Orange teacher, formerly terrified of math, wins Obama award

ORANGE >> Peck Place School fifth-grade teacher Nicole Gilson is headed to Washington, D.C., this week to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in mathematics teaching.

That is quite an accomplishment for someone who was a “math-phobe” growing up and “terrified” of her times tables in fourth-grade.

Now she teaches the subject, with a curriculum about fractions and decimals. She said being selected was “thrilling.”

Gilson, an East Haven resident, didn’t actually begin to love math until five years ago.

“I had to overcome it. Now I love it,” she said. “It’s (math) a language and you have to decipher it. Once you break the code, it’s good.”

Gilson and 212 other mathematics and science teachers nationwide were selected by a panel of scientists, mathematicians and educators for the honor. There is one from each area, science and math.

The science winner from Connecticut is Liesl Fressola of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

The winners will receive their Presidential Award for Mathematics and Science Teaching honors Thursday and will be honored at the White House by President Barack Obama.

They will receive a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation to be used at their discretion.

Obama praised the recipients as “integral to ensuring our students are equipped with critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are vital to our nation’s success.”

“As the United States continues to lead the way in the innovation that is shaping our future, these excellent teachers are preparing students from all corners of the country with the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics skills that help keep us on the cutting-edge.”

Now in her 19th year of teaching, Gilson taught in New Haven for eight years before taking the job in Orange.

Gilson was an English major. She attended Amity High School and the University of Connecticut.

She then spent about six years in public relations before deciding to attend the University of New Haven to get a teaching degree when she realized how much she likes working with kids.

She learned to love math about five years ago when the language-based Common Core teaching approach came into being.

For so many years, she said, math class was about a teacher standing in front of the room and teaching the process that students memorized and practiced.


In today’s model, used by Gilson, students get a mini-lesson, and they break up into small groups to solve problems by discussing them.

In a recent lesson that began with students sitting on floor carpets as she delivered a mini-lesson from her chair, rather than say, “No,” if an answer was wrong, Gilson would say, “Have you thought about doing it this way?” or “You might want to rethink it.”

She told the group: “So much of math, boys and girls, is that of vocabulary.”

She also reaffirmed: “It’s so important in math to be precise.”

When one student gives an answer, she’ll ask the others, “Do you agree?” Then there’s a discussion.

“It’s (the approach) is really to prepare students for the real world,” Gilson said.

Peck Place School Principal Eric Carbone said Gilson is the kind of teacher who is always finding new ways to reach students, and one of her most effective strategies is the student discourse, talking about their thinking.

“It’s more of a facilitator role,” Carbone said. “She’s the guy on the side, rather than the face on the stage.

“I’m so proud that she represents Peck Place School, the town of Orange, Connecticut, and our country - she’s very deserving,” Carbone said.

Susan Lukianov, math/science specialist for Peck Place School, and a state finalist herself for the national science award in 1996, nominated Gilson for the presidential honor.

“Nicole is just an all-around effective teacher,” Lukianov said. “She’s really about meeting her students’ individual needs. When you see that come alive in the classroom, you can’t help but nominate her.”

Lukianov said it is apparent by the way students respond to Gilson that “they see their needs are being met and they feel their success.’


Gilson said she once so famously didn’t like math that when she told her friends about the award, many responded with astonishment in their tone: “You’re getting a math award?”

She said friends are still shocked at how quickly she can divide the check when they go out to eat.

“I was an English major and hated math as a child,” she said. “I was a math-phobe. I worked hard, but I had a fear.”

Gilson said she had a professor at UNH who got the students in touch with their actor side as teachers and said, “‘Never let them see your weakness.’”

Gilson said she was terrified of learning the times tables in fourth grade, but conquered that with the help of a teacher at Foote School who “never gave up on me,” and was warm, patient and encouraging.


As part of the long, detailed application process for the presidential award following her nomination, one of the submissions was a letter written on loose paper by a student who told of overcoming her math fear through Gilson’s teaching.

Another part was submitting video of her teaching.

Although the national winners were just recently announced, the application was made in 2014 when Peck was operating out of an open room in Yale’s West Campus because of flood damage to the school.

The conditions were noisy, cramped, with limited supplies and no Smart Board for teaching, Gilson said.

“We had to go back to basics and think on our feet,” Gilson said. “I really attribute the award to my class,” because they were so engaged, mature and receptive in the video.

The application process “helped me to be a better teacher,” Gilson said.

Gilson comes from a family of teachers, as does her husband, Timothy Gilson, who is a science teacher at Shelton Intermediate School. They have a son, Liam, 8.