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Behind the Numbers

Neil Riley likes nearly everything about math.

He likes its structure; the way it follows a pattern; the way every lesson grows from previous lessons. He likes its finality and its challenge. He even finds himself using math's linear thinking to tackle decisions far from math class. For all of those reasons, he's a good mathematician. But not every student in his classroom likes math. Reaching those students-making them understand and maybe even appreciate math-that's the reason he is a good math teacher.

Riley, a 2006 Doane graduate, was the 2008 winner of the Rookie-of-the-Year award from the Nebraska State Education Association. He was nominated by Harvard's Education Association because he didn't seem like a rookie teacher at all.

"We felt like he had all the tools necessary from the start. He had a command of his classes, knowledge of the subject matter, technological savvy-he was just very well prepared for the job," said Craig Barfknecht, a sixth-grade homeroom teacher at Harvard and a member of its education association.

Riley was flattered to be nominated and surprised to be the winner among the six finalists at the ceremony at the Cornhusker Marriott Hotel. "I didn't expect to be selected coming from a small school," said Riley, who teaches high-school algebra, geometry, trigonometry, pre-calculus and journalism at Harvard Public Schools, a district of about 250 K-12 students in Clay County.

Graduating teacher education candidates who are ready to lead classrooms is a trait of the Doane education program. It wasn't until he stepped into his own classroom in 2006, Riley said, that he realized "just how good the programs and preparation are at Doane."

The practicum experience was invaluable, he said. Doane's teacher education candidates spend about 300 hours in public school settings working with teachers before they student teach. Experiential learning opportunities, such as visiting an inner-city school in Kansas City, were equally valuable, he said.

A good high-school math teacher in Riley's hometown of Friend made him consider going into a math field. The faculty at Doane, he said, cemented his degree and career choice. That doesn't mean math was an easy subject.

"Math was not necessarily easy for me, but I could work to be good at it," he said. College level math brought a new challenge. "I spent a lot of extra time working on (math). Doane's a good fit because extra time and help were always available."

Three years after commencement, he still seeks faculty advice on occasion. "A few times I've called Jim Johnson or Tom King, talked to them about a situation at school and asked ‘What else can I do?' It's really nice to be able to do that."

Now that he's the teacher, Riley tries to make his students like, rather than simply survive, math. He formed a student math club to boost interest in the subject. Members meet once a week. They complete scavenger hunts, solving problems for clues. They make polyhedrons, a three-dimensional geometric figure whose sides are polygons. They practice for math invites to be more competitive. And they talk about it with other students. "It sheds a good light on math and helps students see it can be fun."

Riley has found technology goes a long way toward the same goal. His classroom has white boards on two sides. He uses a Smart Board in nearly all lessons. Students use graphing calculators and clickers similar to individual remote answering devises. He incorporates visuals as often as possible, from patty paper in geometry to making data sets and scatter lots of class shoe sizes. He strives to make the lessons interactive from teacher to student.

"I found out if they don't get it, they ask less questions and their questions are not specific because they don't know what to ask."

Since starting at Harvard, Riley has come to appreciate teaching in a small school district, from its supportive colleagues to math classrooms that generally have no more than 20 students.

He's the only high-school math instructor, but there's an upside to that. "I like watching them grow. I'll get to work with some students all four years." (Five years if he counts some students he first works with in the 8th grade.)

He now does exactly what Doane professors did for him: he comes a little early, and stays a little late, offering students individual help before and after school.

He completed his master's degree in curriculum and instruction from Doane in 2008 and plans for it to be the start of continuing education and development in his career. "When I stop learning is when I'm not being the best teacher for students."