GREENBELT – When Greenbelt Middle School biology teacher Manuela Pagunsan was notified that she had received the 2019 Christa McAuliffe Outstanding Teacher award, she thought it was a joke.
She had been in the middle of teaching her class when someone from the Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) communications office called the school.
“Our secretary at the front office said I won a prize. I said, of course, she was joking when she said you won $50,000. So my students were laughing saying ‘did you really win $50,000 Ms. Pagunsan?’ And I said no that was a joke.”
It turned out to not be a joke at all.
Pagunsan had been chosen out of seven other nominees from throughout Prince George’s County. She was honored at the annual Employee Recognition Dinner on June 14 at Martin’s Crosswinds in Greenbelt. Additionally, her name will be added to the Christa McAuliffe Award plaque at the Sasscer Administration Building in Upper Marlboro.
The award is named for educator Christa McAuliffe who taught in PGCPS from 1971 to 1978. She lost her life on the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986.
Pagunsan was chosen among seven other nominees throughout the county including Jennifer Findlater from Benjamin Tasker Middle School, Romelita Panga from Dodge Park Elementary School, Gillian Richards from Accokeek Academy and Carolyn Sauer from Kenilworth Elementary School.
She said she loves teaching and called winning the award the “icing on the cake.”
“I’m very, very grateful and very, very happy,” she said. “I am grateful that my efforts have been acknowledged and have been recognized. In fact, I was telling my friends that maybe, I said, this is an affirmation that teaching is my mission. That’s how I see the award.”
Pagunsan, an educator for 32 years, said she had actually left teaching twice in the past. She began as a biology teacher in the high school department of a Jesuit university in the Philippines but left for a year and a half to work in a center run by Jesuits who gave retreats and seminars. She had left teaching another time to explore other options.
Then an opportunity came for her to teach in Maryland and she took it.
“This was where I had developed, one, my independence, and two, really developed creativity in teaching because of all the resources available to me and professional development available to me,” she said. “I really put my heart into it. In fact, I said, ‘I think this is it for me.’ That’s how I really deepened my love for teaching.”
For the past six years, Pagunsan has been teaching at Greenbelt Middle School, and Principal Daria Valentine called her an “absolute professional” and an asset to the school.
“She’s always showing gratitude and she’s very humble,” Valentine said. “To get her to even apply for the award was hard… We were really excited to hear that she actually received it.”
She is always considering her students, Valentine said, whether she is staying late or coming in early to work with them and based on their needs she suggested starting an after-school or summer tutoring program in one of the few middle schools that offers biology.
“Ms. Pagunsan is a hardworking, well-organized, committed teacher who has given much to our pupils,” said Science Department Chair Dr. Solomon Osofero. “She enjoys the respect of her pupils, their parents, her fellow teachers and the school administration.”
Above all else, it is her passion for the children that sets her apart, Valentine continued.
“I don’t know if it’s a passion for the content or a passion for the students. I believe many of our staff members are passionate, but in the way, she insists that they rise to meet her expectations and she does not lower expectations for the students.”
Pagunsan says she is just like any other teacher in Greenbelt, but her students can feel her passion for what she does. For her, her job is not just about teaching science, but teaching life lessons to her students.
“Ms. Pagunsan’s ongoing dedication to building her skills and making science fun for students epitomizes the spirit of this award,” PGCPS CEO Dr. Monica Goldson said when Pagunsan was announced as the award recipient. “Getting students engaged in STEM subjects goes a long way towards developing future scientists, engineers and mathematicians.”
As she continues with her teaching career, Pagunsan said she hopes to make a positive impact on her students, encouraging them to take the initiative to develop their talents as well as recognize the importance of striving to be good people.
“I was formed not just by my parents but the wonderful teachers I had,” Pagunsan said. “I want to have a positive impact on the lives of my students, and I’d like them to know there is goodness in them there is beauty in them, and they should take the initiative to develop what is good in them.”