Payoff of passion

Fourth grade math teacher finalist for a presidential award


Anna Frost

Fourth grade teacher Kate Duncan teaches her class math. Duncan was a finalist for the presidential award for excellence in math and science teaching in the state of Texas.

As fourth graders enter Kate Duncan’s classroom for math class at Puster Elementary, they’re greeted by the colorful posters on the walls and the vivid prints on Duncan’s clothing. Her smile and welcome signal the beginning of class and the start of a fresh school day. After teaching for six years, Duncan became a finalist for a Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. 

“I love teaching and the mentorship that I get to have with kids,” Duncan said. “I love the excitement when they’ve been working really hard on something, and they finally get it and just inspire that next group of kids. It’s just a super rewarding job, and I learn from the kids; it keeps me light-hearted and keeps me thinking about things from a child’s perspective.”

After being urged to apply for the presidential award by colleague Dr. Diana Sailyak, Duncan began the application process. Many interviews and application reviews later, she received the news in March that she’s one of the six math teachers in Texas to be a finalist. If she wins, this accomplishment would provide resources for her and her students. 

“If I won the award, hopefully, I would be given the opportunity to seek out some more professional development which would enhance my teaching as well,” Duncan said. “As an educator, I feel like we teach kids to always be learning, so as educators, we should always be learning. I would absolutely hope that that would open the door to find the next best resource that would enhance my teaching and therefore enhance the experience for the kids.”

From an early age, Duncan planned on becoming a teacher. After graduating from Texas A&M University, she pursued photography and graphic design. Her absence from education led her to the classroom, and she began her career in the district. After teaching at Hart Elementary for two years, she began her current position teaching fourth grade math at Puster Elementary.

“I think having that perspective of how much I missed the classroom when I was doing my other jobs is so important,” Duncan said. “I missed being with kids, and I missed teaching. I missed just that community of education. I’ve never had a moment of doubt that I’m where I’m supposed to be because I had that experience before I started teaching.”

When Duncan began teaching at the district, she formed a bond with her mentor Allison Healy. Over time, their “mentee-mentor” relationship became a friendship. Although they no longer work on the same team, they’ve continued their friendship of six years.

“She [Duncan] truly sees an individual, and she seeks to make that connection before anything else,” Healy said. “I think it’s what makes her such a phenomenal teacher because she loves her students, and she truly gets to know them. She’s very, very humble and did not expect to get as far as she’s gotten with the presidential award. She put a lot of work into it. But more so than anything, she’s humbled by the entire experience, even if this is where it ends, and she doesn’t go any further with it. It’s a pretty big honor.”

Another one of Duncan’s colleagues, teacher Jennifer Connelly, teaches fourth grade English alongside her. Although they met four years ago, they began teaching together this year. 

“I watched her apply and just watching her take the time and effort to do [the presidential application] was a testament to herself,” Connelly said. “She originally was not thinking about doing it because it was a lot to do. But she herself [said] ‘you know what, I would tell my kids to try it even if they weren’t going to win or even if they weren’t going to make it, so I’m gonna do it too.’ It was pretty cool to see her teach the kids a lesson [by] doing that.”

The final decisions for the winners of the Award for Excellence in Teaching will be announced this summer.

“I feel incredibly lucky to be surrounded by my teammates,” Duncan said. “My fourth-grade team has been more of a family than anything. I am surrounded by people who genuinely share the joy, and they’ve been so supportive and so encouraging. When I won, I felt incredible. I am where I am because of the people I surround myself with, and I’m surrounded by such incredible talent that I take pieces from that, and that in turn, enhances my teaching. When I found out that I was advancing, they were just beyond thrilled for me and [they’re] that family unit.”