It paid off when working on a problem and one student got up to show his work to her and he was correct.
“Awesome!” she said, giving high-fives to those who earned them.
Fontaine, who shows that kind of affirmative qualities in her classroom, was affirmed herself for her dedication to her teaching with an Outstanding Science Teacher award from the Sandra A. Daugherty Foundation, named for a late faculty member of the University of Nevada, Reno’s School of Medicine.
As a recipient, Fontaine received a $1,500 cash award, $1,500 for her science department at Reed and $500 to go to two students of her choice for summer science programs.
“I was very surprised, very honored,” Fontaine said, who was congratulated by her peers on Thursday.
Fontaine, who has taught in Washoe County School District for seven years – five at Reed and two at O’Brien Middle School – teaches only Honors and Advanced Placement chemistry at Reed and enjoys working with the students she considers the most motivated to perform well.
“I try to sort of emphasize that I have the best of all possible worlds here,” Fontaine said. “… I really have the cream of the crop. I don’t have to deal with a lot of the discipline (issues) anymore.”
To earn the award, she had to write an essay and obtain letters of recommendation from her colleagues, students or parents. Fontaine wrote about how to motivate students to pursue careers in science.
“The main focus of my essay was that we don’t really have to motivate kids to be interested in science,” Fontaine said. “Most kids are just psyched about science, (asking) ‘Do we get to blow things up?’ Where we run into trouble is once they get to high school, they’re no longer interested in science because it’s boring or they’re not successful.”
But she said of her students that they are eager to perform well, even if they’re not specifically interested in chemistry.
“They know for whatever reason, whether it’s from themselves or from their parents, they sign up for the class knowing it’s going to be more rigorous than a regular chemistry class,” she said. “I feel a little guilty about winning this award because it’s easy to win an award like this when you’ve got kids like this.”
Fontaine said she plans to use the $1,500 for the department for equipment that will be needed to properly run an Advanced Placement lab on the Reed campus. Currently, AP chemistry students from Reed attend a lab at UNR because the high school does not have adequate science lab equipment to accommodate the requirements of the course, according to the College Board, a non-profit organization that offers programs and services to help high school students transition to college and administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the Advanced Placement program.
“I need to take a look at my science catalog,” Fontaine said. “We need some analytical balances, primarily; those are probably $1,000 apiece. There’s a lot of equipment we need to compete with the lab at UNR.”
“A few other schools are going in that direction as well,” she said. “The cost for my kids to go to UNR is prohibitive. It’s a $500 class and, for a high school class, that’s a lot for kids that are just juniors.”
Students do get UNR credit for taking the lab, but it would be more convenient to offer the same setting on the high school campus, she added.
But improvements can always be made not just to the items in a classroom, but to the quality of the district’s science programs as well, Fontaine said.
“I’m a firm believer that there’s always room for improvement,” she said. “I strive to be better every year. … That being said, I think our science programs are really good. I know a lot of other science teachers in the district. I know they care about their kids. I know they work hard to stay current on their topics, on their content area and I know they’re available.”
Reed Principal Mary Vesco said the school is fortunate to have Fontaine on staff.
“People are so humble,” she said. “I said to her department chair that Sheryl needs to apply for this award and she accepted. She’s a perfect choice to win this. She teaches AP chemistry and she works so hard with the kids. She went to a university in Colorado for a podcast seminar so she could use iPods for her kids so they could get the best of everything. So she’s just an all-around wonderful teacher.”
Fontaine worked on a doctorate degree in geology at UNR but then decided to get her teaching credential. She got her start in teaching by being a teaching assistant as she worked her way through the program.
“My favorite thing about teaching is the students having that – I’ll call it an ‘aha’ moment, the students who come into this class and dread chemistry and are afraid of it and ‘I just don’t know what to do, I’m afraid, I don’t think I’ll be successful’ and then they are,” Fontaine said. “It’s not that hard a class and with a little diligence and a little hard work, most people can be successful at it and when they get that, I live for that.”
The Sandra A. Daugherty Foundation is a family organization created in 2001 and supports the development of clinical research and education in cardiovascular epidemiology and prevention. It also recognizes and rewards excellence in science and medical teaching. Daugherty was a physician, clinical researcher and epidemiologist who was recognized for her work in hypertension, chronic fatigue syndrome and women’s health issues.