By Stephanie Carlson Curtis
For more than 20 years, Jay Vahle has been teaching elementary school in the Carmel Clay Schools system and has encouraged hundreds of youngsters to engage in learning. In December, on the last day of school before winter break, he received an email from the White House that announced he was the recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science.
“It was 3:30 p.m. All of the students had left for home when I received the email,” said Vahle, who teaches mathematics in the fourth- and fifth-grade gifted and talented challenge classes at Woodbrook Elementary. “I opened it up and I just stared.” Then he ran next door to the room where his wife, Janet, teaches and shared the email with her. “To get a pat on the back from the White House took my breath away.”
The award, which was established in 1983, gives the president of the United States the right to issue up to 108 awards annually recognizing educators in each of the 50 states, U.S. territories and jurisdictions, honoring teachers for their contributions to the classroom. Vahle was nominated by a previous winner and colleague who teaches at Carmel High School.
“Building a rapport with students is the very first step to being able to really catch them and excite them about what they are doing. They can do so much and you can stretch them so far,” said Vahle. “After you create rapport, then you can work on the positives of being accountable and the positives of working toward doing things students didn’t think that they could do.”
Soft-spoken and at ease answering questions, he enjoys opening the lines of communication and invites his fourth- and fifth-graders to find different ways of solving problems. Vahle graduated from the University of Indianapolis with degrees in music and philosophy. After working in youth ministry, he decided to go back to school to earn his teaching certificate and has been in the classroom since 1993.
This spring, Vahle has been invited to take an all-expense-paid trip for two to Washington, D.C., where he will receive a certificate signed by the president of the United States and participate in celebrations, educational seminars and various events honoring his accomplishments as well as be exposed to opportunities for professional development. In addition, Vahle will receive a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation to be used in a manner of his choosing.
“It doesn’t matter where you are or what classroom you are in, kids are amazing,” said Vahle. “Trying to find the strengths of your students is a key part of what all of us are trying to accomplish. We want to let them know what they are capable of — that it is good to be challenged and pushed while someone is there to support you.”