Sia Willie/Photo by Angie Gray
Through the ongoing global pandemic, these 16 educators work hard so students in the First State get the most from every school day.
By Ashley Breeding, Artika Casini, Lisa Dukart, Julia Lowdens, Abby Osborne and Meg Ryan.
Rehoboth Elementary School, Rehoboth Beach
When Kellyann Palladino traveled to the Mediterranean several years ago, her suitcase was not stuffed with T-shirts or other traditional souvenirs. It overflowed with cultural artifacts, each one collected with her students in mind.
The art teacher at Rehoboth Elementary School, Palladino is a firm believer in weaving diversity and culture into her curriculum. That’s why, upon returning from the Mediterranean, she welcomed the rich cultures of Spain, France, Italy and Greece into her classroom. She shared videos of European landmarks and she encouraged students to learn by holding artifacts that had traveled across the sea just to inspire them. “When kids make connections,” explains Palladino, “learning is more meaningful for them.”
The immersive lessons in Mediterranean art and culture were just one way that Palladino brought art to life for her students. Each year, she has them explore the relationship between culture, geography and artwork in a unique region of the world. From weaving in Africa to painting in Paris, Palladino shows her students how the way of life impacts the art people create. “They learn about art concepts, but they also learn about diversity and cultures,” she says. “I want them to become aware of life outside of Rehoboth.”
As a local artist, however, Palladino also knows how important it is for her students to feel connected to Delaware’s art. Just as she teaches her students about far away countries, she also teaches them to appreciate and create art in their hometown. Some of her favorite memories include taking her students on photography tours of Rehoboth and sharing their art at the Dewey Beach art festival. “Rehoboth art is so rich, so I always want to take art out of the classroom.”
Middle school science
Centreville Layton School, Centreville
How do you conduct hands-on, scientific experiments online? If you’re Peter Rust, you make the world your laboratory.
Instead of only measuring nearby shadows during the equinox to try to calculate latitude, Rust and his students observed shadows through live webcams from across the globe. They found robust online simulators to design and perform experiments inspired by their observations. Students even utilized video clips from the International Space Station.
Occasionally, they lost track of time. Parent Kathleen Murray Lyons marveled at this ability. “More than once a week I would overhear the students say [after they realized] that class ended 10 or 15 minutes ago,” she says. “Can you imagine how amazing this teacher is to not only keep our kids interested but engaged both in person and virtually to the point of losing track of time? Some of our kids have learning challenges, and through his quiet way, he makes each child feel intelligent and worthy. For a parent, there is nothing better.”
Age 3 through kindergarten
The Montessori Learning Center, Wilmington
Visit any Montessori classroom and right away you’ll notice something special: kids of various ages all working and playing together in the same space; different stations focusing on everything from everyday chores to cultures across the world; tactile learning; and a teacher who quietly supervises while giving each child space to master a task at their own pace.
At Wilmington’s Montessori Learning Center, Shilpa Sundar is one of those teachers. It’s a career she desired from the moment she first toured a Montessori school with her young son. “I was amazed at how independent the children were and how the younger ones loved learning from the older ones,” she says. For years Sundar volunteered at her son’s school and then began her own journey of Montessori training. Now in her eighth year of teaching, she’s so passionate about the Learning Center that she and a fellow teacher jumped in and saved the school in 2019 when the former owner wanted to close it down.
A native of Bangalore, India, Sundar is acutely aware of how important it is to teach children at an impressionable age about different people and cultures, and she enjoys sharing her own traditions with her students, ages 3 to 6.
It’s also imperative to demonstrate courtesy and healthy communication and expression for young children. “If we expose them to this now,” Sundar asserts, “the world is going to be very peaceful.” There isn’t much about the Montessori Method—teaching practical, real-life skills in a tactile way—that doesn’t excite her.
“I love the whole system,” she says. “I just wish that every child in the world [could] get this kind of education.”
