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Someone to count on

Math teacher wins third Teacher of the Year award
Burnside+explains+a+topic+in+Algebra+2.+Her+goal+is+her+teaching+will+make+math+seem+doable+and+fun.
Angel Harper
Burnside explains a topic in Algebra 2. Her goal is her teaching will make math seem “doable and fun.”

Algebra 2 and AB Calculus teacher Julie Burnside was used to interruptions during class.

Monday, March 4 was no different.

But this time, there wasn’t just one student with a question. There was a crowd of people with flowers, a congratulatory poster and … a Teacher of the Year award.

Burnside was awarded Bellaire Teacher of the Year for the third time, last winning in 2016. However, her previous experiences didn’t make this one any less special.

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“I really respect the faculty of Bellaire,” Burnside said. “I think we have so many great teachers, so I’m really honored that they chose me for this.”

She feels that a big contributor to her success is what she strives for as a math teacher.

“My goal is to show people that math can be doable, fun and at times interesting or exciting,” Burnside said. “I think math has such a negative connotation so many times and people with [a] bad experience develop a fear of it.”

Burnside has seen this negative connotation lead to a low self esteem, especially taking such high level classes. To combat these feelings of doubt, she employs certain traditions to keep her class engaging and informative.

Burnside teaches a lesson in her sixth period College Prep Algebra 2 class. Along with Algebra 2, she also teaches AP AB Calculus. (Angel Harper)

This includes calculus caroling around the holidays and a t-shirt designing contest. Burnside provides these new experiences to maintain her students’ interests.

“I just try different things,” Burnside said. “I learn different things from other math teachers I’m connected to on Twitter, other ideas that I search the internet for. I give them a try, and if students respond well to them, then it becomes part of the repertoire of my activities. I also just try to mix things up.”

Variety not only makes her classes more interesting, but also ensures that students with different gaps and strengths in math can understand the topic. Burnside hopes this will foster a “positive, pleasant experience” for her students.

She also wants the experience in her class to teach students principles of hard work and persistence, as well as the belief that they don’t always have to be the fastest or the best to succeed.

Along with these principles, a skill that junior Avery Vondenstein has learned from Burnside’s class is the ability to work with other people.

“In other classes, I don’t generally speak up and answer questions,” Vondenstein said. “In her class, she creates such a welcoming and warm environment, it makes it easy for even the most introverted people to feel comfortable talking in front of the whole class.”

Instilling students with perseverance and bringing them up to a level of excellence, no matter where they came from, keeps Burnside coming back year after year.

“[I like] the creativity and ingenuity of different students,” Burnside said. “This job is never boring, and [I love] getting to meet 160 new people every year and their personalities that they bring to the class. Just funny moments in class are some of the highlights.”

A moment that stands out to junior Sanya Misra is a calculus luau party, where Burnside instructed her students to bring an assortment of circular-shaped treats in order to help them visualize her lesson.

“This was a very fun class where we got to eat a bunch of yummy sweets, snacks and even pineapples while also better understanding the topic we were learning,” Misra said.

Burnside incorporates this creative approach in hopes that her students will enjoy school as much as she once did. This love for learning was what drove her to become a teacher in the first place, after she realized in kindergarten she could not draw well enough to become an artist.

After settling on teaching, Burnside had to choose what grade level. Though she’s also certified to teach elementary, she prefers high school over the younger age groups.

“I like teenagers’ wit and sarcasm,” Burnside said. “I feel like my personality meshes with [them]. I like the fact that you all are very independent. I just enjoy being around teenagers.”

Despite her love for and success in her career, teaching students unfamiliar with higher level math is often difficult.

“A big challenge is I’ve taught it for so long, so I have to constantly remind myself what it’s like to see it for the first time,” Burnside said. “Also because I’ve taught it for a long time, not to leave out anything of key importance.”

Another difficulty Burnside experiences is balancing more than 30 students in a classroom who want and need her attention.

One of her biggest methods to manage all of the responsibilities that come with teaching is to not get caught up in the little things.

“Focus on what’s important,” Burnside said. “Keep the stuff that’s helping the learning, address the stuff that’s hindering the learning, but the rest of the stuff, let it slide. Pick your battles.”

Her challenges, experiences and passion for school have left Burnside with the realization that despite her awards, she can always improve upon her instruction.

“I don’t think you can perfect teaching,” Burnside said. “But that’s part of the reason I like it.”

This story was originally published on Three Penny Press on April 14, 2024.