HRM Top Teachers

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

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Jeff Phelps Jeff Phelps

School: The Governor’s School for the Arts (GSA), Norfolk
Years as an educator: 6 full-time years at GSA
Grades and subjects taught: 9–12; Orchestra, Chamber Music, Eurhythmics
Special recognitions/ awards: 2011 SURDNA Teaching Fellow; three Stiftung Thyll-Dürr grants; “I Can Tie My Shoes” ribbon, given by one of my cello students (it still hangs in my cello case).
Why did you choose teaching as a career? Like many career musicians, teaching grew out of an adoration for music and the people of all ages who are excited about it. I have been lucky enough to fall into positions that fit my interests as a performer (cello and conducting) and to have the opportunity to speak about and experiment with the processes of making music with others.
Your favorite part about being a teacher? I appreciate every opportunity to connect with people and try to understand them, especially those who are passionate about what they do. It has been a joy continuing to find and rediscover so many elements of great art with so many young artists and colleagues from all of the departments at our school and community.
The most important thing you have learned during your teaching career? When speaking to others, it is best to respond assuming intelligence and passion before ignorance and apathy.
At the end of the school year, what do you most want your students to leave your classroom knowing? I hope they believe that every choice they make is important.
What is one lesson, project or initiative you started in your classroom or at your school that you are most proud of? Projects that bring people together have so much power. This year, it has been an exciting honor to be a part of the team tasked with creating and planning our school’s 25th anniversary celebration, from the very first ideas we all shared last year to the 25 days of programs that lead up to our main event at Chrysler Hall on April 13.
From his nomination: “He taught me that my job as a musician is not to do or play music well, but it is simply to show humanity through music and sounds. When he conducts, I can see his humanity, and no one person has been that inspiring to me. He inspired me to help the change the world through music. —Chanel Hurt, student

Melanie Weser Peninsula Catholic High School

School: Peninsula Catholic High School, Newport News
Years as an educator: 6
Grades and subjects taught: I started by teaching journalism, computer programming and keyboarding. Over the past six years, I’ve taught intro to business, computer applications and accounting. Currently, I teach statistics, economics/personal finance, graphic arts and study skills. Except for the study skills class, which is 8th grade, all of my classes are mixed grade level (9–12).
Special recognitions/awards: Teacher of the Year in 2008; in charge of information technology duties at school—managing the network, troubleshooting computer problems, etc; junior class team leader for two years; currently on a committee to drive our 1:1 program launching next school year
Why did you choose teaching as a career? I never considered teaching as a career option. I was a graphics/business double major in college and went to work for a newspaper right after graduation. I also opened my own graphic design firm (Mel’s Designs) and finally ended up working in retail printing (OfficeMax). The vast majority of my friends are teachers, so when the opportunity to teach journalism at Peninsula Catholic presented itself, they really encouraged me to go for it. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever been pushed into.
Your favorite part about being a teacher? There are so many ‘happy teacher’ moments in my day. My favorite is when a student really pushes through concepts with which they have been struggling. We may go through the concept 10 different ways before they get there, but that moment when they do is priceless.
The most important thing you have learned during your teaching career? Never stop learning ... about content ... about techniques ... about people. 
At the end of the school year, what do you most want your students to leave your classroom knowing? I want them to know that I care about them, that I’m proud of their successes and that they can achieve amazing things if they keep trying.
What is one lesson, project or initiative you started in your classroom or at your school that you are most proud of? 21st century learning and teaching. This year, I required my eighth graders to communicate with experts in the field they were researching for a project. This kind of connection was nearly impossible when I was in high school. I really try to push other teachers to incorporate new techniques and tools in their teaching. Because of this, I am most proud of the 1:1 we’ll implement next year. This will build teachers’ and students’ 21st century skills.
From her nomination: “Mrs. Weser teaches students with love, patience and kindness and has taught me how that can really make a difference.” —Bonnie Fedorchak, colleague