Wilmington Friends School, Wilmington
Originally from Liberia, Sia Willie settled in Delaware with her family after stopovers in Maryland (where her parents relocated when she was a teenager) and Massachusetts. With nearly two decades of teaching experience—15 of those at Wilmington Friends—she’s been at the helm of the first-grade classroom for six years, where she “loves infusing play into academics,” she says. “They are little sponges at this pivotal age, and there is so much they can learn from play and being given autonomy to [be creative].”
As a woman with a lesson plan, that was challenging for Willie at first, but seeing the benefits has helped her to “not lose sight of the goal and to just steer the ship.”
Two fun ways she does this: “The first is what I call the Jobs,” Willie says, noting that her students learn about community workers by assuming those jobs themselves—line leader, door holder, plant waterer. Students have to fill out a job application (reading and writing skills!), and if two kids apply for the same job, “Well, students are in charge of hiring one another,” Willie explains, “so the applicants wait outside while their classmates discuss who’s better qualified.”
If the application is accepted, there’s a day of job training before they begin (literally) clocking in every day. At the end of each week, Willie cuts workers a “check,” which they deposit into the classroom “bank.” (Math, and more math!) If a worker isn’t satisfied with their wages? “They’ll apply for another job, and sometimes have two!” Willie adds. Along the way, kids learn to manage their money—if they forget to bring a snack, for instance, they can withdraw funds from their account to pay the community vendor. “It’s fun and engaging and incorporates so many things we learn during the year that are [applicable] to real life.”
The second activity, the Peacemaker Cereal Box, helps kids learn about an important Quaker virtue through icons like Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Malala Yousafzai. Each student learns about a peacemaker who’s made history and then creates a list of characteristics, a timeline and a game on a cereal box—a common way to learn information. “Ruby Bridges is a favorite,” Willie adds, “since she was also first-grader.”
Early childhood inclusive educator
Bush School at Hanby Elementary School, Wilmington
From her earliest days, Erika Gunter was drawn to the classroom. Thanks to her mom, a longtime educator in the Christina School District, Gunter spent countless hours in and around education.
Gunter has spent 18 years teaching in the Brandywine School District, including the past four at the Bush School, where she works with preschool-aged children in an inclusion classroom. “Some students have disabilities and some are neurotypical,” she says. “For a lot of our students, it’s their first time in school, so they are learning how to really navigate the school setting. That looks like social emotional circle time activities and cooperative play.”
Like many teachers, Gunter had to adapt to a virtual classroom and then hybrid schooling last year. “Early childhood is tough to teach on Zoom because it’s not as developmentally appropriate having kids sit at an iPad for an hour or 45 minutes,” she says. “We facilitate learning through play.” To keep kids engaged, she relied on activities like story time, movement and songs to help students stay focused.
Parent involvement was also imperative—and not just during virtual learning, Gunter believes. This is especially true for those with individualized education programs, she explains. A parent of two elementary-aged children herself, she is also deeply involved in the PTA, even serving as its president this past year. In that capacity, and as her Bush School team’s equity leader, Gunter always keeps all parents in mind so that programming and initiatives are accessible for families of different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Richard Shields Elementary, Lewes
When you’re counseling students through one of the strangest, scariest and most surreal years of modern human existence, you’re bound to see an uptick in people reaching out for help. In a school with a student body of nearly 550, Scott—along with a social worker and school psychologist—worked with roughly half the students, most of whom suffered from anxiety and depression.
The perpetual trauma threw Scott for a loop. “Everything was new again,” says the 20-year education and counseling veteran. “We were building the plane as we were flying and putting the pieces together to help the kids.” One thing that helped was teaching his students about the four types of coping skills: physical (exercising, running, taking a walking break); calming (breathing, music); distracting (“how can you think or do something differently to calm your body down?”); and processing (exploring complex emotions through art or other activities).
The entire school learned these critical skills. “By the end of the year, it became part of their vocabulary,” Scott says, proudly. “Kids would say, ‘What works for me might not work for you.’” In a truly traumatic year, it was one of the greatest silver linings.
Grade 5, all subjects
Carrcroft Elementary School, Wilmington
Look beyond the chaos and exhaustion of teaching through a global pandemic and you might find unexpected beauty. That was certainly the case for Abby Sipress, a fifth-grade teacher at Carrcroft Elementary who found “so much good in this horrible year.”
