Do you remember your favorite teacher? Maybe she was the one that made a math concept suddenly click. Perhaps he helped bring literature to life through creative class projects or lively discussions. Then again, she might have been the one that singled you out in a room full of students and let you know she recognized your talents and appreciated you for being, well, you!
This year, Metro Parent's Top Teachers fall into each of these categories. Letters from parents and students alike nominated teachers across southeast Michigan that are striving to make a difference in the lives of their students.
All of the submissions were a reminder that while the curriculum may change and budgets may rise and fall, in the end, it all comes down to the teachers. They are the linchpin in a child's learning. Without them, the whole educational endeavor falls apart. And when they excel, the possibilities for their students are endless.
Here are five fine educators who rose to the top and impressed us with their dedication and creativity.
Stephanie Howay, Freshman Spanish Teacher, De La Salle Collegiate High School, Warren
Not many of our nominations quote Einstein, Alexander the Great and François-Marie Arouet (better know as Voltaire) to describe a teacher's ability to influence her students. But that's just what sophomore student Grant Severyn did to relay the impact his freshman Spanish teacher, Stephanie Howay, had on his life.
Last year, as a freshman at De La Salle Collegiate High School in Warren, Grant says, "I suffered through those first days nearly silent."
Worried about keeping up with rigorous coursework, he found Howay's class a welcome relief. Not because the class was easy, but that his teacher – in Grant's words – "became my advocate, supporter and ally. She inspired me to put forth my best effort, and I began to excel not only in her class but in all my classes.
"I think her best quality is her ability to connect with her students," Grant continues. "You can talk to her and bounce questions off her any time. She doesn't seem above anyone."
When asked how she's made such an impression on her students, Howay was thoughtful. "I guess why I think I have endeared myself to Grant, and to his peers, is that I'm very honest with them." She knows that her students may not see Spanish as an important class – and she tells them so. But she also lets students know that she's there to help them learn, whether it's strictly Spanish, or organization skills, or how to use their time wisely.
"My goal in life is to help them learn." As much as possible, Howay, who also teaches literacy, draws students into discussions and classroom activities, so they can have a chance to talk about what they're learning.
Howay looks for ways outside of the classroom for her students to use their skills, too. She's involved with the Global Trade Mission project, an interscholastic program where select students meet from around Macomb County for three days. During the program, the students go through a global-trade simulation, complete with real-world experts who are on hand to lend their expertise.
"What I like about the program is that the students have a chance to learn the ins and outs of global business and how we fit into the greater world community," Howay says. "It really helps broaden their horizons."
Cory Sheridan, Fifth Grade Teacher, Ardmore Elementary School, St. Clair Shores
It's kind of ironic that I'm now teaching fifth grade, since that's one of the grades I missed the most when I was a kid," says Cory Sheridan, a fifth grade teacher at Ardmore Elementary in St. Clair Shores. As a child, Sheridan was in and out of hospitals as he battled bone cancer. Eventually, his right leg had to be removed just above the knee.
"I believe everything happens for a reason," says Sheridan, who spent summers in a camp for kids with cancer; when he was older, he became a counselor there. It was at camp that Sheridan realized that he didn't want to spend his life sitting at a desk – he wanted to help teach students sitting in theirs. "I wouldn't take away the experiences I've had because of my prosthetic leg for anything. It brought me into this field, That's how I met my wife (who's also a teacher). It's made me who I am."
Sheridan's zeal for learning is infectious in his classroom. Tricia Thompson has seen a dramatic transformation in her son, Cameron, while he was under Sheridan's care. She used to struggle to get her son to do his math homework – and his grades reflected his lack of interest. The former D student, however, is now getting As in his math class, and Thompson gives Sheridan the credit. "When he's really excited about it, the kids get excited about it." In fact, Cameron attends a weekly – yes, weekly! – Math Club on Tuesdays after school with Sheridan.
And he isn't the only one of his classmates there. Most of the kids in the class go to this extra hour of studying. On Thursdays, many students stay after school again to go to Chess Club, too. Asked about the secret to the clubs' popularity, Sheridan thinks for a moment, then says, "I try to pump them up and make it sound like it's a fun, exciting thing to do."
Part of his learning style is also helping his students feel like they're part of a team – Team Sheridan. Every morning when the kids come in to class, he greets each one of them, looks them in the eye and does the "Sheridan hand shake." The simple interaction "takes just seconds," says Sheridan, "but it helps me establish a rapport with the kids. I want to let them know that I'm there for them."
He does the same handshake with the kids when they leave for buses at the end of the day. "I think it's important to start and end each day on a positive note."
Joan Freedman, head librarian and K-4 language arts coordinator, Hillel Day School, Farmington Hills
Last year, words went on sale at the library at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills.
Students from Joan Freedman's accelerated language arts class used scenes from The Phantom Tollbooth, including a word fair, as the inspiration. "My daughter did magical words from Harry Potter," says parent Kari Alterman. "All the booths were so creative and they were based on the students' interests." It exemplifies what sets Freedman apart as an educator, she adds. "I'm always impressed with her ability to figure out what makes each kid tick, how to motivate them and how to push them to challenge themselves."
