Cheryl Beierschmitt Gann, winner of 2022 UNC Board of Governors Award for Excellence in TeachingTalk about an exit – Cheryl Beierschmitt Gann, who just recently left North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics after 17 years as a mathematics instructor, finished up her tenure at NCSSM by winning one of 17 UNC Board of Governors Awards for Excellence in Teaching. Not a bad way to go out for someone who didn’t discover an interest in teaching until graduate school.
Gann’s award, as described in a Board of Governors press release announcing the winners, was in recognition of “the extraordinary contributions of faculty members System wide.”
Gann certainly contributed while at NCSSM, both in and out of the classroom. It’s that success, both as a teacher and as a member of various committees of increasing responsibility at NCSSM, that has led her to her new role as director of the lower school at the Hawbridge School in Saxapahaw, NC.
Solving a puzzle
Gann’s interest in math began in a high school calculus class in Georgia, where the New Jersey native had moved to as a 13-year-old.
“I got to see that mathematics was challenging and also really interesting,” Gann says. “It was both learning something new and getting to see how these different pieces fit together. I like puzzles, and so math was like another puzzle to me to figure out.”
Too, she enjoyed talking about math and helping her classmates. After high school she enrolled in a math education program at Berry College, a small liberal arts school in northwest Georgia.
Gann loved her math courses at Berry, drawn more to the structures underpinning the numbers than the numbers themselves.
“A lot of advanced mathematics, in many cases, is about stripping away context and looking at the common underlying structures,” Gann says. “We might have this one mathematical idea that can then give us insight into something in economics, something in chemistry, something in physics.”
The education classes she took were another story.
“I honestly didn’t particularly enjoy my education classes there,” Gann says. “Some of them were interesting, but I was really enjoying the mathematics classes more.” She changed her major to mathematics with a computer science minor but had no plan for how she was going to use the degree.
A surprising discovery
Recognizing her talent, some of Gann’s teachers at Berry College suggested she continue by enrolling in a graduate program in mathematics. She took their advice and wound up at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, still without a post-degree plan of action.
But at UNC things began to crystalize. As part of the graduate program, Gann received a teaching fellowship. The last time she had “taught” math was as a child in New Jersey when she and her sister and cousin played school. Being the oldest of the three, Gann was by default the teacher.
“I didn’t get the purpose of the game because I actually made them do math problems,” Gann says. “I would watch them and be very stern. Unfortunately for them, that’s how we played school.”
At UNC, she was in front of undergraduates. The education courses she had taken at Berry College had made her think that maybe education wasn’t to be her career. But now that she was actually leading a classroom instead of studying the theory of leading one, things took a surprising turn.
“As I was working away in the grad program, I found that what I really looked forward to, what I really enjoyed, was teaching,” Gann says.
Gann accepted a teaching position at NCSSM straight out of grad school at UNC. For nearly two decades she taught across the entire mathematics curriculum, establishing herself as a student-centered master of content.
“It was hard to find anyone better for what Cheryl brought to the table,” says Taylor Gibson, NCSSM’s Dean of Mathematics and a colleague of Gann’s for the past nine years. “Her motivation and her special ability was to meet every student where they were, regardless of academic background. She could teach the content, and she could teach the kid.”
In 2013, NCSSM began offering a new enrichment program called Summer Bridge, which helps incoming juniors who need a little extra preparation for the rigor of NCSSM. Gann had been deeply involved in helping plan the mathematics curriculum for the program, then taught in it until 2020.
“It was so exciting to be a part of these students’ first experience being on NCSSM’s campus as an actual NCSSM student,” she says. “We got to really help them see mathematics in a way that they hadn’t experienced before and help them make sense of that. Their energy and enthusiasm was infectious.”
Gann’s experience in helping plan the Summer Bridge program was only a part of her engagement in planning and leadership opportunities at NCSSM. She served on several committees that included significant amounts of strategic planning, became involved in faculty senate leadership for several years, where she served as vice president and president; was part of the core planning team for NCSSM’s new campus in Morganton, which opens in the fall of 2022; and leaves as the chair of NCSSM-Durham’s mathematics department.
And just as her teaching fellowship in graduate school opened up a new career path for Gann, so, too, did her time in planning and leadership roles at NCSSM.
“I found that I enjoyed thinking more holistically about ways to still serve students, but have an impact across the school,” she says. “I was able to take some of the lessons I learned in the classroom about patience and listening and being flexible and able to think on my feet and apply them to managing situations and people.”
“Cheryl was always extremely organized, she had a clear goal and vision for the work to be done, and she always led with integrity,” Gibson says. “I had 100% confidence in the work she was doing in the classroom, and in the leadership she provided for the math department and the school.”
Now Gann is off to Saxapahaw, excited about the next phase of a career that she didn’t initially intend to pursue.
“We’re definitely excited to watch her grow professionally and hope that our paths will cross again one day,” Gibson says. “She’ll definitely be missed, both as a colleague and also just as a friend.”
Gann is going to miss NCSSM, too. “What I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated about the school is how much of a learning community it is,” Gann says. “I’ve gotten to learn so much from my colleagues and from my students, and it has really instilled in me a desire to continue learning and also to help others. I came here as a new teacher…and I grew and grew up here. It’s wonderful being in a classroom with a group of students, but this feels like the right next step for me.”
On Jan. 13, Chancellor Todd Roberts presented Gann and these six other NCSSM faculty members with teaching awards during a ceremony at NCSSM-Durham:
- NCSSM Outstanding Teacher Award: John Kirk, Instructor of Engineering
- NCSSM Outstanding Teacher Award: Sam Wheeler, Instructor of Physics
- NCSSM Exceptional Contribution Award for Classroom Engagement: Kim Monahan, Instructor and Durham Chair of Biology
- NCSSM Exceptional Contribution Award for Outreach: Chris Thomas, STEM Instructor, Experiential Learning Lead
- NCSSM Exceptional Contribution Award for Scholarship: Garrett Love, Instructor of Engineering and Durham Chair of Engineering and Computer Science
- NCSSM Exceptional Contribution Award for Service to Students: Carrie Alter, Instructor of Studio Art