HRM Top Teachers

Second annual competition recognizes some of the area's most outstanding educators

The best teachers of Hampton Roads

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Photos by Jim Pile and Mike Mercker

For the second year in a row, you have taught us a lesson in the importance of not just good, but great, teachers. After examining the 8,702 total votes received in our Top Teachers 2012 recognition program, it is clear that you are passionate about top quality educators. We are grateful for all of the students, colleagues, parents, grandparents and more that took the time to show their appreciation for the people who make lifelong impressions on a child’s life and learning. Read more about these dedicated and inspiring winners on the following pages.

2012 TOP TEACHER OVERALL - Sindy Strange

School: Western Branch Middle School, Chesapeake 
Western Branch Middle SchoolYears as an educator: 12
Grades and subjects taught: Middle school P.E.
Special recognitions/awards: Volleyball coach on and off since 1989, including the last four years at Great Bridge
Why did you choose teaching as a career? When I was in high school, my parents told me that I should be a P.E. teacher, which I found hard to imagine. In college, my major was recreational therapy, and a lot of those classes coincided with physical education major classes. By the end of my junior year I finally saw the light and changed my major. Mom and Dad were right! (They usually are.) 
Your favorite part about being a teacher? The relationships I get to build with my students. The real reward is when I get to hear from adult students about how their youthful dreams are now panning out.
The most important thing you have learned during your teaching career? Every kid is inspired in a different way. Figuring out what inspires one kid from another is the trick. Some kids need the competition to push them along, where others shy away from competition and respond best to cheerleading: “I believe you can do it.”
At the end of the school year, what do you most want your students to leave your classroom knowing? I want my students to know how to inspire themselves, whether it’s that they learned a new sport or activity and really liked it, or that they improved their cardiovascular endurance. I’m just happy if the kids have gotten out of themselves everything they can.
What is one lesson, project or initiative you started in your classroom or at your school that you are most proud of? I run a program in my class called “5-10-15.” Students are placed into groups of four. They complete a light jog/walk (800m), and each student records their finishing time, comparing it to their most recent run. Students that improve their time by five seconds receive five points for their team, by 10 seconds, 10 points for their team and by 15 seconds, 15 points for their team. Teams accumulate points and get prizes each semester. Students are motivated to improve because all can contribute to their team. This program usually results in over 85 percent of my students improving because they’re competing against themselves rather than each other. Regardless of speed, all students can be successful if they improve their score.
From her nomination: “Mrs. Strange has taught me the importance of being passionate about what you do. She has passion for teaching and helping the children improve their health through a variety of sports and activities. —Joe Strange, husband

Brittany Barham Johnson Portsmouth School

School: Simonsdale Elementary School, Portsmouth
Years as an educator: 6
Grades and subjects taught: Grades 3, 4 and 5; Math, Science and Social Studies
Special recognitions/awards: Olive Branch Elementary 2011 Teacher of the Year; Vann H. Lefcoe Leadership Graduate
Why did you choose teaching as a career? I always wanted to be a teacher because I benefited from and looked up to my educators. My teachers left an impression on me, and I knew that I wanted to make a difference like they did.
Your favorite part about being a teacher? The children are by far my favorite part about being a teacher. I love to see their minds work and to learn their perspective on things in this world. I get to see the element of discovery on a daily basis.
The most important thing you have learned during your teaching career? My first year teaching, a retired teacher told me something that has stuck with me ever since. She said to never stress over something you cannot change; take care of the things that are in your control. Putting that advice into practice has been the most important lesson I have learned!
At the end of the school year, what do you most want your students to leave your classroom knowing? I want my students to know that no matter where they go or what they do, they will always have someone who believes in them.
What is one lesson, project or initiative you started in your classroom or at your school that you are most proud of? While at my previous school, I started the first chapter of the National Elementary Honor Society. During school hours, the students collected canned food for the holidays and toys for Christmas; they also worked on a “Hearts for Haiti” campaign. On top of that, they volunteered hours of their own time working in the community cleaning up the Elizabeth River and spending time at nursing homes and homeless shelters. When I see these students now and hear that they are leaders in their middle and high school’s honor societies, it makes me extremely proud.
From her nomination: “Ms. Barham-Johnson is very caring, dedicated to her students and loves to teach. She finds different ways to teach, as not all children learn the same way. She taught my daughter several years ago and helped her find the best ways to learn and study—my daughter is now a freshman and a straight-A student.” —Sharon Preddy, parent

