This week’s feature for Teacher of the Year is Diane Vaniman, a mathematics teacher at West Wilson Middle School.
Vaniman teaches algebra and eighth grade math at West Wilson, where she has been for two years. Prior to West Wilson, she taught at Mt. Juliet Middle School for 11 years.
Vaniman hasn’t always taught mathematics. She owned her own dance studio in Florida, where she taught dance for 17 years.
After moving to Tennessee, she decided to follow another career path. Because of her years of experience at her studio, education seemed like the right choice. Growing up in the studio, teaching hundreds of students and coaching competition teams, provided a full background working with children.
“Teaching was just a natural thing, because really I’d been a teacher my whole life,” she said.
Vaniman completed an online curriculum with Western Governor’s University in mathematics education, focusing on middle school math content.
She was interested in middle school because that is the age where many students struggle with math. Middle school mathematics, and especially algebra, is more difficult than any math class the students have experienced at that point in their education.
“I feel like you can still relate to them and catch them,” Vaniman said. She said you can show them that they can overcome a difficult subject and help build their confidence.
Her dance background influences how she teaches in the classroom. Difficult new subjects can sometimes be dull for students, so she finds ways to pique their interest.
“I’ll start a chant about something we’re learning or we’ll get up and do a little dance,” she said. “I think that’s what makes it a little bit different.”
“Try to find something to keep them engaged besides just moving their pencil,” she continued.
Because algebra is an honors course, Vaniman likes to challenge her students.
“I love to see productive struggle on the kids,” she said. “Then when they get it, that lightbulb of ‘Oh is that all you do,’ that’s just really fun for me.”
She also enjoys seeing her students grow from beginning of eighth grade to young adults preparing to enter high school.
“I just really enjoy the kids,” she said. “I enjoy working with the kids and watching them learn, watching them grow throughout the whole year.”
Vaniman has a mantra in her classroom: Struggling isn’t failing; it’s your entry point to learning.
“They’re learning how to learn, what they have to do to get it,” she said. “When they move into high school and start taking some of those higher-ended classes, I feel like it’s helping to prepare them.”
Another way she prepares her students is by having them complete a quarterly ACT practice. Much of what they learn in algebra in on the test, so the additional practice helps them become familiar with the questions and build their confidence.
“It’s rewarding to see them grow up like that, and send them on their way,” she said.
In addition to teaching in the classroom, she also helped choreograph a school production. She said the experience was rewarding being a part of a school community effort outside of the classroom.
“As teachers we wear so many hats,” she said. “There’s times we have to parent, times we do social work. We don’t just teach. Teaching algebra is just a small portion of what we do.”
Vaniman learned that she was chosen Teacher of the Year at a faculty meeting on her 60th birthday. She has been nominated every year for the past 10 years.
“Being nominated every year by your peers in an honor,” she said. “It’s humbling. Sometimes we don’t even get to talk to each other we get so busy, so you wonder does anybody really know what you’re doing in the classroom. It was very touching.”