Skip to Main Content

Obama bestows award on alum

Tim Kenney

Tim Kenney will never be described as shy and retiring.


The UNF alumnus, who received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the College of Education and Human Services and currently serves as an adjunct math methods teacher at UNF, bounds into a room with a huge smile and a contagious enthusiasm — and that is before the discussion turns to mathematics, his true passion. And once that conversation gets started, it is little wonder that the Duval County Public Schools mathematics coach was just named one of only 85 mathematics and science teachers as recipients of the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.


The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching is awarded annually to outstanding K-12 science and mathematics teachers from across the country. The winners are selected by a panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians and educators following an initial selection process done at the state level. This is the second time Kenney has applied for the prestigious award.


Kenney, whose wife, Heather, is the director of academic advising for Brooks College of Health, taught for nine years at West Jacksonville and Mandarin Oaks elementary schools prior to becoming a district mathematics coach in October 2010. He is the founding president of the Duval Elementary Math Council, which strives to promote mathematics, assist with professional development and create mathematical communities within the county’s schools.


 “We are so proud of Tim’s accomplishments and appreciate his dedication to Duval County Public Schools,” said Superintendent of Duval County Public Schools Ed Pratt-Dannals. “Tim’s extensive expertise in mathematics and his understanding of cutting-edge research make him an exceptional teacher, coach and mentor.”


Winners of this presidential honor receive a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation to be used at their discretion. They also receive an expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., for an awards ceremony and several days of educational and celebratory events, including visits with members of Congress and the Administration.


“The teachers we honor have demonstrated uncommon skill and devotion in the classroom, nurturing the young minds of tomorrow’s science and math leaders,” said President Barack Obama. “America’s competitiveness rests on the excellence of our citizens in technical fields, and we owe these teachers a debt of gratitude for strengthening America’s prosperity.”


Kenney said meeting the President of the United States was definitely a highlight of his trip.


“It was an absolutely phenomenal week in Washington, D.C.,” Kenney said. “We went from one event to the next and you would think, ‘This is the highlight’ and then the next day, something else would surpass it. That kept happening until the day they told us we would meet the President the next day.”


They were told the schedule for the meeting was ‘rigidly flexible,’ a term with which educators are overly familiar. “We all knew what that meant.”


And they still were not sure they were going to see the most powerful man in the free world until they actually saw him walking down the hall toward them.


“He came in and started making jokes immediately,” Kenney said. “He said, ‘I know I am supposed to be taking a photo with you, but Sasha and Malia actually need some help with some math problems. Do you mind?’”


And with that, the President jumped into the middle of the group and posed for a photo, his arms draped around the teachers on either side of him. Though they were warned they would only have two minutes with the POTUS, he actually took the time to meet each educator and learn more about who they were and where they were from — and gave them an extra 20 minutes with President Obama.


Kenney said that while the award is greatly appreciated, what he gets on a daily basis from the children and teachers with whom he works is even better.


“When I did my undergrad degree here, I knew I wanted to make a difference in kids’ lives early on so that they could understand what they might be able to achieve at the higher levels,” Kenney said. “I did not have any male elementary school teachers. I wanted to change that. I wanted students to see that it is pretty cool to be a teacher —that you are not a nerdy person sitting behind a desk grading papers. Teachers actually have lives and have families and go to the grocery store.”



The father of two said his UNF education more than prepared him for his career in education. “UNF has put together an excellent curriculum that, combined with the outstanding professors who teach how to teach, prepare any education graduate to be able to teach anywhere in the state of Florida and make a difference in any school district, any classroom.”


Kenney, who left the classroom in October for his current role as a district-wide mathematics coach, has kept strong ties with his group of students. “Before I left them, I had an app on my phone that allows me to play a timed math game. I had been playing it for a while and thought it was something my students would really love, so I challenged them to beat my time. I started at about 50 seconds and then got it down to 31 seconds. I thought there was no way they could beat that. Until I got a call from the classroom telling me they solved the problems in 15 seconds. 15 seconds! No way.”


But they had. They had solved it by thinking creatively. The students simply paused the game, took a picture of the screen, solved the problems, then restarted the game and entered the correct answers — all in 15 seconds. At first, Kenney said he was disappointed that the students cheated to beat his time. Until he thought about it and realized they had not cheated — they had just used technology to best his time. And then he was proud of his students who had thought outside the box to solve a complex problem and realized those were skills that would serve them long past elementary school mathematics.


“I was super, super excited for them,” Kenney said. “Their goal was to beat me and they did that. They are our problem solvers of tomorrow.”  


Pretty high praise coming from an educator of today.