Annie Kocinski Newport News School

School: Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, Newport News
Years as an educator: More than 20 years
Grades and subjects taught: K–3
Why did you choose teaching as a career? As an elementary grade school student, I struggled with math concepts. I would sit tearfully at the dinner table through the explanations of my dad, the engineer. Then in 8th grade I had a teacher who taught in such a way that I found success and enjoyment with the subject. I wanted to share my feeling of success and joy in learning with others.
Your favorite part about being a teacher? I am able to spend my day energized by the children in kindergarten and then spend time after school challenging older children during math tutoring sessions. My favorite part of teaching at either level is watching a child smile when they have conceptual understanding of a concept. I enjoy listening to my kindergarten students share knowledge that they have gained in my classroom with classmates, days after the lesson.
The most important thing you have learned during your teaching career? The most important thing I have learned during my teaching career is that God loves all the children he puts in my care and wants me to love and teach them as individuals. He has given us each many different gifts, and we need to share these gifts with others.
At the end of the school year, what do you most want your students to leave your classroom knowing? I would like my students to remember they are called to holiness, to feel joy for others’ success instead of sadness for themselves and to remember not to be afraid to try new things, especially when they think it might be too challenging.
What is one lesson, project or initiative you started in your classroom or at your school that you are most proud of? Every spring I gather a few dozen chicken eggs from my farmer neighbor to help us celebrate new life before our Easter theme.
From her nomination: “Her kind nature and unending patience draws the children to her, and she teaches them in ways that really resonate with them. The children leave her classroom with a greater understanding of themselves, their academics and are well on their way to success in school. In her class, my child gained enthusiasm toward learning, the ability to listen and to play and work well with others. Additionally, she taught the behaviors which led my child to becoming a healthy, happy and well adjusted individual.” —Mary Meyers, parent

Harry Stewart Winborne Norfolk Public Schools

School: Larrymore Elementary, Norfolk
Years as an educator: 39
Grades and subjects taught: I have always worked with the special needs population. I have taught students of all levels, from elementary through high school, with intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, emotional disabilities, autism, other health impairments and multiple disabilities. I have worked with adults with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities in state institutions, private nonprofit centers and group homes.
Special recognitions/awards: My rewards have always come from the population I work with. I’ve been nominated for teacher of the year and for special education inspiration awards a number of times, but this is the first I’ve received.
Why did you choose teaching as a career? As a child and teenager, I always worked with peers who were struggling with their class work and homework. In college, I became aware of the growing need for special educators and made my decision to pursue a career in special education.
Your favorite part about being a teacher? My students—they are the reason that I have persevered and continued working in this profession.
The most important thing you have learned during your teaching career? If I show respect and love for the students and clients they will respond with respect and love and will attempt to participate in the learning that I provide.
At the end of the school year, what do you most want your students to leave your classroom knowing? I want them to continue to be as independent as possible and to use the information and skills I’ve taught to make them the best they can be.
From his nomination: “It takes a highly capable, organized, positive and persistent person to effectively teach children with special needs, and Mr. Winborne does it. Mr. Winborne is living proof that we should hang on to our veteran teachers as long as we can! He is a gift to the children and parents whose lives he has touched, and we will always be grateful that our son landed in his classroom.” —Beth Zaletski, parent

Kelli Caras Suffolk Public Schools

School: John Yeates Middle School, Suffolk
Years as an educator: 2
Grades and subjects taught: 6th and 7th grade science
Special recognitions/awards: STEM club creator and sponsor; John Yeates Middle school Rookie Teacher of the Year; 2011 and 2012 STEM Teaching Tools Award (STTA) from AFCEA Hampton Roads Chapter; Curriculum Development Committee
Why did you choose teaching as a career? I have always loved learning and was fortunate enough to have some amazing teachers as a child that inspired me to pursue teaching. I enjoy passing on a love of learning to other future teachers.
Your favorite part about being a teacher? Every day is different. It is always teaching science, but the lessons are always different. The students are always bringing something different to the table as well.
The most important thing you have learned during your teaching career? I think learning to think on your feet and be flexible has been the most important thing learned so far in teaching. One minute a lesson is going great, then the next the students are not getting it or there is a fire drill and everything changes.
At the end of the school year, what do you most want your students to leave your classroom knowing? I want them to know how to think for themselves, how to find answers to their questions and how to learn.
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 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) club started at our school. The students are getting an early introduction to the career fields that will be prominent in their adulthood. They also get a chance to have more one on one time and hands-on time with field experts. The club gives them a chance to understand how the lessons in school apply to real life.
From her nomination: “Ms. Caras is not only the best science teacher; she is a wonderful person too. She loves teaching and loves to see the excitement of the children when they learn. Ms. Caras takes time with the kids, and we thank her so much for that. Ms. Caras is a wonderful science teacher—exciting, new and fresh with great ideas. My granddaughter really enjoys Ms. Caras’ class because she makes learning so easy.” —Virgie Hill, grandmother

2012 Top Teacher Honorable Mentions

Elizabeth Agrinsoni,
Our Lady of Mount Carmel School

Mary Manley,
Linkhorn Park Elementary School

Olivia McIntyre,
Butts Road Intermediate School

Miss May,
Our Lady of Mount Carmel School

Sister Beatrice,
Our Lady of Mount Carmel School

Rita Yeary,
Southampton High School

Corina Porco,
Denbigh Baptist Christian School

Dr. Karen Coulson,
Our Lady of Mount Carmel School

Michelle Grau,
Our Lady of Mount Carmel School

Laura Yates,
Butts Road Primary School