with severe disabilities, an avocation that was more fulfilling than her day job.
As an accountant, “I didn’t have personal connections, it didn’t have a lot of the sense of helping someone,” she said. So she left Deloitte & Touche, and got a master’s degree in education from University of Maryland. The job at Swanson, which she took in 1999, was her first job after graduation.
She hasn’t left accounting entirely behind. “If we’re talking about exponential decay in algebra, I can talk about depreciation,” said Partridge. For the most part, though, she has left behind the more measured hours of a CPA. “Each day is unique, for middle school age kids,” she said.
<b>STUDENTS APPRECIATE</b> the day-to-day attention, said McClellan. Her son Andrew, a teen of few words, was willing to effuse about Partridge: “She’s cool,” he told his mother. “She makes learning fun.”
He pointed to visuals posted around her room as a favorite touch in Partridge classes. The committee that tapped Partridge as Teacher of the Year said her attitude also eased education. “She uses humor, combined with a low-key approach, coupled with high expectations, to advance the math challenged and strengthen everyone’s problem solving skills,” committee members wrote in their letter selecting Partridge.
With her background in mathematics and accounting, Partridge brings a real-world emphasis to middle schoolers, McClellan said. But she also spends mornings, lunches, evenings and afternoons working with students who need help on math, and their parents.
“She’s good at communicating, an early warning,” said McClellan. But e-mails and phone calls don’t only come in emergencies: “When there’s a success, she’s also eager to communicate.”
<b>COMMUNICATION CALMS TENSIONS</b> about intense classes. Intensified algebra and geometry are high school credit classes available to some middle schoolers, and the high school credits can be a blessing and a curse — they may ease students’ way in high school but they also add to stress, said McClellan.
But Partridge eases that stress, said McClellan. “When I walked into her classroom for back-to-school night, you could sense the parents calming down. It’s intensified, it’s geometry and it’s eighth grade. But everybody felt calmer when they walked out of the room.”
Some of the biggest rewards come from students who may not be quite as calm during class, Partridge said. “It’s the little triumph: they write a nice little note in your yearbook when you thought they hated you. Or a kid coming back saying they never liked math before, and now he wants to be a doctor or a scientist,” she said. “It’s opening up possibilities when they didn’t see them.”