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Delaware’s Top Teachers Educate and Inspire in 2022

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On the heels of COVID-19 and hybrid learning, these 21 educators are committed to closing educational gaps and helping students get back on track.

By Matt Amis, Ashley Breeding, Linda Domingo, Angie Gray, Natalie Orga, Meg Ryan, Annie Ward and Amy White

Today’s teachers bear more responsibility in the classroom than ever before. They are tasked not only with their mission as educators—to bestow onto our children their knowledge, open them to new worlds and help them realize their potentials and dreams—but to be hypervigilant protectors amid our country’s Wild West gun culture and subsequent threats it carries. They were expected to keep students on course through virtual and hybrid learning during a multiyear global pandemic, and then help them return to a new “normal”—one that many younger students had never experienced. In many Delaware schools, they’ve even reached into their own pockets to offer support where our state has fallen short. Here, we honor a group of top teachers—all selected by their students, colleagues and peers—who have kept their wits about them and continued to help shape the next generations for a brighter future.

“Education doesn’t just make us smarter. It makes us whole.”
—First Lady Jill Biden

Diana Magaña

Spanish Immersion, Grade 3 | ASPIRA Academy, Newark

Photo by Angie Gray

Diana Magaña is somewhat of a disrupter, much to the benefit of her students. “I love embracing new things, and really evolving the curriculum,” says the math and science Spanish immersion teacher. “I really allow for students’ creativity—to encourage them to think outside of the box,” she says.

It’s just as important that she does the same for herself. “I will never stop changing the dynamic,” she says. “Once we fall into a routine, we can no longer surprise our students with innovative learning. I’m lucky to be in a school where the administration encourages that disruption: If you think the traditional lesson one, week one isn’t working, do as you see fit.”

Magaña’s reputation makes her the go-to person to pilot new programming before the school goes all in on purchasing. The Charter Schools Teacher of the Year, Magaña says it’s “pure magic” to see her third-graders soak up the language like sponges. “Sometimes I look around and feel a sense of imposter syndrome, but this is all real.”

Cheryl Apparicio

Business Education Teacher | Appoquinimink High School

Photo by Maria Deforrest

Cheryl Apparicio teaches students how to apply their business education in the real world. At Appoquinimink, students first select a career pathway that determines their classes; those on the business track begin with a financial literacy class, then level up to elements of business and ultimately an entrepreneurship class, where they gain real-world business experience. Apparicio focuses on authenticity and action by asking herself, “How can what I am teaching be used by students? How can I get them excited about the content? I want to make it real for them,” she says. Beyond a typical personal finance lesson, for instance, many of her students have been involved in the VITA tax program, which helps them to become certified tax preparers, as well as help those in low-income communities complete their annual taxes.

Javier Ergueta

International Baccalaureate (IB) History, Politics and Theory of Knowledge Teacher | Wilmington Friends School

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Photo by Angie Gray

Javier Ergueta’s history classes culminate in a much-anticipated debate toward the end of the school year, which pits classmates against classmates on various profound, fundamental issues: Is realpolitik a good approach to governing? What role should morality play in politics? It’s a chance for students to take knowledge gained from the past year and put it into the ring, to be critiqued by a jury of their peers. These types of learning activities have transformed reluctant observers of history into social advocates, or prospective political science majors who are eager to make history themselves.

“History is a conversation,” Ergueta says. “The past is not dead—it’s not even the past.” As a teacher of IB history, politics and the theory of knowledge, Ergueta always encourages students to find “meaning” that is not always apparent in classes that are traditionally full of seemingly disconnected dates and names.

With a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, a diploma from Johns Hopkins University Bologna Center and an MBA from Stanford University under his belt, Ergueta initially launched his career in international business. After time spent in consulting, technology and marketing, and launching two startups, he found his calling in teaching.

“I never looked back,” he says. Twenty years later, he is still as passionate about preparing lessons, anticipating questions and finding new ways to resonate with every student. “Teaching is an extraordinarily demanding and rewarding craft. It’s performance art. You can never do it as well as it needs to be done.”

