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March 3, 2010 > Teacher of the Year

Teacher of the Year

By Steve Wyant

The San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce in partnership with the Silicon Valley Education Foundation named Ken Chiu, a math teacher at Rancho Milpitas Middle School, Teacher of the Year. Chiu was presented with the Excellence in Education award - a cash grant of $3,000 and a 'giant pencil' - at the Chamber's annual Legends and Leaders Dinner held at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose in December 2009

Chiu heard nothing about the award until the Principal announced over the school intercom that he had won. He learned later that the Principal and Vice-Principal had nominated him for the award.

Chiu has taught for ten years, starting as a substitute teacher. He was then hired as a full-time teacher for one year at Milpitas High School under an emergency credential program, teaching class during the day and earning his teaching credential in the evening. He has been at Rancho for the past nine years.

Born in Oakland and spending most of his youth in Alameda, Chiu graduated from San Jose State with a degree in Child Development but was undecided on a career.

"I just knew I wanted to help the community. I thought about social work. I feel my time here is so precious that I just wanted to help people," Chiu reflected Then the substitute teacher opportunity appeared, allowing him to return to San Jose State for his teaching credential.

Chiu feels he has grown over the years as a teacher, due in large part to the staff at Rancho Milpitas. He attributes much of his development to the support from colleagues, the school's leadership and the team-approach to instruction.

"I have an old-fashioned direct instruction approach... like lectures. I really try to incorporate real-life discussions about math and try to connect it [to the students' experiences]. If I were to talk about a scientific notation problem... a text book might talk about the distance between planets. I would rather talk about a scientific notation problem based on the annual profits of Wal-Mart. It's still a big number but it resonates with the kids more because they shop there," Chiu explained.

He encourages open discussions on social issues that numbers also reflect. Chiu tries to encourage his students to think critically about issues. In teaching students about profits and mark-up, he cites examples of Nike Jordans that may cost $140 versus a pair of Stephon Marbury shoes that sell for $14.99.

"What does that say about Nike's profits or what would a pair of Jordans cost if they were made in Fremont?"

One problem, about which Chiu is passionate, is ethnic stereotyping. As a student, he was subjected to a teacher's comments about his math proficiency being tied to his ethnicity. That struck a chord with him, providing insight and sensitivity to his own students' challenges in dealing with the issue. He feels it can be difficult for students to fight against the stereotypes to which they've been exposed and self-perception.

"If you act in a way that doesn't fit your stereotype, you almost lose a sense of yourself, if you've been brainwashed," he remarked.

As a math teacher, getting his students to understand numbers have real meaning is key. In his classes, they discuss world events and perspective. The H1N1 virus had scared many of his students who were constantly told to stay home, if they have a cough, and heard statements such as 11,000 deaths were attributed to the disease. He informed them 30,000 people die annually because of flu to help put things into perspective.

"The emphasis on numbers and size affects emotions," Chiu concluded insightfully.

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