Michael Wallus didn't take a direct path to winning a presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

"I was not the kid who was good at math," Wallus, an elementary math coordinator for Minneapolis Public Schools said after his award was announced last week.  "Fractions rolled around and it didn't make sense to me." 

He struggled in algebra as well.

Perhaps that's why the 42-year-old doesn't think the kid who raises a hand first with the answer to a math problem is necessarily the one who is best.  He's looking for students who can justify their answer, who reason the relationships among numbers,

So his approach to teaching math emphasized asking his students questions to elicit understanding, and he's working to train Minneapolis elementary teachers how to do that.

The light bulb didn't go on for Wallus until he took an elementary math class at Hamline University while studying for his masters degree. He'd been teaching math as elementary teacher with emphasis on the usual procedures, like carrying and borrowing in addition and subtraction. The class helped him to focus on how kids think and how they understand math.

He applied that to his classroom at Valley Crossing Community School in Woodbury, where he taught for 16 years. He submitted his application for the presidential award in May, 2012, just as he was nearing his switch to Minneapolis. His application included a video of his teaching, reflections on his teaching and research, and his resume.

"I'm thrilled about it. It's really cool," he said of the award made through the National Science Foundation that will be presented early next month in Washington, D.C. He's the only math winner in Minnesota; Cathy Kindem of Cedar Park elementary school in Apple Valley is the state's only science winner.  

His work as one of the district's two elementary math coordinators involves working with the 25 math specialists embedded in elementary schools. They co-teach math lessons in classrooms or model other lessons. Coordinators also work with individual schools and their principals, and help to introduce the district's new teacher-written curriculum known as focused instruction.