Manitoulin woman named Ontario’s top elementary math instructor

Catherine Koehler, who is originally from Little Current, received the 2022 Ontario Association for Mathematics Award, recently.

ALMONTE—Catherine Koehler is the recipient of the 2022 Ontario Association for Mathematics Education (OAME) award for ‘Exceptional and Creative Teaching in Elementary Mathematics.’ The award recognizes an exceptional and creative elementary educator who demonstrates excellence in mathematics education and contributes to the overall development of students.

“I was totally blown away by my colleagues’ support and, to be honest, I was a very reluctant recipient,” said Ms. Koehler. “I do not think I do anything different than thousands of teachers across Ontario. Being recognized by my peers means the world to me. I have always been fortunate to work with supportive colleagues, and just like kids, when teachers feel supportive, they thrive. I have been extremely fortunate.”

Ms. Koehler (who was born and raised in Little Current, went to Little Current Public School, and then on to Manitoulin Secondary School), is a teacher at Holy Name of Mary Catholic School in Almonte and received the award virtually at the OAME annual conference in May.

The Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario (CDSBEO) said in a release, “Catherine is an accomplished mathematics teacher who brings numbers to life for students throughout the CDSBEO. She is known for her contagious passion for life-long learning, creativity, quick wit and for inspiring student and peers to follow their dreams and be the best version of themselves.”

Jennifer Clark and Lori Yee, OAME awards committee co-chairs stated in a letter to Ms. Koehler, “it is a great pleasure to congratulate you as the recipient of the OAME/AOEM award for exceptional and creative teaching in elementary mathematics. The letters of support for your nomination provided a comprehensive picture of your significant contributions to mathematics education.”

“When I was a child, I always wanted to be a police officer, like my dad (Bill Koehler), but I always admired and appreciated my teachers,” said Ms. Koehler. “if you were to travel back in time and ask my younger self, and my teachers, if they thought I would end up teaching math, everyone would have laughed. The truth is, growing up, I had a strong dislike for math and my report cards can back me up on that statement. I always struggled, had a great deal of anxiety around math and thankfully I had some good friends that helped me through some tough classes. I fully expect to get some well-deserved ribbing from my friends and family on the Island. They would have bet that I would have made it to the moon before becoming a math teacher, let alone winning an award.”

As for how she ended up teaching math Ms. Koehler said, “when you are a young teacher, just starting out and hustling for a permanent job, you will teach anything that is offered to you. When I was offered my first permanent teaching job the principal asked if I could teach Grade 9 math. I enthusiastically said, ‘of course I can!’”

“I spent the next year seeking out any and all professional development around the topic of mathematics I could find,” continued Ms. Koehler. “In my mind I was a terrible math teacher in those early years, but I loved the job. With more opportunities for learning all those old math concepts that had eluded me all those years ago finally began to click. I started loving math, I started seeing math in everything, especially in nature. I was hooked.”

“I have been teaching for 20 years,” said Ms. Koehler. “I began my career teaching high school physical education and then transitioned to teaching Grades 7 and 8. In Eastern Ontario, where I teach, most of the high schools are Grades 7-12. I spent five years working as a mathematics consultant and I am currently teaching Grades 5-8 at a Kindergarten through Grade 8 school in Almonte.”

James and Kristine Caldwell, who wrote in 2021 as parents in support of Ms. Koehler’s nomination for the award said, “Our daughter (Emily) is currently excelling in Ms. Koehler’s Grade 8 math class at Holy Name of Mary School in Almonte; however, this was not always the case. Since a very young age, our daughter has always been more interested in language-based activities and never cared much for math but was managing.” Emily had started to develop a negative mindset when it came to math, saying she was not good in math. “It was not until the middle of her Grade 6 year when we started to notice a change in her. Curious to find the cause of this change of attitude, we quickly realized it was the dedication of Ms. Koehler.”

“Our daughter found someone who she could feel comfortable with, who was willing to work with her and her peers when they were struggling, who was willing to take the time to listen to her questions and not make her feel like she should just know it. Ms. Koehler has helped our daughter see the fun in math with her engaging activities that promote critical thinking. She has provided our daughter with a growth mindset when it comes to math and we could not be more appreciative for this opportunity,” wrote the Caldwells.

Emily Caldwell wrote, “I am currently in Ms. Koehler’s Grade 8 class and I could not be happier. I love being in Ms. Koehler’s math class because she is patient and always offers me extended help to always make sure I understand the lesson. I am a very visual learner when it comes to math and the current state our province is in (during the pandemic), we are doing remote learning, which can be difficult being the learner I am. When I ask for her help after class, she takes the time to break up the question bit by bit and helps me through it until I get the answer, even if it is after school hours. I am so lucky to have Ms. Koehler as my math teacher to show me how math can be fun!”

Katie Simpson, a teacher at Holy Name of Mary Catholic Church said in a letter in 2020, “it is with great pleasure that I write a letter supporting the nomination of Catherine Koehler. When you go through your time in elementary school it is often easy to think of a teacher that positively impacted your educational experience. This person made school more enjoyable or created a lasting impact on you.”

“Catherine Koehler has a passion and creativity for teaching math that is unlike anything I have ever seen; and it is contagious. Her gentle approach, and open-minded attitude helps to guide her instruction, while letting her students take the lead. She has a way of taking away the math anxiety and letting you think about math in a way that you never considered. She has a way of making everything  into a game, that is challenging, but exciting,” wrote Ms. Simpson. “I cannot think of a more deserving candidate for this award.”

Caroline LaBelle, principal of Holy Name of Mary School, wrote in a letter of support in 2021, “it is with gratitude and privilege that I was asked to endorse Catherine Koehler as an outstanding educator, specifically in the area of mathematics.”

“Catherine has been a leader in both our school and within the CDSBEO,” wrote Ms. LaBelle. “I sincerely appreciate Catherine’s work ethic and ability to create confidence in our students’ mathematical abilities. I appreciate her ability to change the attitude of so many learners from ‘I’m not good at math’ to ‘I love math.’ Catherine is an exemplary educator. This award is well deserved.”

“I think when teachers are excited about what they are teaching the kids can also catch that excitement. I have always loved games and puzzles and I try to incorporate these as often as possible,” said Ms. Koehler. “Before COVID, my classes really thrived on working in groups, collaborating, and moving around, writing and showing their work on white boards and windows rather than on paper. COVID has made being creative a bit challenging.”

Ms. Koehler pointed out, “My first and most creative teachers were my parents. As kids they were constantly inventing games and challenges for my brother and I to play. They always encouraged us to be creative and inventive. In elementary school, I really admired Wendy Smith (Gauthier) and in high school, Margot Bickell was a big inspiration. They were my phys-ed teachers and I loved and still love sport. They were both strict but fair, which I admired, and both made learning fun—they were both really easy to laugh. As an adult, my partner Erin has been a huge inspiration. She too is a teacher and has encouraged me throughout all my highs and lows. She is by far the best teacher I have ever encountered. I constantly ask her for advice on lessons and she always has amazing ideas and advice. This is as much her award as it is mine.”

“We want to congratulate our daughter Catherine on this prestigious award. We are so very proud of her,” said proud parents Bill and Sandra Koehler.