SFC Richard Hurt

Grade 9 JROTC Instructor | Cape Henlopen High School, Lewes

Photo by Maria Deforrest

What does it take to become one of Delaware’s Top Teachers, as well as the first and only person from the state to win the national Life-Changer of the Year Award? According to Sergeant Richard Hurt, the key is determination, perseverance and the ability to set an incredible example. “You can’t expect kids to do anything you can’t do; you have to lead by example.”

That means “every volunteer event, everything that we do, I’m always there,” he continues. “And it makes a tremendous difference.” SFC Hurt, a JROTC instructor, is known for his warmth, selflessness and unwavering guidance. As a coach and adviser for plenty of extracurriculars, SFC Hurt plays an active, inspirational role in the lives of all his pupils.

One of his students, Bobby Zakrzekski, writes, “Sgt. Hurt has a way of taking a lost, confused mind and turning it into a confident, motivated one. …I actually don’t know where I would be if I never met Sgt. Hurt.”

His students regularly complete an impressive amount of volunteer work, receiving national awards for their contributions. When it comes to helping others, SFC Hurt is always the first in line.

Tae Sakamoto, Ph.D.

Grades Pre-K–8, Director of Choir and Orchestra Programs, General Music Teacher | The Independence School, Newark

Photo by Angie Gray

Entering the U.S. at age 17, Tae Sakamoto let music do the talking. “It is such a cliché to say that music is a universal language, but I can attest as a living example,” she says. “I was only supposed to study in the U.S. for one year, and I still wonder to this day if I would have decided or wanted to stay longer if it had not been for music.”

Sakamoto’s passion for music and teaching comes together in her work at The Independence School, a role she’s held since 2013. Working with primary and secondary students allows Sakamoto to practice every aspect of music she’s studied—conducting, composition, opera, musical theater, vocal training, accompanying, chamber music and choir. And Sakamoto’s teaching doesn’t stop when the sound ends.

“Music also teaches [students] important life skills and traits such as discipline, patience, time management, teamwork, respect and critical listening. It enhances the quality of their lives. It gives them a mental oasis, confidence, a sense of belonging and a platform to express their creativity.”

Debbie Supplee

Librarian | Cape Henlopen High School, Lewes

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Photo by Angie Gray

Cape’s colorful library, made more vibrant by ample natural light, was designed to entice teenage students to stop in and chill out. Librarian Debbie Supplee says she has made it her mission to create a library that represents every kid and every interest. Describing it as a “hub where everyone can feel comfortable browsing, learning or relaxing,” Supplee explains, it’s intended to be a designated safe space for all students—including LGBTQ+, kids of color and those needing a mental health break.

Supplee started out as a French teacher 28 years ago. She has spent the past 12 years as a certified librarian and has been in this role for three years. Technology has changed certain aspects of her work, she points out, but Supplee has noticed a recent shift back to valuing libraries—and she hopes this will prompt Delaware to work toward placing a certified librarian in every school.

Supplee knows how important it is for the library to keep up with current trends, and she’s particularly excited about the collection of manga books (a variety of comic books and graphic novels) available in her library. Along with the original and modern version of the classics, students are provided the opportunity to read the manga style, which she says “helps kids who wouldn’t otherwise choose a classic novel to decode old language and enjoy literature.”

An integral part of Supplee’s curriculum is what’s called the Reader’s Advisory. Students visit the library to seek out her expertise and ask for help choosing books to support their assignments for their classes. The best part of job, Supplee says, is when “I see a kid get excited about what they’re reading and come back asking for more.”

Jaclyn Czachorowski

Grades 9–12, Web and Print Technology | St. Georges Technical High School, Middletown

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Photo by Maria Deforrest

As a young mother with a two-year degree in graphic design, Czachorowski knew the best way to help support her growing family while furthering her education was to start her own at-home business. With a small staff (just her) but skillful marketing, she was soon building websites and designing logos for big companies across the country.

Today, Czachorowski takes that business savvy she acquired through trial and error to educate her web and print technology students, and also help them onto a work path after graduation. “Teaching was never my plan,” she says, noting that a community acquaintance—another educator at St. Georges—encouraged her to apply. At the time, the stability of working in a school appealed to her. Twelve years later, her district’s 2023 Teacher of the Year “can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says. “These kids are my family.”

