Photo by Angie Gray
By Ashley Breeding, Melissa Jacobs, Olivia Montes, Scott Pruden and Meg Ryan
Who are Delaware’s best teachers? Nominated by peers, parents and the students themselves, these outstanding educators exemplify the best in K–12.
Grade 1, All Subjects
The Independence School, Newark
Growing up in Westchester County, New York, Barbara Annable found an affinity for the great outdoors early on. As a girl, she’d spend sunrise to sunset in the fresh air—“playing in the dirt, making mud pies”—and looked forward to fishing and hunting trips with her dad.
Annable carried this love of nature and adventure into adulthood, drawn not only to the excitement but to the sense of calm it gave her. A couple years ago, in her 12th year at The Independence School and her 25th year teaching first grade (“I’ve always loved working with children,” she says, noting years of babysitting and being a camp counselor), Annable and her colleagues attended workshops and webinars where they learned about the myriad benefits of kids connecting in and with nature.
A schoolwide initiative to “get all the kids outdoors more” resulted, and for Annable, that means every day, rain or shine. “Whether we’re out there for five minutes or over an hour, the benefits are many,” she says. “The kids get so excited to explore, it relieves stress and anxiety for everyone, and when they come back in the classroom, they are so much more focused and ready to learn.”
Across the campus’ 90 beautiful acres, students have lush greens, a winding creek and barn ruins to explore. They even happened upon an old upturned sycamore—safe for climbing and teeming with scientific discoveries—that they named Big Ben.
“Sometimes I take planned lessons—reading, writing, art—outside, but my favorite thing to do with the kids is take them out for free exploration,” Annable says. “I follow their lead and am amazed by the discussions they have with their peers and the ideas they come up with.
“This freedom to explore their surroundings teaches them how to constantly evaluate and manage risks—‘How high can I climb this tree? Is that rock stable enough to step on?’—which also makes them more resilient and better risk-takers academically and in life.”
Plus, when we allow children the opportunity to fall in love with the earth, Barbara says, “They will be more likely to take care of it in the future.”
Best at-home project: “Their first research project: They had to pick their favorite mammal, then read books and articles about it. They took notes and created a little report with an outline I gave them, which they had to memorize. They learned about their habitat, what they eat, little-known facts. Then they dressed up like their mammal, recited their report for video—some went into the animal’s natural setting, if they could—and shared it through Flipgrid with the entire class.”
Grades K–4, All Subjects
North Dover Elementary School, Dover
In early March, one of North Dover Elementary’s teachers went on maternity leave, and Katelyn Chupp—a reading, writing and math support specialist—felt confident she could serve as the temporary substitute for the fourth-grade class. Chupp planned to return to her normal work when a long-term substitute was found, but by the end of March, nothing about school was normal.
Chupp became the class’s permanent teacher and segued the class into online learning. Since she was new to the class and wasn’t a homeroom teacher, she didn’t have relationships with all of her students or experience with classroom technology. “The kids knew more about Schoology [virtual learning] than I did,” Chupp says with a laugh.
With guidance from North Dover’s fourth-grade team, Chupp boosted her tech know-how and kept parents engaged, too. “Teacher-parent relations were strengthened because they had to be,” Chupp says. “I had greater appreciation for what they were doing at home. They saw what we do day-to-day and how many school staff members are involved in their kids’ educations.”
As the school’s 2020 teacher of the year, Chupp intends to return to her resource room in September, but quarantine teaching isn’t something she’ll forget. “We were physically separated,” she says, “but worked as teams of teachers and parents to educate our kids.”
Favorite new teaching app: Pair Deck through Google Slides. “Kids are able to interact with the slides, write on them, drag them to create projects.”
Best at-home school project: “Stuck in the Stone Age, which we read together like a Zoom book club.” Students chose different projects, including using Flipgrid, to demonstrate their comprehension of the book.
Grades 9–12, Agricultural Science
Appoquinimink High School, Middletown
The best way to learn about plants and animals is through hands-on experience. That’s been Stephen Cook’s philosophy for the more than 20 years he’s taught agricultural science and been the Future Farmers of America (FFA) adviser. Cook’s work earned him the 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture & Natural Resources.