She watched students and teachers form entirely new ways of learning and connecting. She grew closer to families in a year than she’d been in her 19 years as an educator. She got to know her students’ pets by name (“they were in class a lot,” she notes), but she also forged deeper relationships with her students’ parents, grandparents, foster parents and other relatives. Together, she and her class had “amazing conversations about the state of our world, acceptance and equality.” On a personal note, she relished the extra time spent with her daughter.
Post-pandemic, Sipress hopes there will be a greater focus on mental health. “It’s going to be like preschool with separation anxiety,” she says of students who have spent the past year and a half in relative isolation. “Then there are kids who have lost family members, kids whose families have lost jobs. Far more than academics, we need to help them emotionally.”
Archmere Academy, Claymont
At Archmere, Francesca Pileggi wants every student to feel the support of the school community. After losing two family members to suicide when she was a teenager, she went on to pursue a degree in psychology. Wanting a clinical component to create more change led her to Archmere, her alma mater, where she works with a class of students from their first day until graduation.
“The most rewarding thing is seeing how people can really transform and change… and being able to provide that safe place and that connection to help them be able to do that,” Pileggi says. She values face-to-face interaction with students, so counseling during the pandemic was challenging. To offer as much or as little support needed, she had to be more intentional in the virtual realm to create connections.
Pileggi also founded the nonprofit Aevidum, a word created by students that means “I’ve got your back,” in which they pledged to look out for one another after a student committed suicide. “It kind of stands on the idea that every student, really every person in a school, deserves to feel accepted, appreciated, acknowledged and cared about,” she says. “And if we can create a community where every person feels those things, in turn, that will hopefully help with mental health issues and help to prevent suicide.”
This upcoming school year, Pileggi will have her first group of Aevidum Ambassadors, a group of 16 rising juniors and seniors who are trained peer helpers.
Lower school art teacher
Tower Hill School, Wilmington
With a little help, Jane Chesson created a rolling art studio for her students during the pandemic.
“We were doing clay…papier-mâché…[all] off the cart,” she says.
This cart housed countless art materials that students could request to use while working on various art projects. “I was like a one-woman Amazon,” Chesson jokes, as she would sometimes get Post-It notes asking for different art materials for her to bring to the next class.
This became reminiscent of what her classroom looks like during nonpandemic times. In her classroom, also known as the studio, students can “choose how they want to work in the studio” and can participate in artistic activities ranging from painting to ceramics to even printmaking. Chesson utilizes a method known as TAB (Teaching for Artistic Behavior).
“When the kids come into the studio, everything is super structured to allow for the amount of choice and freedom that a TAB classroom provides so that it feels really predictable and safe so that it allows for freedom of choice without chaos,” she says.
Chesson credits the TAB method with helping her to “step back as the teacher and kind of loosen my control over what’s happening and really listen to the kids and follow their lead and support them in their goals.”
The Independence School, Newark
“I feel like I was meant to be a teacher,” says Debbie Grothaus, who—inspired by one of her own teachers—strives to make herself more “real” to her students. She doesn’t shy away from the personal, often sharing stories about her cat with her class. “I think that makes a difference to a child,” she explains.
A third-grade teacher for 43 years, Grothaus has been at at The Independence School in Newark for the last 32. There, she teaches language arts and math and serves as the writing teacher. Believing that all students should be introduced to writing early on, she launched the program in which she maintains a writing portfolio so students can see how far they’ve progressed. “It is gratifying to see them being able to develop that skill of creative writing,” Grothaus says.
Though this past year proved difficult for teaching, Independence students largely learned in person. Still, Grothaus is anxious for an even greater return to normalcy in the new school year, when programming that was halted can return. This year will mark the 30th anniversary of the Patriotic Program, another initiative she launched shortly after arriving in the early 1990s. The U.S. had just entered the Gulf War and Grothaus wanted to “honor individuals who are making the sacrifice for us.” Now one of the school’s appreciated traditions, students learn a mixture of performance and American history, memorizing the preamble to the Constitution, parts of the Declaration of Independence and a number of songs.