It was a bit of a rough go at first, Czachorowski concedes, as she learned to navigate a classroom while earning her business teaching certificate. She discovered embracing students early on—freshman year, before they can officially enroll in her program—was key to stimulating enthusiasm and eagerness to learn, as was incorporating creative art into the syllabus. (“It’s therapy for many students,” she notes.) But perhaps what sets Czachorowski apart is what she offers outside the curriculum: “I try get to know my students by asking them about their lives,” she says. “The more you know a kid, the better you can understand them and serve them.”

At the end of the school year, Czachorowski often receives letters from students about the impact she’s had on them. “Then I know I’ve succeeded,” she says. “I made this their happy place.”

Dr. Rony Flechier

Grades 11–12 Pre-Calculus and AP Calculus AB & BC | Cape Henlopen High School, Lewes

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Photo by Maria Deforrest

As one of the leading industrial engineers in his native Haiti, Rony Flechier directed operations for massive companies and managed complex projects for the entire nation.

Today his production center is Cape Henlopen High School, where students know him as the demanding-but-nice math teacher who can break calculus down to its basic elements before reconstructing it together.

“And as such, we are actors in the production center,” he says. “My role is to make sure I prepare [and that] the ingredients are in place. And when students step in, I give them direction how to mix up the ingredients to have the final product which is going to be the skills they learn.”

Flechier immigrated to the U.S. in 2006—just before the economy tanked and manufacturing opportunities all but disappeared. So he turned to teaching, something he’d done in Haiti in his spare time. He got a foot in the door at nearby Seaford High School as a para-special education instructor and translator for its large Haitian Creole–speaking student population. He worked his way through teaching certifications and soon earned two Teacher of the Year honors in 10 years at Seaford.

Flechier’s work ethic and community-mindedness has caught the attention of the Cape Henlopen community, too, where he was also named the district’s Teacher of the Year in 2022. To principal Nikki Miller, “He makes an impact in his leadership capabilities, strong sense of pride and a dedication that is hard to match.”

To Flechier, it’s simply a matter of showing students “that education can be basically a game changer,” he says. “And I give them myself as an example to see.”

Sara Deflavis

Grade 7 Teacher/Grade 6 Dean | Shue–Medill Middle School, Newark

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Photo courtesy of Sara Deflavis

Sara Deflavis always knew she wanted to work with kids, and she originally planned to teach high school English, even earning her master’s in secondary ed. But when a teacher placement program landed her in a middle school, goals shifted. After three days of working with sixth- and seventh-graders, “I knew this is where I belonged,” she recalls. “Kids [this age] want to be independent but at the same time need so much love and she approval.” She likes getting to follow them as they figure out who they are. At Shue–Medill, Deflavis is also the AVID (advancement via individual determination) coordinator, helping to give students who wouldn’t be college bound the opportunity to change their own course and work toward bettering their communities. “The program teaches students to be leaders and advocate for themselves, in addition to study skills,” she explains. Teaching in a Level 1 school district allows Deflavis to work with kids from different backgrounds. She enjoys providing for those who don’t have all the necessities, even keeping a pantry of snacks and personal-care products, as well as opening a formalwear closet of donated attire for students to shop. “I like being able to give them more peace of mind,” she says.

Anna Elliott

Grade 4 Teacher | Tower Hill School, Wilmington

Photo by Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott’s professional path is one less traveled. She studied sociology and Spanish before discovering her passion working with students during a stint at a summer camp. She ended up joining Teach for America. “[They] do a great job instilling that teaching doesn’t have to be status quo. It can be something different and innovative.”

As part of her curriculum, Elliott creates a “classroom economy” in which students get a paycheck, have bills, save and spend on a “shop day.” They bring in products that they’ve designed to sell to one another. One student knitted hats for their classmates; another made squishy jelly balls.

Elliott also uses her position as the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) coordinator for THS’s Lower School to further highlight students’ individuality. “I love creating a space where kids can learn about each other and share,” she says. At times, students are dealing with topics that are challenging to navigate, but Elliott creates safe spaces for sharing. “When we talk about things like stereotyping, I try to be vulnerable and talk about mistakes I’ve made, so they’ll feel comfortable doing the same and understand it’s OK to make mistakes.”

