Margaret Cagle doesn't believe it's possible for people to really hate math -- if only they would give it a chance.
Cagle, also known as Peg, has spent 12 years at Chatsworth's Lawrence Middle School exposing algebra and geometry students to "this beautiful, vast world that you can't help but love," once you get to know it.
This week, the 50-year-old teacher will receive a 2005 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, an honor bestowed on the nation's top K-12 teachers. The award alternates yearly between lower- and upper-grade teachers.
One of 100 award recipients, Cagle will also get a $10,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, which runs the annual program for the White House. The winners are scheduled to meet President Bush today and will officially receive their awards during a Thursday evening ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Cagle isn't sure what she's going to do with the grant money. But she does know the award will allow her to participate in the national debate over the need to promote math education as a necessary tool for future generations to compete in the global marketplace.
"Being an excellent classroom teacher isn't enough," Cagle said. She said she would be failing her students if she didn't try to influence Sacramento and Washington policymakers with good intentions who craft "tragically naive" education laws.
Instead, she said, the focus needs to be on the roots of the problems with math. "It's not a cultural norm in this country to value mathematics education," Cagle said. "People routinely joke about being mathematically inept.... Nobody brags about being illiterate."
Teaching is Cagle's second career. She started out as an architect. But newspaper headlines in the early '90s heralding California's need for qualified math teachers seemed to be calling to her. She knew she enjoyed teaching, and even as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University, she said, she had been the "crazy person taking complex analysis as an elective."
At Lawrence, Cagle has taught sixth through eighth grades, including math for English-language learners and even French. She now teaches at Lawrence Gifted/Highly Gifted Magnet School on the middle school's campus.
Her colleagues describe her as a dynamic teacher who gets students' attention by using M&M's and Chinese takeout boxes to explain everything from factorials to geometric angles and arcs.
"Her teaching is very innovative," said Laurie Vallejo, the magnet school's coordinator. "She really cares about the kids."
"I think one of the most important things that I teach my students is to be skeptical" and not to accept something just because they see it, Cagle said. She strives to create in them "ways of thinking, habits of mind that are going to prepare them to take their knowledge and craft it to any situation" they might encounter in life.