Furthering her commitment, Grothaus involves students with veteran programming by having them write letters or participating in a holiday program. “We are always trying to give back,” she says.
Culinary arts instructor
Howard High School of Technology, Wilmington
As a culinary arts instructor, Kirk Clemens provides high school students with a similar education to the one that jump-started his career as a chef. Students on the culinary track are a part of the ProStart program, a national two-year, industry-written curriculum that instructs on the basics of culinary and food management skills. “They can either build upon that by continuing education with college or in restaurants with experienced chefs,” Clemens explains.
Watching students build a foundation of food knowledge is rewarding for Clemens. “Seeing a student come in as a ninth-grader…they don’t know how many ounces in a cup, they don’t know how to do measurements. And then by the time they’re a senior, they’re able to do those things, they’re able to get employment,” he says.
ProStart students are also able to take part in competitions that build confidence and positive reinforcement when all their hard work pays off with success. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Clemens says teaching a hands-on program was difficult, but through video tutorials and various ways for students to submit their work—either by cooking the recipes at home or handing in an explanation or illustration of the lesson—he was able to meet students where they were, which taught him a little bit of flexibility in turn. “We didn’t want to put anybody in a bad position to where they couldn’t accomplish the task at hand, so we tried to just give as many options as possible.”
Physical science teacher
Hodgson Vocational Technical High School, Newark
For Stephanie Berger, building a community was critical during virtual learning.
“It was my first priority, and teaching and learning fell into place by default,” she says.
A physical science teacher at Hodgson Vo-Tech, Berger did that by checking in with her students. She used Google Forms as a way for them to “share feelings and worries if they wanted.” Berger also “set aside the first minutes to talk about life, what they do outside of school, what [they had] for breakfast, and so on” via Microsoft Teams and in person.
“I made it clear it was a safe space to chat. We have incredible counselors in vo-tech and students could go as often as they needed,” Berger says.
During virtual learning, Berger would film herself doing the lab work and “going through lab papers” for her students. Additionally, she’d write “safe alternatives” her students could complete at home that would illustrate a “similar outcome.” Once they entered hybrid learning, she’d “do the demo or lab live while also interacting with students at home on Microsoft Teams.”
Overall, Berger emphasized that one of her biggest takeaways from teaching during the pandemic is the “importance of community in your classroom, be it pandemic or not.” She says “the teaching and learning has incredible results after building a strong community.”
Grade 7 life sciences
Beacon Middle School, Lewes
An educator for 43 years, Gil Hense has taught science, language arts and mathematics. At the end of the 2021 school year, he retired from Beacon Middle School in the Cape Henlopen School District, where he’d taught life sciences for 18 years.
Inspired by his parents and the space race growing up, Hense was drawn to the sciences. Earning a master’s degree in education, he also studied special education, which took him down the path of reading specialist for a time. Having worked with an array of subjects, he infused his classrooms with life lessons. “I would focus on literacy, on the skills we need to be successful, skills that go beyond what I would teach in the science classroom,” he says. Those lessons have stuck with many of his students, who’ve come back years later to tell him the impact he had.
Last year was something of an experiment for Hense. Juggling two cohorts of students and a hybrid classroom model, he found himself discovering which teaching methods translated best. On days when students weren’t in a live class, he offered Zoom Q&As. He also invited students to attend his other live classes for review.
But he applied that flexibility long before this year. Understanding that students all learn differently, Hense adopted a different approach to grading. Nationally board certified teacher and educational change advocate Rick Wormeli points out that most grades are in increments of 10, but that an “F” has a span of 60 points. “That got me to change my assessment in many ways, and I tried to get away from that idea of a numerical 100-point scale,” says Hense, who instead used a scale of 1 to 5.
He incorporated different methodologies and activities, whether visual, hands-on, reading or listening. “You try to catch all the possible places where somebody can be successful,” he explains, noting that he applied the same methodology to exams, giving them in smaller groups rather than as one big test. At the end of the day, it’s about student success, he says.