His real classroom is Cook Family Farms, founded in 1885 and located a convenient 9 miles from Appoquinimink. “There’s nothing like seeing a chicken hatch an egg or understanding soil by touching it,” Cook says.
When COVID-19 made hands-on learning impossible, Cook gathered his students via Zoom and deployed agri-centric videos and other online resources. Meanwhile, quarantine life sparked a resurgance in gardening and locally raised farm products. “We had a very large uptick in business when the pandemic first started,” Cook says. “We had a lot of new customers.”
When restrictions eased, Cook welcomed small groups of students back to the farm. They hosted the annual plant sale during the first week of May, and students took home peppers and tomatoes that they’d grown earlier in the season. “It’s all about planting seeds,” he says.
Favorite new teaching tool: Videos and other online resources from the Delaware Association of Agriscience Educators and the national FFA.
Best at-home school project: Helping kids develop home gardens with what they had on hand. “Students had to research what they’d plant and do the preperation themselves—with their own two hands.”
Grade 2, All Subjects
Austin D. Baltz Elementary School, Wilmington
Second-graders are not known for their long attention spans, so when it came to teaching online during the quarantine, Odette Fuentes had to rethink her lesson plans. “It felt like being a new teacher all over again,” says Fuentes, a 10-year veteran at Austin D. Baltz Elementary School.
Fuentes had to overcome several challenges, including the lack of learning-friendly electronic devices at home for some students. “The older kids get access to their own devices through the district, but the second-grade team and I needed to find ways to get the kids involved at home,” Fuentes says.
Language was another hurdle. Like Fuentes, many of her students come from homes where Spanish is the primary language. Pre-COVID, Fuentes translated in the classroom when needed and sent assignments home in English and Spanish, but this proved more difficult in Zoom sessions.
Still, Fuentes was delighted at how quickly her second-graders adapted to their new circumstances. They even learned Zoom etiquette. “They muted themselves, turned their cameras off instead of walking around with them, and even learned how to use the Zoom chat room,” she says. “I was so proud of them.”
Favorite new teaching tool: ClassDojo allows students to post teacher-approved stories and chat with her via DM. “It also translates English to Spanish, which is incredibly helpful.”
Best at-home school project: A visit with a pet therapist who joined the class via Zoom. The therapist had a coterie of her own animals and the kids worked with pets they had at home.
Lower School Teacher
Centreville Layton School, Wilmington
In her 33 years at Centreville Layton School, Bonnie Hodges has worked with elementary school students who learn in a variety of ways, but they’ve all taught her the same thing. “If we listen, they tell us how they need to be taught,” Hodges says. “We know the skills they need to master, but how we get there is dependent on the student. You have to be forward-thinking and embrace change.”
That mindset made transitioning to Zoom virtual learning easier for Hodges and her students. “Some teachers make one lesson plan for 20 years, but I make a different plan every year,” she says. “This year, that certainly came in handy.”
Hodges stuck to as many of her pre-COVID teaching methods as possible, like printing worksheets and sending them to students’ homes. Hodges also kept to her reward system, a yearlong program in which students accrued points in the form of pom-poms or tokens. At the end of the year, Hodges gave students two ways to redeem their rewards: Amazon prizes or Hershey Park gift certificates. “They had to work as a group to decide and tell me their decision at the end of the week,” Hodges says. “Learning is supposed to be its own reward, but a little incentive helps—especially this year.”
Favorite new teaching tools: Zoom, Google Meets, Flash Math, “and learning what my phone could do.”
What she misses most about in-person teaching: “Being the cheerleader. Even though I saw my students on screens, the interaction wasn’t there.”
Grades 9–12, Technology Instructional Coach; Science and Computer Science Department Chair
St. Elizabeth High School, Wilmington
Kammas Kersch always wanted to be a teacher. Starting as a teenage karate instructor, she quickly realized pursuing engineering and medicine in college wasn’t what she wanted in the long run. “I was happiest when I was teaching,” she says.
Kersch taught chemistry and computer science at St. Elizabeth, helping students in the lab and teaching technology skills to her students and colleagues. As an Apple Distinguished Educator, using technology in the classroom has always been second nature for Kersch, so when teaching went virtual, her students were already using iPads and online instruction.
Teaching is all about giving the students the tools and knowledge they need, she says.