Recalling the experience, Freedman says, "The kids planned it and I acted as a facilitator. I love it when the kids are the drivers – the decision makers." That idea of taking charge of your own learning is something Freedman tries to instill in her students. Their skills for planning and executing their own projects also came in handy when putting together something special for Freedman. The kids threw her a surprise birthday party!
This year, Freedman's influence has moved beyond the classroom. As the director of the library and the language arts/social studies curriculum coordinator for grades K-4 at Hillel, she meets with teachers on developing literacy appreciation, computer technology and other programs to augment class learning.
But she still makes time to help students in the library find books that suit their interests – and to do story time. For example, after reading more about Jim Henson with the kids, Freedman had them make their own puppets and then perform shows.
"It's our job as educators – and I think as parents, also – to help kids figure out their own love of learning, whatever it is, whether it's in sports, reading, math," Freedman says. "Every child has a gift, and it's our job to help them discover their gift. I feel honored to come in to work every day and to help make that happen."
Nan Sabella, Sixth Grade Teacher, Parcells Middle School, Grosse Pointe Woods
When Nan Sabella, a sixth grade English teacher at Parcells Middle School in Grosse Pointe Woods, noticed that one of her students was becoming more withdrawn, she became concerned. "Normally, Owen is a very happy child, always smiling and raising his hand to participate," Sabella says.
But then, his answers in class became shorter and less frequent. She tried to draw him into classroom discussions and would even stop by the lunchroom to check in on him. During her lunch with other team teachers, she asked if anyone else had noticed that Owen's behavior had changed. "I'm a big believer in team work – I don't think teaching is a solo sport." After consulting with the other teachers, Sabella made a call to Owen's mother.
"Mrs. Sabella called me and said something is going on – Owen's grades are starting to fall, and he's not the same happy kid in the classroom," explains Judy Gafa, Owen's mother (he's now an eighth-grader). The call reaffirmed to Gafa that something was wrong; She had been wondering whether her son's change in attitude was just normal teenage behavior or something more. Sabella then talked to Owen and he confided in her that he was being bullied at school, so she took action and worked with other school staffers to help resolve the situation.
"I teach children first, and I teach English second," says Sabella. "When kids feel safe and they're happy, they learn faster, deeper and tend to retain it more. If there's something going on that's distracting them, it's more important to take care of that first and then go back to the curriculum."
Sabella, who laughs easily and brags about the paint job in her classroom – "it's the officially-licensed Spartan green" – says she couldn't do her job without the support of the rest of the teachers and administrators at the school.
But it's been Sabella's support that has made all the difference for one former sixth grader – and no doubt countless others. "Owen felt like he had another adult he could go to at the school, if he needed to," says Gafa. "His attitude and demeanor – well, he just became so much less troubled, like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders" after Sabella helped him.
"She just went way beyond the norm, and I'm sure it's not just with my child. She has something like five classes coming in to her classroom each day, but she still recognizes each student as an individual."
Lois Mann, Kindergarten Teacher, Oak Ridge Elementary School, Royal Oak
Lois Mann has been teaching long enough at Oak Ridge Elementary School in Royal Oak that many of her former students are now bringing their kids to be in her class. Even current principal Jason Parrott remembers she was one of the kindergarten teachers when he attended the school. And many parents are worried that their beloved kindergarten teacher may someday retire.
Parrott's own daughter was in Mann's class, so he understands her special gift for teaching young learners – and the reason so many parents hope Mann will still be around to teach their youngsters.
"Honestly, she knows kindergarten students and she knows how to speak to them at their level," says Parrott, who thinks of Mann as the matriarch of their school. "She's been teaching for so long that she knows the different personalities of the students and what works well for them. But she still approaches the job like it's her first year."
On keeping her approach fresh year after year, Mann says, "I just believe that I'm learning always as much as the kids when I teach. I want the kids to be lifelong learners, and part of that is to have fun while you're learning."
Just one example: the Reading Bath Tub. To help kids literally get into reading, Mann has an actual tub in her classroom filled with pillows where the kids can invite a friend to sit and enjoy a good book together. The tub has been in the classroom nearly as long as Mann. For 33 years, the Reading Bathtub has welcomed kids and even changed colors as the building has been renovated. In fact, this summer when the building is repainted, the bathtub will most likely get another coat of paint to match.
As to when Mann will retire, parents can rest assured it hasn't even entered her mind.
"I truly have never thought about retiring," Mann says. "I'm sure I will retire some day, but it's not something I ever think about. I just love what I do." Rather than dwelling on that, Mann would rather talk about something else – her students, the kindergarteners. Of these little people, Mann describes them as having a very busy and very curious approach to life.
"They're just so caring with each other. If we all could see the world through their eyes, there would be a lot less problems in the world."