Wrapping up her 11th year as an educator and fifth year at THS, Elliott still finds new energy with each class. “In earlier childhood, kids can be very black and white—everything is all good or all bad. But in the fourth grade, they’re able to see a bit more nuance and complexity.”

Haley Mears

Grade 2 | East Millsboro Elementary

Photo by Ashley West

If you ask her colleagues, Haley Mears is a bit “extra.” But to her, that’s a compliment. “I’m known for being over the top,” says the second-grade teacher. “But I don’t want to be any other way.”

The Indian River School District’s Teacher of the Year goes to school every day for one reason: “To have fun,” she says. “What I am going to do today is not only going to make me happy, but it’s going to make my students happy. That matters.”

As much as she loves teaching in her “loud, wonderful, creative, messy, beautiful” classroom, she values her role mentoring new educators. “I will often hear the new teachers say, ‘I’m so stressed out because I have this and this and this to do’ and I’m like, ‘Nope. Stop. You have literally one thing to do today—make learning fun. Then take time later to reflect and say, ‘Wow. I got to teach today.’”

 

Brent J. Freccia

Grade 10 Social Studies Teacher and Department Chair | Newark Charter Jr./Sr. High School

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Photo by Diana Freccia

When he’s not teaching U.S. history or government and politics, Brent Freccia continues his passion for education by sponsoring National History Day projects. The annual event gives students the opportunity to research a topic of their choice and tell the story in a creative way.

“Every year, students blow me away,” Freccia says. “They’ll either do their project on something I’ve never heard of before, or they spend more time on a subject I think I know, and they bring more depth to it.”

He also likes to create memorable experiences for students year-round—like with an annual scavenger hunt in Washington, D.C., where he devises 850 questions for students to choose their own adventure, and by creating Civil War uniforms (Union only, to reflect Delaware’s position in the war) to help students learn about the historical event. “We watch Gettysburg and get hyped about it,” he says.

This all underscores Freccia’s infectious enthusiasm for history and storytelling. “History is cool!” he says. “If I geek out about something, it gives students permission to get excited too, or at least pay attention. …Understanding where we come from allows us to make better decisions about where we can go. Historical figures are never important independent of the choices they face—they are people just like we are today. I want my students to understand that they can make history.”

Stephanie Pegelow

Grades 9–12 English | Sussex Tech High School, Georgetown

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Photo by Erin Jean Nibblett

Stephanie Pegelow’s students can thank a school bus for her transition from business to education. “I kept seeing this bus and I couldn’t get away from what I was trying to avoid,” says Pegelow, who, though she comes from a long line of women educators, instead went into business.

She thought success and fulfillment meant financial security, and “no one goes into teaching for the money,” she says. “But I’d come home from my business job and feel so empty. I realized, OK, it’s time to stop running from what you’re meant to do.”

Pegelow made that switch 11 years ago, and this year was feted as Sussex County Vocational Technical District’s 2022 Teacher of the Year. “My motto is, ‘Every Child, Every Day,’” she says. To Pegelow, that means not only making eye contact and acknowledging every student who walks through her door but also truly knowing them. “Every kid deserves an adult who is checking in on them—‘Did you eat breakfast? How was your game last night? Are you really OK?’” she says. “For some kids, that one adult might be their teacher. I take that very seriously.”

Brian Drake

Grade 8 Science Teacher | Cab Calloway School of the Arts, Wilmington

Photo by Vincente Santoyo

University of Delaware, Brian Drake decided to change his major to mirror his true passion: science education. Drake’s affinity for science began with Star Wars, and his interest in teaching, ironically, stemmed from his own challenges with learning. “I wasn’t a straight-A student,” he notes. “I was perfectly cheerful with Cs.… I was transfixed by the spectacle of the movie at a young age, and that only amplified my love of science.” In 1996, he joined Cab Calloway and planted roots. “I absolutely love the age of kids I work with; they are young enough to still be little kids, but they reason like adults,” Drake explains. “You can still grab the childlike wonder because it is still there, but now they think like adults…so I am able to explain why things happen the way they do.” Pulling from his own school struggles, he shares those stories, real-world correlation and lots of dad jokes, he says, to draw in as many students as he can.