As the 2019–2020 school year came to a close, Kersch gave her students one last lesson that left them a little surprised: She was moving to Pennsylvania for a new teaching job. “I had a couple mouths drop,” she recalls, noting how a few students wanted to keep in touch and visit her new classroom once she was settled.
On her final day with her Delaware students, she gave them a final piece of advice: “Continue to believe in yourself.”
Favorite new teaching app: Flipgrid, a website for creating grids, or message boards, to facilitate video discussions. Teachers pose questions (“topics”), then students post video responses.
Grades 9–12, Convergence Media Teacher; PATV; Padua360 Adviser
Padua Academy, Wilmington
Dennis Leizear is a self-proclaimed news nerd. One of his earliest childhood memories is watching the nightly newscasts from his parents’ bedroom. While this love of reporting followed him into adulthood, he never thought he’d use his journalism degree until former Padua Academy principal Cindy Mann asked him what he thought the school was missing.
“And then I thought, ‘We need some sort of communications program,’” says Leizear, who taught history for his first seven years at the all-girls Catholic high school. For a year, Leizear juggled both roles. But when the program’s enrollment jumped from fewer than 10 students a semester to more than 100, it demanded all of his time.
In addition to introductory communications classes, he also heads the television station and a multimedia journalism class that includes the creation of a digital newspaper. “I love the news. I think the news is important and I think the kids need that, especially today,” he says.
Leizear aims to keep the program engaging by entering students’ work into journalism competitions, scheduling peer reviews and even keeping the television show going after Padua’s schooling went virtual. For Leizear, the program does more than create newsgathering skills: “It doesn’t matter if you want to become a journalist,” he says. “If you become a better writer or [can] shoot and edit video, in any profession these days, you’re head and shoulders above everybody else.”
What he misses most about the classroom: Collaborating with his colleagues on campus.
Cooke Elementary School, Hockessin
One could say Meghan Manlove answered the call of teaching. “I come from a family of teachers,” she says, noting how she fell in love with the idea as a little girl visiting her mom’s kindergarten classroom.
“I really think kindergarten is a magical year where you can really see growth on so many different levels,” she says. That growth was challenged in March when school shifted to a virtual setting. Manlove wasn’t worried about her students on an academic level, as she knew the families would do everything required of them. It was the social and emotional impact of not seeing classmates in person that concerned her, she says.
She set up Zoom calls where kids could “hang out,” an experience she describes as a talent show with 22 performers at once, where students showed off their newest dance moves or coolest toy. “I think Zoom was so successful because we already had a bond” from the time they spent in the classroom, Manlove explains. She hopes to recreate that success of learning and connection next year.
What she misses most about the classroom: Her resources. “You take for granted everything you have on-hand at the school.”
Robert Naylor, Ph.D.
Grades 10–12, Bio Med/Digital Media and Assistant Athletic Director
Conrad School of Sciences, Wilmington
Right from the beginning of his 13-year career, Robert Naylor found teaching to be a beneficial and gratifying experience.
“I always had found success in school, since it was a place where I was comfortable,” Naylor says. “I enjoy being inside the walls of a school and connecting with students within those same walls, experiencing the successes of all involved.”
When the school year was interrupted in March, Naylor was well-equipped. He’s acquainted with educational technology and was able to incorporate current events into his lesson plans.
“Part of our curriculum is in infectious pathogens,” he explains. “Discussing with students every day about symptoms of the body and treatment diagnosis was a comfortable experience and allowed students to address any concerns or observations they had.”
In addition to teaching, Naylor coaches the school swim team and hosts the annual Conrad Biomed B+ Foundation Dinner to benefit families fighting childhood cancer. He credits the district, colleagues and families he works with every day for his successes.
“Teaching at Conrad is similar to being in pediatric medicine at [Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children] or being in fashion in New York City or Paris—you just can’t ask for a better opportunity,” he says.
Best project: When medical students attend his high-level course to demonstrate organ transplants using bananas and oranges—“a tremendous experience for those going into this profession,” he says.
Grades 9–12, English
Mount Pleasant High School, Wilmington
Raised to be a leader, Taria Pritchett always had a knack for teaching. From an early age, she encouraged those around her to explore different points of view through learning. Her first students were a collection of Beanie Babies, and in seventh grade, she started her own book club.
