As KTVA continues celebrating BP Teachers of Excellence, we turn our attention to the Golden Heart City. It may be 40 degrees below zero outside, but the disposition is sunny in Toni Hawkins' classroom at West Valley High School in Fairbanks.

“I don’t necessarily take this big complicated idea and break it down," said Hawkins, who has taught math in interior Alaska for 18 years. "I try to connect with the students and make it fun and safe. It’s OK to make mistakes here. I make them all the time and they help correct them.”

Her classroom is a judgement-free zone. Hawkins understands that math curriculum like algebra and calculus can pose a large challenge. For many, math can be daunting — even adults tell her their horror stories about math class.

"When I tell someone on an airplane I’m a math teacher, their automatic reaction is like 'No! I hated math,' and I get all these stories," Hawkins laughed. "So I often greet and approach kids with the idea that maybe they had bad experiences and I want to make my class fun and engaging and communicate my obvious joy.”

It was a teacher at West Valley that helped shape Hawkins' own path. During her senior year, her math teacher pulled her aside and told her that she was an great communicator and would be an excellent math teacher.

“I said no, I couldn’t ever do college math and I had no faith in myself and he really encouraged me," Hawkins remembered. "And that was a life-changing moment. I changed my whole path and I went into teaching and I love it."

She said it reminds her about the power of the words she uses in the classroom and the impact she can have on my her students’ lives.

A lot has changed since Hawkins started teaching. She said just about every student has a smartphone, meaning answers are just a Google search away. She embraces the evolution and works hard to come up with new ways to inspire her students.

“It never gets old because every year the students are different and I’m trying different approaches to try to hook kids," said Hawkins. "I think that not being afraid of change and embracing where these kids are at and trying to reach them where they’re at. I think that’s just hugely important to keep moving forward. In not only teaching, but any profession.”

Hawkins' students appreciate the approach, letting their guard down and letting the equations in. Every day offers a new problem for her students to solve and Toni Hawkins will be there to guide them.

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