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Humor, Patience a Winning Equation

Meyer Award Goes To Math Teacher At Paint Branch

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page GZ06

You can't have a conversation with Nancy Hebdon without asking about Irma.

For more than 30 years, Hebdon, a mathematics teacher at Paint Branch High School, has used Irma -- a calculator -- as a way to make the subject come alive for her students.

Nancy Hebdon teaches with help from a calculator named Irma.

Irma sings, Irma dances -- or at least she would if she had arms and legs. But what Irma -- a lot like Hebdon -- does have is an uncanny ability to make math fun.

Irma is part of the reason why Hebdon, 57, is considered such a popular and successful teacher by the more than 1,800 students and staff members at the Burtonsville school. She was recently named the Montgomery County winner of The Washington Post's Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award.

Hebdon knows that mathematics can be intimidating, especially for those who don't have a natural grasp of the subject. That's where Irma comes in.

"We make jokes about Irma," Hebdon said. In class, she'll use Irma to help walk students through math problems as they use their calculators. When Irma is a little slow to warm up, Hebdon will often joke that the calculator "had a rough weekend."

Mathematics has always come easy to Hebdon, but she knows others sometime struggle or even dread taking math class. She works hard to help her students see the beauty in, say, problems on the differentiation of inverse trigonometric functions or applied maxima and minima.

"The best day I have is when a student says, 'I get it,' " she said.

In ninth grade, Hebdon's math teacher asked her to tutor another student who was having difficulty with algebra. The experience got her hooked on teaching.

"I knew then, I wanted to do this for the rest of my life," she said.

Hebdon majored in mathematics at Hood College in Frederick. She began teaching in 1969 at Fort Johnson High School in South Carolina. She landed at Parkland Middle School in Rockville in 1981 and has been at Paint Branch since 1986.

At Paint Branch, Hebdon has long been a favorite among students who appreciate her dry sense of humor and her slightly skewed take on life. She teaches three classes and is head of the math department. Despite her administrative responsibilities, Hebdon refuses to step back from teaching.

"I have to teach," she said. "For me it's a way to stay connected to the kids."

That connection to the students is very strong.

"I had never actually looked forward to a math class until I had Mrs. Hebdon," wrote Rachel Blair, one of Hebdon's former students, in a letter that was part of the educator's nomination packet. "Mrs. Hebdon could keep a group of the rowdiest kids riveted to her every word. She showed me I could excel in something that I have never thought of as a strength before.

"Thank you."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company