Walt Hetfield

Music | Rehoboth Elementary School

Photo courtesy of Walt Hetfield

Walt Hetfield knows—after 30 years and 25 different administrators—that music and the arts are never on as solid footing as core academic subjects. “You have to be your own advocate,” he says, “and you have to make yourself relevant. And it’s an ongoing process.”

But Hetfield is no ordinary music teacher. The Beatles-loving, Magic 8-Ball–toting guitarist has taught around 5,000 students over the years, from kindergartners who can barely jangle a jingle to fifth-grade jazz band phenoms. He even inspired the Grammy-winning songwriter and producer Brittany Hazzard, the Rehoboth Beach–born performer better known as Starrah.

“She gave me sort of a shout-out in the New York Times,” Hetfield says. When asked if she knew the significance of recording at Abbey Road Studios, Hazzard was quick to acknowledge her music teacher back in Delaware. “And it’s like, wow…she remembered.”

Hetfield isn’t afraid to flaunt his own funk. The Plainfield, New Jersey, native proudly shares his hometown with George Clinton and his Parliament-Funkadelic. As a tyke, Hetfield occasionally played his guitar for change outside of Clinton’s “Silk Palace” barbershop (something Clinton thanked him for years later, as it kept the cops away).

“I just relate to kids. I try to put myself in their shoes,” he says of his approach. “I have pretty good memories of my own time in school with some good music teachers. I just didn’t realize at the time they were doing as good of a job.”

Dr. Daniel Shockley Ed.D

Grades 6–8 Business Education | Mariner Middle School, Milton

Photo by Lanagan Photography

The business education class at Mariner Middle School had become so unpopular among students that the choir class (the only other elective-class option for many) became flooded with kids who had zero interest in singing.

Then Dan Shockley came in.

Today, Mariner is a powerhouse of state and national Business Professionals of America (BPA) competitions, thanks to the popular business teacher, a Milford native who serves as emcee for pep rallies and leads Polar Bear Plunges.

“Mariner has been lucky to have Dr. Shockley make the school feel organized, sophisticated and safe with the help of his teaching and guidance as a business teacher,” says parent Maria DeForrest.

Shockley covers the basics from his computer lab—from keyboarding, basic document formatting and more—to more complex marketing and branding projects with students.

Through the BPA, a national network whose competitions test everything from finance and accounting to web design, Shockley’s students sharpen their skills to compete in highly regarded national competitions.

“For me, it’s all about making sure the students feel respected, feel trust, and they have that sense of connection to the building,” he says.

Robert McDowell

Biology and Environmental Science Teacher | Newark High School

Photo courtesy of Robert McDowell

Robert McDowell’s journey to teaching was an unconventional one. A research biologist by trade, layoffs led him to pursue the Alternative Routes to Certification program at the University of Delaware. The catch? McDowell needed a teaching job to enter the program. A successful interview at Newark High School paved the way for his next career path.

Today, it’s easy to say it was the right choice. McDowell’s teaching career at Newark High spans 22 years—all in the same classroom no less. McDowell’s favorite part of teaching is seeing the concepts click.

“Getting the kids to see their role in the world and their effect on the world is a big thing for me,” he says. McDowell is also the Nature Society adviser, allowing him to work with even more students. “Students who don’t understand their role in the environment are destined to do more harm than good. By showing them how they relate, I can get them to be good environmental citizens.”

Deacon Patrick Johnston

Grades 10–12 Theology Teacher | Saint Mark’s High School, Wilmington

Deacon Patrick Johnston, top teachers

Courtesy of Deacon Patrick Johnston

Saint Mark’s is more than a place of work for Deacon Patrick Johnston. “[It’s] really is a family experience,” he says. As a deacon and theology teacher, Johnston has been a part of students, faculty and staff’s pivotal moments like graduation, weddings, baptisms and funerals. After 41 years of teaching, Johnston continues to enjoy creating bonds with his students.

“You have to be authentic to them. You have to be a real person to them, and that means you do have to share a little bit about yourself with them,” he says.

As a theology teacher, Johnston discusses the topics of religion, life and death with students. During senior year, students are tasked with writing their own obituary. While a bit somber, Johnston says many come out of the assignment more confident in their life goals. On the other hand, ask them what items they’d bring to heaven and the responses become more lighthearted.

