Avineri’s work at NCSSM allows her to consistently and vigorously exercise her intellect. “I so love the work,” she says. “I love the diversity of challenges, I love the opportunity to think and problem solve." (photo courtesy of Tamar Avineri)


Veteran math teacher recognized with prestigious award from UNC System

Tamar Avineri, a two-decade veteran of NCSSM’s mathematics department, has been honored with the 2024 University of North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching. Given by the university system each year to an outstanding teacher nominated by special committees at each of the UNC System schools, the award – as noted by UNC Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey in a press release – recognizes “extraordinary faculty members [who] have dedicated their lives to teaching and are committed to lifting up their students to become the next generation of leaders for North Carolina and the nation.”

Such acknowledgement by one of the nation’s best public university systems is high praise for sure. But for Avineri, what resonates deeply is that she was lifted up for the award by family – which is how she thinks of her colleagues at NCSSM.

“A few years ago, a colleague said working here is not a job, it’s a lifestyle,” Avineri says. “I have adopted that because it is so true. It’s part of me and I feel I am part of this community.”

Before interviewing at NCSSM, Avineri assumed her teaching career would be in the community college system. (photo: NCSSM archives)

The bond Avineri has formed with her coworkers at NCSSM-Durham is certainly not one she predicted. In fact, when she showed up for her interview, she was unsure if she would land the job. There were, of course, the sterling credentials from West Coast universities that had gotten her the interview in the first place – a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics from the University of California San Diego and a master’s degree in mathematics from her hometown school, UCLA. What was missing was formal academic training in education. When she researched the school prior to her late-summer interview, her confidence dwindled further.

It was worry wasted. Just hours after she was interviewed, Avineri was offered the position.

The hire was a good one. Avineri has now been at NCSSM for 20 years and has served as the school’s interim dean of mathematics, and is currently chair of the Durham math department.

Something in STEM

In many ways, Avineri’s story is of the sometimes circuitous and unintended search for home. She was born in Be’er Sheva, in the Negev desert of southern Israel, to a first-generation American mother and a Romanian father who, many years earlier, had left an impoverished life in his native country for something better along the far-eastern edge of the Mediterranean. 

When she was five, Avineri’s family (which included five siblings) left Israel for Los Angeles to be closer to her mother’s family. Avineri, who spoke only Hebrew, started primary school learning English as a second language.

In their new home in Southern California, Avineri and her family spent a lot of time together, sharing meals each evening and watching favorite shows. Avineri’s parents always made sure the kids stayed engaged outside of home as well, especially in the arts, where each sibling could pick an art class they wanted to take each year. Pottery was a favorite of Avineri’s, and one she took several times. 

At school, however, Avineri says she never quite felt at home in the traditional cliques – an experience she shares with a lot of NCSSM students. Sports weren’t an interest, nor was the nearby beach despite the fact her brothers were surfers.

Instead, Avineri fell in love with dance and music and theater. In elementary school she began playing flute, and in middle school became involved in musical theater, which she continued through college. It was, she says, “just a vehicle for me to dance.”

Marching band became an interest in high school and, by her senior year, Avineri was front and center, leading her classmates through their numbers as the band’s drum major, dressed in a pure white uniform complete with a white plume atop her busby hat. She also became involved in conducting, where she learned to read scores and lead an ensemble.

As much as she enjoyed her extracurriculars, there was something else that transcended Avineri’s love of performance.

“Growing up, I got a lot of really cool opportunities to be in music and the arts,” she says, “but I definitely knew that what I wanted to do as a profession was something in STEM.”

Math appealed to Avineri in a way nothing else did. “I recognized in the first or second grade that I just really leaned toward math more than anything else,” she says. “I’ve always loved it, even though it hasn’t always come naturally.”

Perhaps it was because of her father. He worked in construction as a contractor and engineer and spent his working hours calculating spans and loads and using math to lay out walls and foundations. Avineri idolized him. A similar path to her father’s seemed likely, perhaps in engineering.

Avineri’s unanticipated turn toward teaching originated in high school when, as a strong student in math, she began tutoring other students. She continued tutoring in college, eventually becoming the lead tutor in the university’s math tutoring lab. In her senior year she accepted the offer of a teaching assistant position, an opportunity rarely offered to undergraduates. Once again, she was leading her peers from the front.

Though she enjoyed the experience, the turn toward teaching was so sneaky that, as she made her way through college, Avineri was still considering a career in civil or structural engineering. Actuarial science was now in the mix, too.