“The books we read in school didn’t really represent me,” Pritchett recalls. So once a month at her book club meetings, she’d “be like a teacher, explaining different characters … and how they represented what a real person is supposed to be like.”
Pritchett has made inclusivity a goal in the eight years she’s been at MPH. Through her International Baccalaureate (IB) program and honors classes, as well as through Girls Empowered and Black Student Union (for which she is faculty adviser), Pritchett has helped students embrace their individual identities, as well as foster meaningful connections with one another and the world at large.
“I love that I am able to enlighten and empower students, [and] to help them see the world in different ways,” Pritchett says. “I hope I can help those in my classes to open their eyes to something that they weren’t aware of before, and inspire them to continue making those distinctions throughout their lives.”
What she misses most about the classroom: “The actual classroom! And creating. I love creating new lesson plans, assignments and testing out new strategies and tools to connect with students face to face,” she says.
Grade 1, All Subjects
Tower Hill School, Wilmington
It’s a long path from playing school to teaching it, but Nicole Rafferty knew back in the playtime of her childhood that one day she’d be teaching a class of her own. That path took the Chester County, Pennsylvania, native to children’s after-school programs in high school, then Penn State University as an undergrad and on to the University of Pennsylvania and through public schools before landing at Tower Hill.
“I’ve always just loved helping people and really inspiring and empowering other people, so it’s always been a fit, like a calling for me,” she says. “I just love the innocence of working with kids and the joy they bring to any situation you find yourself working in with them.”
Since she’s been at Tower Hill, that experience hasn’t been exclusively with the Lower School. In the 2019–2020 school year, she’d begun coaching girls’ soccer and indoor track at the high school level and found that working with the bigger kids had its rewards, too. “It kind of opened my eyes to working with an older age group someday,” she says.
Still, it’s the little moments of triumph with her first-graders that keep her energized for the school day, even under the unusual circumstances of school closings prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. “When the kids recognize their accomplishments, their proud moments when they get to share with their peers and me as their teacher—it’s those little nuances in the classroom, the connections they make with each other and the community, the family we create each year.”
Best at-home project: “We took a virtual trip to Disney World and the kids loved it. We did the tour through YouTube videos, and then we did different activities and broke it down during the day. We did some directed drawing of Mickey Mouse, we read some Disney books and they designed their own amusement park in math.”
Grades 1–5, Art
Wilmington Friends School, Wilmington
Teal (the bird, not the color) Rickerman has always been a maker. “When I was little, we didn’t buy a bicycle—we made one,” she recalls, noting how her father, an inventor, influenced her creativity and craftsmanship early on.
Primarily a landscape painter, Rickerman nowadays expresses her love of the natural world through gardening (evidenced by an explosion of zinnias, cosmos, Paulownia trees and more she’s planted on a 27-acre farm she shares with family), as well as teaching art to elementary schoolers at the Quaker school, where she’s been since 1985. “I arrived as an intern from University of Delaware and I never left,” she says.
A respected elder at the Quaker Meeting House, Rickerman is drawn to the school’s “independent and creative-thinking” philosophy and peaceful mission as much as to watching what “bright creative little minds” can do when left to their own devices. “Children like art because I show them some ideas and techniques, and then I stay out of their way,” she says. “Kids are exceptional thinkers, and it’s important to let them express who they are. With art, there is no right way or wrong way.”
In Rickman’s class, art isn’t just about making pretty things. “Through art, I can also teach science and math and innovation and language arts,” she says. For instance, if first-graders are studying the life cycle of insects in science class, she’ll explore the subject through textures, shapes and forms. “The unexpected comes up all the time,” Rickerman says. “They teach me—I hope I am teaching them.”
What she misses most: Working with students in the school’s amazing art studio, as well designing set displays for drama performances.
Doesn’t believe in: Contests. “In my art exhibits, everyone goes up,” she says. “If you’ve used your mind and put your work out there, you’re a winner.”
Grades 9–12, Physical Education
Sussex Central High School, Georgetown
It almost seems a little cliché that the physical education teacher for a region associated with the beach would also be a decorated lifeguard. But Derek Shockro, who teaches at Sussex Central High School and serves as the school’s indoor and outdoor track coach, is far from a cliché.