“Of course, you can imagine what the number one item is—they want to take their cellphone,” Johnston says.

Danielle Young

Grades 9–12 Math, Geometry, Computer Programming and Computer Science Teacher | Archmere Academy, Claymont

Photo by Lanagan Photography

Danielle Young always considered herself a “jack of all trades.” However, when she figured out how to combine her passion for math with her enjoyment of working with teenagers, she found her calling.

As a math, geometry, computer programming and computer science teacher at Archmere Academy, Young enjoys challenging her students so they can gain the tools to problem solve independently. “What you really want to try to get are those aha moments,” she says.

Young is also a moderator of the Robotics Club. While the team builds robots to compete, she says the primary goal is to have fun. And Young’s teaching doesn’t stop when the school bell rings. The teacher’s door is “always open,” allowing it to be a safe space for students to study or unwind after a busy day.

“I think my energy is a calm, low-key energy. So I think certain students gravitate to that,” she says.

Sue Bachtle

Grade 4 Teacher | Sanford School, Hockessin

Photo by Betsy Goodhue

Sue Bachtle’s story reinforces the idea that every student knows themselves best and should follow their own path. Always knowing she wanted to be a teacher, her parents dissuaded her. Instead, she pursued psychology in college. But that “knowing” steered Bachtle right back to her true calling, and she earned a master’s degree in elementary ed. This path as enabled her to work with kids at all grade levels, with a focus on literacy. After working in her college’s reading center, she took an interest in phonics. She became certified in the Spalding Method and went on to train adults through Literacy Volunteers of America to teach people how to read. She also learned American Sign Language. Ultimately choosing a fourth-grade classroom, she gets to employ many of these skills at a time when “kids are between learning to read and reading to learn,” she says. “I love being able to take kids to the next level in all their subjects. Fourth-graders are curious and confident, and it’s the sweet spot before puberty where they are so ready for challenges.”

Deanna Bilecki

Grade 1 Teacher | Brandywine Springs Elementary, Wilmington

Photo courtesy of Deanna Bilecki

Deanna Bilecki runs a tight ship in her first-grade classroom. As a veteran K-3 educator who began her career 24 years ago, she’s found that teaching strategy gives kids a sense of purpose. For the past six years, she’s employed what’s called the Managing the Classroom (MTC) method, a structure that ensures all her first-graders at Brandywine Springs have a job to do in the classroom. “This creates a student-centered classroom and puts all the kids at the helm of the ship,” Bilecki explains. “They all have a manager position and they run the show.” Students oversee things like time management, classroom announcements and even answering the class phone. Each job teaches a new set of responsibilities, and students switch jobs quarterly so each of them gets to experience something new. Bilecki’s goal is to help kids discover their own talents and strengths early on. MTC also strengthens their communication with peers and adults, and teaches time management, problem solving, organization and respect—all things that help prepare them for second grade.

Jhoana Pazmino

Pre-K Spanish Immersion Teacher | Love Creek Elementary, Lewes

Photo courtesy of Jhoana Pazmino

Ever since she was in high school in her native Colombia, South America, Jhoana Pazmino has aspired to become a teacher of languages. Since then, she has learned to speak four languages, graduated from Universidad de Nariño with a degree in English and French education, and earned her master’s degree in teaching and learning from Liberty University.

Pazmino moved to Rehoboth Beach 13 years ago, where she now teaches Spanish immersion to kindergartners—meaning that she teaches subjects like math, science and social studies to her students completely in Spanish. With a hands-on, playful curriculum and an emphasis on self-expression, students always feel comfortable participating.

“I tell my students, ‘It’s OK to make mistakes—Señora Pazmino makes mistakes as well!’ I make mistakes on purpose, and so I allow my students to, in some way, correct them.…That’s a great skill for them to learn.”

This accepting learning environment is a powerful tool for students. As parent Kristen Deptula says, “The students feel safe and are learning to express their feelings in another language. Our kindergartner looks forward to her class every day!”

@delawaretodaymagazine 2022 top teachers in #Delaware. #teachersoftiktok #delawaretiktok ♬ Happy Upbeat Instrumental – Blake_Wolf


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