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Kindergarten Spanish immersion
Love Creek Elementary, Lewes
Though she holds degrees in English and French education, many of Jhoana Pazmino’s students think she can only speak Spanish. According to Pazmino, a Spanish immersion kindergarten teacher at Love Creek Elementary, this means she’s doing her job right.
Spanish immersion classes expose students to both Spanish and English in natural, conversational settings. The students learn traditional coursework—science, math, history—in Spanish in the morning, then switch over to classes taught in English in the afternoon. Pazmino, who grew up in Columbia and has loved languages all her life, saw teaching Spanish in an immersive setting as the perfect opportunity to follow her passion.
“It’s amazing how well the students receive the program,” she says. “Just to see them grow, come in with a smile, and not be afraid to learn makes my day.”
Though she was able to teach in-person classes all throughout the pandemic, Pazmino found that COVID-19 led her to innovate her class many ways. Some parents chose to enroll their students in school virtually, which meant that Pazmino needed to tailor her lessons to reach both in-person and virtual students at the same time. “I went out of my comfort zone to incorporate fun things like puppets, songs and dance to make all of the students feel involved,” she says. “I wanted to discover how I could make things fun whether the child was at home or at school.”
As Pazmino got out of her comfort zone, she understood that her kindergarteners were adapting, too. While she sees major language growth by December, she knows that some of her students feel nervous to speak in a new language. That’s why Pazmino works to create support systems of parents, teachers, and peers to guide students. “I’m never alone,” she says. “The students are successful because we all work together to make them better.”
Sussex Consortium School, Lewes
At first, Coleen Brittingham wanted to be a French teacher—study abroad and all. She hoped to replace the retiring French teacher at Cape Henlopen High School but learned the school would hire internally. So instead she applied to be a paraeducator for Sussex Consortium and quickly discovered it was what she was meant to do.
“Seeing the impact that this program had on these students affected me immediately,” she says. “I knew I belonged here and I never looked back.”
Brittingham connects the school and the community through things like fundraising and working “with a lot of local businesses to try and get our students in there to develop and refine their vocational skills.”
However, the pandemic brought on a few challenges. One of the biggest hurdles, Brittingham says, was “making lessons meaningful in a remote environment,” as so much of what she does is hands-on and how it “actually happens in real life” like cooking, cleaning, time management, and social skills.
Despite these challenges, Brittingham argues the school-home connection during remote learning improved in some ways.
“We were able to have more conversations with parents because they were home more as well.” Because of this, they were able to go through some sequences their children were struggling with at home and then practice it. “Seeing the impact that we could make as a home-school team was so motivating that keeping the connection came pretty naturally!”
Concord High School, Wilmington
Judith Montilla’s love for teaching has followed her through decades, across thousands of miles and over country lines. Montilla, who teaches Spanish at Concord High School and Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, began her career more than 25 years ago in her native Venezuela. Since then, she has earned two master’s degrees, collected myriad certifications and is currently working on her second doctorate. But her most prized accomplishment? Growing alongside her students, she says.
“The students have always been my inspiration,” she says. “Each time I’ve gone back to school or gotten a certification, it was because I wanted to be there for my students.” When Montilla began teaching in an inclusive classroom that included children with special needs, she felt inspired to get her master’s in special education. Now she strives every day to give each student a unique Spanish education—one that is sensitive to their learning style, their interests and their goals for the future.
“When I work on my lesson plans, I always have multiple plans for what we’re doing each day,” she says. “If I find that my plan isn’t working and the children don’t seem interested, I switch to something else.” Her flexibility and receptiveness are what allow Montilla to push her students to do their best. Rather than following a rigid structure that might leave some students behind, she’s prepared to adjust her plans and find new ways to inspire.
With decades of teaching and an array of qualifications under her belt, it’s no wonder that Montilla’s teaching style helps students succeed in and out of class. She knows, however, that her students’ success is also thanks to her fellow school staff.
“A school is like an orchestra,” she says. “We all play different instruments, but at the end, we come together to make a beautiful melody.”