When Don Pata began teaching in the classrooms of Grosse Pointe North High School, he thought the ultimate goal was to become a great teacher. He has learned throughout the years, however, the goal is really to become a great educator and to help improve the field not just the classroom.
He will be doing just that this week as he visits with lawmakers in Washington D.C., including President Barack Obama, while being recognized as one of the nation's top educators after earning the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
Pata and his wife are leaving for Washington D.C. early today. He will be formally recognized later this week in a ceremony at the White House.
The award began in 1983 and 4,200 teachers have been recognized since its inception, according to a fact sheet published by the National Science Foundation. The objective is to recognize teachers who are leaders in math or science education as well as "models for their collegues" and "inspiration to their communities."
Flattered to have even been nominated for the award, Pata said he was surprised when he found out he was the winner. The process began more than a year ago in April 2011, which is when he first received notification that a former mentor/co-worker, Mark Davids, nominated him.
Davids, Pata said, is also a recipient of the award, which is among the more prestigious recognitions a teacher can receive.
Pata submitted his application, which was a month-long process. He learned in June 2011 that he was among the three finalists in Michigan from the state review board. Just being a finalist was an honor, Pata said.
The final two were sent to the White House for review and then while running errands with his wife earlier this month, Pata received notification that he had been selected. "It was very surreal," Pata said, of receiving the news. "After such a long time, you stop thinking about it."
"I know the other finalists and to count myself among them is humbling for me alone," Pata said. He credits his own success as a physics teacher to the many talented teachers and professionals with whom he's worked in his 13 years with the district.
In an announcement email to the school district, North Principal Tim Bearden expressed his own appreciation for Pata's teaching skills, saying he has grown professionally just from observing Pata.
His passion is in working with the students but he is excited to bring attention to issues and awareness to the education field, he said, explaining to help the field ultimately helps the students.
Pata is a graduate of Grosse Pointe South High School. He earned his bachelor's and masters degrees from Wayne State University. He worked in the Peace Corps for one year, teaching science in West Africa before returning to Grosse Pointe and accepting a position at North.
This summer is he is teaching a physics class for teachers, he said, to help them improve their teaching in the classroom.
During his trip to Washington D.C., Pata will participate in professional development activities, meet with Rep. Hansen Clarke, brainstorm policy changes, have a tour of the White House and meet with Obama. Additionally, he'll be recognized during a ceremony with all of the award winners.