Across the nation, one of the most widely renowned and prestigious awards of teaching is the Presidential Award of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST). The award is given by the United States (U.S.) Government to kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12) teachers in math or science education. On Oct. 15, President Donald Trump announced the list of 2017 and 2018 awardees; among the teachers recognized was MHS Advanced Placement (AP), Honors and Regular Biology teacher Nel Venzon.
“As soon as I get off the plane, I didn’t know what was happening — it took 15 hours to get to D.C. When I get off the plane, my phone was blowing up. I got texts and emails and voicemails saying congratulations — I was like, ‘Why?’ I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure what was going on because you know, getting off the plane, reboot my phone — and then all this congratulations. And when I got that email saying that, ‘Hey, you have been chosen, you were chosen as a winner,’ that’s when I knew that, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s happening,’” said Venzon.
The PAEMST award recognizes teachers across the U.S., the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Department of Defense Education Activity schools and U.S. territories. This year, three other teachers from Hawai’i, along with Venzon, were recognized. “It is the highest recognition given to a K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering (and) Math (STEM) teacher for excellence in STEM teaching. So, because I’m a high school teacher, I qualified for that opportunity for that nomination. And so, every two years, they select the middle school and high school (teachers),” said Venzon.
To be considered as one of the finalists, nominees must go through a long process of applying for the award. For Venzon, the application process began in the 2016-17 school year. “I asked the (former) class if they could be videotaped and things like that. And so it took me multiple footages (and) videotapes, and then the one that I thought would be applicable was the one submitted,” said Venzon. “Now, not only about the videotaping, I also had to complete the essay questions — the essay prompts that they wanted me to complete. So there were about four essays — it was a pretty lengthy process.”
In the weeks leading up to the awardees announcement, Venzon was unaware that he would be receiving the award. He traveled to Washington D.C. with the idea that he would be attending a science event. “So they asked me — the National Science Foundation — asked me to attend the event. They didn’t tell me that I was the winner. They said, ‘Hey, we would like to invite you because you’re one of the candidates for this award. You know, we’d like to invite you to Washington D.C.. You’ll attend professional development activities, workshops, discussions, things like that,’” said Venzon.
“I said, ‘Okay great, it’s a great opportunity.’ You know, once in a lifetime — it’s once in a while you get this opportunity. I usually take those. So I told the class that, ‘Hey, I’ll be gone for three days or four days, I’ll be back the following Monday.’”
While at the event, Venzon was able to meet and talk with other fellow recognized teachers. This experience allowed him to see how other educators from across the nation teach and, in turn, gave him inspiration for new ideas. “Oh, it was empowering. It was very rewarding for me because when I sat in that room with four winners from Hawai’i, four winners from California, four winners from every state — there were like 215 of us — I thought like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is the most rewarding experience,’ because these teachers have worked so hard to be where they are,” said Venzon.
“And it was to me, one of the rewards of doing what I do and doing what I like to do. You know, teaching and supporting students and likewise those teachers have supported the students over the years.”
After attending the national event, Venzon hopes to use his new knowledge to inspire educational improvements in Hawai’i. He also wants to bring change into the community by reaching out to local teachers. “Now, it is not just about the award. It is about what do I do now with the things that I’ve learned, the things that I have gathered and gained over time,” said Venzon. “So what I want to do now is I want to support more teachers. So in fact, I want to be able to reach out and help other Biology (and) STEM teachers in Hawai’i and support them in the process.”
Venzon is not originally from Hawai’i and is a Filipino immigrant. During the application process, Venzon chose to withhold this information to keep the panelists unbiased. “I’m a Filipino immigrant and you rarely see Filipino immigrant teachers who do things like this. I want to empower the young people, you know. It doesn’t matter if you come from whatever country. If you’re an immigrant, it’s not a weakness — it should be an asset. Bring to the community what you’ve learned from the other country,” said Venzon.
“So that’s the reason why when we went to the White House, I wore my Filipino national attire — it’s called a Barong Tagalog. So it’s more about empowering the future, empowering the youth, you know, (it) doesn’t have to be teachers. It could be anyone.”
This current school year will mark Venzon’s eleventh year at MHS. Venzon originally started his teaching career as a summer school and substitute teacher. In 2009, Venzon was able to take a job opening at MHS with the help of Chemistry teacher Christopher Johnson. “It’s just a great feeling to be a part of this community, you know, as a part of this — as a member of the school. We do great things. I mean, to wear that (Trojan) shirt is an honor. So I think to be a part of this thriving community, I feel valued. I feel such a great fostering family — (an) ohana,” said Venzon.
Besides Venzon, the other three teachers from Hawai’i were Daphne Okunaga of Pearl City High, Richard Ogawa of Kanoelani Elementary and Daniel Taira of Lehua Elementary.