Don’t tell Tina Shinsato you can’t do math.
Ray Huard….“If you have the ability to think, you have the ability to do math,” said Shinsato, a math teacher at Rancho Buena Vista High School.
“You might not care to do it, and that’s your choice, but in no way are you incapable of doing math,” she said.
That kind of drive and determination rubs off on Shinsato’s students, and led the California Mathematics Council to give Shinsato its annual George Polya Memorial Award in November.
Named after a renowned Stanford University mathematics professor, the award is given to one educator who has shown excellence in teaching math over a sustained period of time.
“I appreciate and I’m honored by the award, but it’s an award for the people I work with,” said Shinsato, who has been teaching math for 23 years, nearly all of them in Vista Unified.
“My ideas aren’t original. I’m a communicator,” Shinsato
said. “My ideas were taken from a lot of people. The award represents all the people I’ve ever worked with.”
Shinsato’s colleagues said that she’s too modest.
“I cannot begin to count how many high school students she has masterfully guided through math class,” said Renee Kollar-Bachman, a close friend and head of the Rancho Buena Vista math department.
“Everyone knows she’s already an incredible teacher, but she’s always thinking about how to make what she does better,” Kollar-Bachman said. “I kind of want to be like her when I grow up. She loves the outdoors. She loves camping. She owns an RV (recreational vehicle) so she’ll go on one-to two-month treks in the summer. She also makes you laugh when she knows you need to laugh, even if you’re going through a sad time or an angry time.”
Rancho Buena Vista Principal Charles Schindler said Shinsato “is a champion of all students learning math.”
“We are fortunate to have such a professional at RBV, not just for our math program, but for all students and staff members,” Schindler said. “We at RBV are extremely proud of Tina’s accomplishment and award. It is well deserved as she is a champion of math at RBV and for the district.”
Vista Unified Superintendent Devin Vodicka said that the Mathematics Council recognition of Shinsato was “a well-deserved award.”
“We are incredibly fortunate to have talented and dedicated teachers in Vista,” Vodicka said. “I am pleased to see Ms. Shinsato recognized for her contributions. Students describe her as an energetic teacher who is genuinely interested in ensuring that all students develop a thorough understanding of mathematics.”
Shinsato said she was drawn to math “for the problem-solving aspect.”
“I like that it’s hard and takes perseverance,” Shinsato said. “I like that I can have both success and failure.”
A 1989 graduate of Southwest High School in San Diego, Shinsato earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of California San Diego and a master’s degree in mathematics from California State University San Marcos.
In college, she initially majored in engineering.
“In all honesty, I had no idea why. Most likely, because that was the cool thing to do,” Shinsato said.
Working summers in a Girls Scout camp helped change her mind.
“I realized that I liked working with people,” Shinsato said. “I like helping kids overcome challenges and enjoyed celebrating success.”
She decided to major in math in her junior year “so that I could be at teacher,” Shinsato said, adding, it was the “best choice ever.”
In the classroom, Shinsato is an innovator who is always looking for new ways to make math interesting and accessible for her students, Kollar-Bachman said.
“One of the things she started doing, which has caught on, was put white boards all around her classroom,” Kollar-Bachman said. “Now, it’s not uncommon for every student to be at their own group’s white board, writing something, putting something down.”
Shinsato said that the white boards fit with her philosophy that people learn best by doing and collaborating.
“I want my kids to do their work on the board and talk to each other, I don’t want to be the one talking to them all the time,” Shinsato said. “In my ideal day, I like to present a problem to students that they are curious enough about to say, ‘Hey, I wonder what the answer is and how are we going to solve it?’”
Outside of class, Shinsato is a ball of energy, working with other teachers, staying before and after school to work with students who need extra help, and serving as co-adviser to the Gender Sexuality Alliance, an organization for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) students.
The alliance gives those students “a place just to be safe and not be judged,” Shinsato said.
She also teaches up-and-coming teachers at California State University San Marcos and has served on the board of directors of the California Mathematics Council.
“You name it, she’s done it, and she’s not done yet,” Kollar-Bachman said. “I can’t imagine someone being better at their craft and she’s always working on it.”