ALAMEDA -- Take a challenging subject, add eager minds and an enthusiastic teacher, and it equals academic success.
It's 1 p.m. on a Monday in Room 206 at Alameda High School and teacher Michael Lamb begins his Honors Pre-Calculus class much like he does on any other afternoon: he reviews homework.
"Please, be prepared," Lamb says as he walks among rows of desks and looks at each student's work and checks it off a clipboard. "Remember: You can always ask each other questions. And you can ask me, always."
The mood is relaxed, just the way that Lamb, the Alameda Unified School District's Teacher of the Year, wants it.
"How's it going for you?" he asks one student. "Let's face it," he tells another. "This is tough. This is calculus."
District trustees will salute the 48-year-old Lamb on Tuesday, when they will also recognize the finalists for Teacher of the Year: Jo Korpuz and Suki Mozenter from Edison and Paden elementary schools; and Jenny Hartigan from Lincoln Middle School.
The honor means that Lamb will be among those in the running to become Alameda County Teacher of the Year in the fall. But on this spring afternoon, when it's just after lunch and the windows are open in his classroom, Lamb is not thinking about awards. He wants to make sure his students are ready for the quiz that he has planned for two days later.
"Math," he announces, "is one of those things where there's more than one choice. I've always told you that. It's like Legos. You can build Legos into different things."
The teenagers are busy with "proofs," or taking a mathematical hypotheses and showing the steps necessary to determine whether it's true or not. Emily Beireis, 16, volunteers to write out an equation at the head of the class, using a marker and an overhead projector so that everyone can see her work.
"You are taking the chance, you are one step closer to being right," Lamb tells her, just above a whisper. "If you don't try at all, you will always be wrong."
As Beireis works and her classmates watch, Lamb interrupts her: "Uh, oh. I see a little problem."
After she sits down, he asks the room: "Any questions?" No one raises their hand. "Wow, Team Lamb."
Lamb said he always wanted to be a teacher.
His father served in the U.S. Navy, so as he was growing up his family moved a lot before they settled in Alameda.
Lamb graduated from St. Joesph Notre Dame High School and attended San Diego State, where he got a degree in English. He was one class shy of earning a degree in math.
"It's something I took as a personal challenge," Lamb said about getting a credential to teach the subject.
Lamb, whose first teaching job was as a temp at San Leandro's Bancroft Elementary School, has worked at Alameda High School for 21 years.
He lives on Alameda Avenue ("It's really easy for me to find myself") with his wife and two children, who attend Henry Haight Elementary School.
"He oozes dedication," said Elizabeth Young, the district's 2011 Teacher of the Year and a member of the committee that selected Lamb. "His students know that he will go the extra mile -- lunch period, Saturday, or an afterschool session -- to help them be successful."
Tracy Corbally, the 2013 Teacher of the Year and another committee member, described Lamb as "a true professional."
"He mentors colleagues in the same way he helps his students, by finding out where they are and helping them grow to find their own way to success in the classroom," Corbally said.
People find math intimidating, Lamb says, just like public speaking. It's why he tries to keep the mood light in his classroom.
When 15-year-old Tommy Nguyen steps up to the overhead projector to write an equation for his classmates, Lamb hums Abba's "Take a Chance on Me."
"Remember," Lamb tells Nguyen when the student picks up the marker. "You are already a success by the fact that you came up here to try."
As the student works, the teacher raises his voice like a sportscaster.
"All right, let's see how he does it," Lamb says. "OK. He's going for the gusto. He's going to go all the way."
Lamb turns to the class, as if he has just remembered something.
"Math is really personal," he tells the students. "How do you want to do it? Do you like what you do? Do you like what you have chosen?"
Nguyen finishes writing out the equation. The teenager has done a perfect job. The room is quiet, then students applaud.
"Awesome," Lamb says as Nguyen makes his way back to his desk. "Well done."
Reach Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654 or follow him on Twitter.com/Peter_Hegarty.