All those tutoring and teaching opportunities along the way built upon each other, shifting Avineri’s thinking: maybe teaching math at the college level was the course she should follow.

She entered a graduate program in mathematics, which would allow her to continue exploring this new possible avenue while attaining the necessary credentials to find employment at a community college should she choose. She TA’ed every semester she was in school.

Avineri’s role leading her high school marching band foreshadowed her future role at NCSSM-Durham. (photo courtesy of Tamar Avineri)

Straight out of grad school Avineri picked up an adjunct teaching gig in L.A. Like many, if not most, adjunct positions, it wasn’t enough to make ends meet. She picked up two more gigs, driving from job to job all over L.A. just to keep pace.

It was too much. Avineri left teaching for a corporate job doing data analysis, but six months later, she was offered a full-time, one-year teaching position with full benefits at Pasadena City College.

“I thought, ‘Maybe this will be a different experience,’” she says.

It was. “I was hooked,” Avineri says, “and I’ve never looked back.”

A good opportunity

In time, Avineri followed chance eastward to North Carolina. She taught at Alamance Community College – again, full-time but temporary – as well as Elon University, and for a summer at Durham Technical Community College. Though still juggling responsibilities, Avineri was “pretty certain” by now that she would spend her career in the community college system. 

Still, she needed more than a time-limited gig. While searching for full-time employment, Avineri stumbled across a job posting for NCSSM. Though not a community college, she researched the school out of sheer curiosity and was immediately intrigued.

“It was just such a unique place,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’ve never taught high school and I don’t have formal training in education, but if they give me a chance, this might be a good opportunity.’”

The interview was quick and informal, a “kind and comforting” conversation with a long-time teacher and the chair of the math department in the chair’s office. On a tour of the school she met some of the school’s administrators.

“They made me feel really wanted,” Avineri says, “but I thought it would never happen. And then they called me.”

So much joy

Avineri has more than proven the wisdom of those who hired her two decades ago. In addition to chairing NCSSM-Durham’s math department, she also co-chairs the UNC System State Math Pathways Project. In 2008 she became a nationally board certified teacher and, in 2016, finally got that education credential – a Ph.D. in mathematics education.

Those kinds of credentials allow Avineri to teach a number of advanced courses like Finite Mathematics, Modeling with Differential Equations, Graph Theory, Research Experience in Math, and Combinatorics and Game Theory, among others. Her approach to delivering that content, however, isn’t what one might think.

“When I think of math, I actually rarely think of numbers,” Avineri says, “because there’s so much more to math than actual numbers. When I think about math I think of a puzzle. And logic. Reasoning, with evidence. Math always presents you with the opportunity to find the missing pieces, apply what you know in whatever way your brain works. My job as a teacher is to find a way to teach content that fits with how students think.”

Avineri doesn’t really consider her position as a math teacher at NCSSM as a job, nor does she first think of it as a career. Rather, it’s just what she loves and how she spends her life.

“NCSSM has presented me with so many opportunities to do things that I never, never envisioned, like being on the accreditation team, strategic planning teams, and getting to work with people across disciplines,” she says. “All of the outreach experience that I’ve gotten and the ability to reach teachers in North Carolina and still keep connected with them is all because of NCSSM.”

Whether in the classroom or contributing to “extracurricular” education projects, Avineri’s work at NCSSM also allows her to consistently and vigorously exercise her intellect. From creating student-centered lesson plans to addressing administrative challenges as a department chair to contributing to research publications, there is always ample opportunity to engage her mind and satisfy her strong work ethic. “I so love the work,” she says, “I love the diversity of challenges, I love the opportunity to think and problem solve. When people say, ‘Oh, do you have to work this weekend?’ I’m like, ‘I get to work this weekend.’ I look forward to it.”

More than anything, though, it’s the students who bring Avineri the most joy. From the school’s residential program to its Online program and its synchronous videoconferencing studios, Avineri has touched the lives of thousands of students throughout North Carolina.

“I get to know my students a little better each time I meet with them,” she says. “I get so much joy in seeing them get to a solution, and knowing we got there together. It’s a privileged position I’m in to witness these students’ growth, and their success.” 

An overwhelming sense of support 

A number of years ago, Avineri found herself with a choice to make: return to the familiar embrace of her home state of California, or stay in North Carolina. It was a no-brainer.

“There was no question for me that I was going to stay here,” Avineri says. “I love my work, I love my students, and I love my colleagues. I have so many dear friends here, and I feel such an overwhelming sense of support from them all. NCSSM is not just my employer; it’s family, too, and I want to remain here as long as I’m able.”