Angelita F. Hines Alliance Christian Academy

School: Alliance Christian Academy, Portsmouth
Years as an educator: 25
Grades and subjects taught: Art; K3–12
Special recognitions/awards: I have been included in Who’s Who Among American Teachers; as an artist, I have also displayed and sold my own artwork.
Why did you choose teaching as a career? I chose to be a teacher because of my love of children.
Your favorite part about being a teacher? Getting to know my students and having the opportunity to direct them toward their lifelong potential while emphasizing the fact that the Lord will always be with them in everything they do.
The most important thing you have learned during your teaching career? While teaching is the most demanding profession, it is altogether the most rewarding and noble profession of all. 
At the end of the school year, what do you most want your students to leave your classroom knowing? I would like to know that the students have learned the art of drawing, painting or sculpture and will continue to work on their skills as artists. I would also like my students to know that I will continue to be available to them even after they have graduated from our school. They can count on me to help them if they have any problems and know that I am not just their teacher but their friend too.
What is one lesson, project or initiative you started in your classroom or at your school that you are most proud of? I am most proud of the teaching of sustainability and how to apply principles of recycling and reusing what is available in our classroom to create the wonders of art. My students have learned how to be creative in many surprising ways, including taking a plain ordinary Quaker Oats box and turning it into a ‘little cheerleader’ or a ‘mailbox’ or even a dog or a cat.
From her nomination: “Ms. Hines teaches us everything about art—she is an awesome teacher!” —Maddie Noia, student

Angela Rizzi Our Lady Of Mount Carmel School In Newport News

School: Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, Newport News
Years as an educator: 6 years, full time
Grades and subjects taught: Middle school math and science
Why did you choose teaching as a career? I have always been passionate about helping young people develop their potential. Teaching is an ideal way to help them define their values, develop their critical thinking skills and learn to work together.
Your favorite part about being a teacher? I enjoy each student’s distinctive gifts and talents. I believe that it is important to value the whole student, not just their academic qualities. Seeing how each student has unique and valuable contributions for the whole class is very rewarding. I also like seeing the growth in each student over the course of the year. I am confident that each student is capable of great success, and I enjoy helping them succeed.
The most important thing you have learned during your teaching career? It is important to let students know that they are capable of great things. They are young, but they often have great insight. My students care about others and doing what is right. They use what they learn to ask wonderful questions and develop creative ideas. They respect other people’s ideas and want to work together. Because of this, I have great hope for our future.
At the end of the school year, what do you most want your students to leave your classroom knowing? We learn from our mistakes and do not have to be perfect the first time we try something. As lifelong learners, I hope they will have the confidence and skills they need to learn anything. I want them to know that hard work makes a difference, and they can achieve anything they set their minds to.
What is one lesson, project or initiative you started in your classroom or at your school that you are most proud of? I began a Middle School Career Night several years ago. It is designed for students to see how different studies are relevant in real life careers. The night has been a great success, and the students always enjoy it. Two years ago, I also worked with another teacher to bring an All-School Science Fair to the school.
From her nomination: “She is an exceptional leader. Always on top of the latest science and math. She is a club leader in addition to a teacher, committed to quality education. She has a true love of teaching and is focused on the students.” —Mary Smith

Craig Blackman Indian River High School In Chesapeake

School: Indian River High School, Chesapeake 
Years as an educator: 27
Grades and subjects taught: 11th grade AP U.S. History
Special recognitions/awards: Indian River High School Teacher Of The Year; National Sons of the American Revolution Teacher Award (Tom and Betty Lawrence Award); VCSS (Virginia Council for the Social Studies) Teacher of the Year; President of VCSS; Co-Chair of Local Arrangements for 2011 National Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference; published four articles about the role my ancestors played in American History, including a privately printed book called A Step Back in Time
Why did you choose teaching as a career? I believe that I am called to be a teacher, and I enjoy watching young people grow and reach their potential.
Your favorite part about being a teacher? Watching my students laugh as they learn American history, encouraging them to believe in their God-given abilities and congratulating them after they have passed the AP U.S. History Test.
The most important thing you have learned during your teaching career? Students care less about how much you know than about how much you care.
At the end of the school year, what do you most want your students to leave your classroom knowing? I want them to develop a greater respect for veterans, an appreciation for life, an understanding of the importance of virtue or moral character, especially self-sacrifice in a republic, a curiosity about their own family history, a basic understanding of American history and greater skill in historical writing.
What is one lesson, project or initiative you started in your classroom or at your school that you are most proud of? I am most proud of my ‘living history approach’ to teaching history. Specifically, I have invited Holocaust survivors, Vietnam veterans, WWII veterans and even past members of Lyndon Johnson’s secret service team to my class to make history more interesting.
From his nomination: “I have a daughter who took his class two years ago. In conversations, she brings up facts and stories from his class. I asked her how she remembers some of the information, and she replied, ‘It’s the way he taught us and told us the stories. He made it interesting and helped us to understand not just what happened, but why it happened.’ As a parent, he has taught me to have faith and confidence in those we entrust with raising our children.” —Joyce Burns, parent