He is indeed a highly decorated lifeguard—he’s been declared America’s most respected open water lifeguard by the U.S. Lifesaving Association—but he’s also someone who has paired his love of fitness with a long family history of education. “I grew up around family members working with children and it’s something I was passionate about,” he says. It was a summer working as a camp counselor in Arden, where he grew up, that solidified his interest in becoming a teacher. “I like to be outdoors and I like to be moving, so physical education made perfect sense for me.”
Reaching students who have plenty of distractions is a challenge for any teacher, he says, but particularly so for those teaching P.E. “We have to fight … in order to get them to understand that we want to teach you these exercise components that will be able to benefit you later in life, not to mention right now with the immediate benefits.”
Shockro also brings with him a respect for differences in others and built-in empathy for students dealing with physical challenges. At 23, Shockro was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, which eventually required him to wear an insulin pump to maintain his blood sugar levels. “I tell students this is how it’s changed my life, and maybe I can use some of those scenarios and some of these experiences to help these students move forward toward their goals,” he says.
Best at-home school project: “I tell them, put the phone down or take it with you, but go out and take a walk. Listen to music while you’re walking. This is not hard stuff.”
Grades 10–12, Social Studies
Odyssey Charter School, Wilmington
When Melissa Tracy came to Odyssey in 2017, she saw an opportunity to lead as a social studies teacher and adviser for the Model UN and Youth in Government. A month in, a colleague suggested she help pioneer a Green Team. “I didn’t know anything about environmental education,” Tracy concedes, “but I loved the idea.”
At first, their goals were modest: Recycle. Ban plastic bags. Learn how to grow a garden. That year, she helped secure funding for eight raised beds to engage kids in kindergarten through fifth grade, but it wasn’t enough for the K-12 school’s 2,000 or so students. So the following year, she raised another $6,000 and 16 more beds—ripe with a rainbow of produce like arugula, spinach, turnips, radishes, lettuces and chards. Thirty percent of the 1,500-pound harvest feeds the students in the cafeteria each year; the other 1,000 pounds are donated to families in need through a garden-share program with the Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids nonprofit.
Growing more passionate about food injustices, Tracy looked for ways to expand their reach, arriving at an urban farm (home to two Nigerian dwarf goats and 16 egg-laying chickens) and a hydroponic lab as the solution for off-season growing and cooking up one-pot recipes with the harvests. “Connecting students to nature and being outside is a big part of this initiative,” explains the California native and mom of two, “but it’s also to remind them to do things bigger than themselves, to be more human. Service learning should always be a part of their lives.”
These efforts have earned Tracy and her community—without whom, she emphasizes, “none of this would be possible”—recognition as a Green Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. In addition, Tracy was bestowed with the Sanford Teacher Award, which honors the top teacher in each state with a $10,000 grant.
What she’ll do with the $10,000: Create a welcoming and therapeutic outdoor space that accommodates an entire classroom. “As educators, need to focus on whole child,” Tracy says.
Grades 6–8, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)
H.B. du Pont Middle School, Hockessin
Jermaine Wilson always had a deep love for teaching—he just took the long way around to doing it as a full-time career. After spending 18 years in corporate America working in the finance and medical fields, “when the opportunity came to actually get into education, I took it,” he says.
The H.B. du Pont Middle School STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teacher knew early on that he enjoyed sharing information with others, thanks to working with supportive teachers as he came up through Red Clay Consolidated School District.
“Probably back in high school, I had a lot of really great teachers who took the time to teach me and help me find my interests in different things I wanted to do,” he says. “I wanted to share that same experience.”
Wilson also benefited from parents who fostered his curiosity, including a father who owned a lighting shop and encouraged young Jermaine to dismantle things and try to put them back together. “I think that natural curiosity piqued my interest on how things work,” he says, noting with a laugh that some of the things he took apart didn’t always go back together correctly. “But I think that experience certainly gravitated me towards STEM.”
After advancing into management roles in his corporate career, he moved easily into training. “As a manager, you learn to become a leader and it’s constantly in your DNA to train people and help them do their jobs better,” he says.
What he misses most about the classroom: “Seeing those students who might struggle and some of their solutions end up being one of the top performing in the class. It gives them that desire to try just that little bit more.”