HRM Top Teachers

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

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

 

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

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