Math was not Anshu Randhawa's favorite subject in school. But Patuxent Valley Middle School in Jessup was seeking a math instructor, and Randhawa was looking for a teaching job after completing a stint in the Peace Corps.
So, for the past seven years, she has been teaching math to middle-schoolers in Howard County - engaging number-fearing pupils with her innovative lessons.
"They needed a math teacher," Randhawa recalled. "I fell into it, loved it and never left."
Yesterday, Randhawa, now a sixth-grade math teacher at Folly Quarter Middle School, was recognized as an American Star of Teaching by the U.S. Department of Education for improving student performance and making a difference in her pupils' lives.
A winner was picked from each state and the District of Columbia among 1,800 nominations, said Jay R. Moyer, a representative of the federal education department, who presented Randhawa with a plaque.
Sue Ewart, the school's math team leader who nominated her colleague, said the national award was created for a teacher such as Randhawa.
"Math is a difficult subject to teach," Ewart said. "She's able to reach the high student and the low student. She has the power to do that, and she does it well."
The announcement came as a surprise to Randhawa, who was lured into the cafeteria for her award ceremony under the pretense of a sixth-grade class meeting. Even with a photographer snapping pictures of her and numerous colleagues gathering around her, Randhawa had no clue that the assembly was in her honor.
When Principal Carl Perkins told the sixth-grade class that the school wanted to give a "special shout-out" to a teacher and told Randhawa of her award, she put her hand to her mouth, taken aback by the surprise.
The kids, also unaware of the award, roared and clapped. She teared up as her husband, mother and 3-year-old son stood nearby.
"I love you, guys," Randhawa told the sixth-grade class.
A student shouted back, "I love you, too."
Randhawa, 32, whose family emigrated from India when she was 9 years old, grew up in Ellicott City and graduated from Mount Hebron High School.
She studied biology at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, intending to go into medicine, but she had a revelation during her senior year: "I said, `No way I could go into medicine.'"
After graduating with a degree in biology and education, Randhawa trained teachers in Kiribati, a country in the Pacific Ocean, as a Peace Corps volunteer. She returned home in 1998 and taught at Patuxent Valley and Mount View middle schools. In between, she spent a year in Arizona.
When Folly Quarter Middle opened in 2003, Randhawa joined the faculty. At the school, she is known for her lessons on fractions - ones her students enthusiastically talk about only a month into school.
"She uses the `slimeball method' for making decimals into fractions," said Codi Parton, 11. "She's really fun. You walk in [class] with a smile, and you walk out with a bigger smile."
Then there's the "popcorn method," which helps her pupils remember how to change mixed numbers to improper fractions.
"She's very funny and very energetic," said Samantha Mercer, 11. "I didn't really like math, but now it's exciting."
Randhawa said her goal is to demystify math.
"We make math into this monster for kids," she said. "We could break it down and make it fun and make it a learning experience. If you could make any kind of fun connection, they're going to remember that. We could take the fear out of math."