The Washington Post has honored teaching excellence in the Washington region for three decades, with more than 500 teachers winning the Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award for their work in the classroom, creativity and contribution to the improvement of education.
The awards are named for Agnes Meyer, wife of Eugene Meyer, who purchased The Post in 1933. She was a staunch supporter and defender of public education and believed in the motto that still guides the awards: “Quality education is essential to the well-being of our society, and good teachers are the foundation of our educational system.”
The Post also honor the region’s principals with the Distinguished Educational Leadership Awards, recognizing those who go beyond the day-to-day demands of their position to create an exceptional educational environment. Winners are invited to attend an expenses-paid four-day leadership seminar. For a complete list, click here.
Each local school district selects its own winners from a list of internal nominees. Teachers must work full time in pre-K through 12th grade and meet other eligibility criteria, including instilling in students a desire to learn and achieve. Some districts don’t have an honoree every year.
The teachers, who each receive a $3,000 cash awards, are examples of what works in the classrooms, such as inspiring the underprivileged, helping a non-native speaker understand English, and making challenging academic subjects accessible and fun. Here, The Post’s education team profiles a selection of the 2014 winners, taking us into their classrooms and showing why they are some of Washington’s best educators. Find a complete list here.
As a child in Kabul, where Russian soldiers toting Kalashnikovs patrolled his neighborhood and Soviet tanks rumbled down the roads, Moosa Shah remembers his father telling him: “Education is freedom in this world.”
Determined to save his children from war and find them a life of opportunity, Shah’s father arranged to spirit his family from Afghanistan to the United States, eventually landing in an apartment in Falls Church. It was early 1980, the adolescent Shah spoke no English, and he sat silent in his Fairfax County classrooms.
“I was afraid of speaking,” Shah says.
Now a 20-year science teacher at Rachel Carson Middle School, Shah, 45, said he finds his most rewarding work with students who are recent immigrants, seeing a shade of himself in the quiet ones still fumbling with the language. The miracle of science, he shows the students, is universal.
“Watching them look into the microscope for the first time and seeing cells, that ‘wow’ factor,” is fulfilling, Shah says. “I don’t get tired of it, because I see the subject every year with new eyes.”
Shah’s dedication to seventh-grade students learning English and his inclusive nature make him a standout member of the faculty at Rachel Carson, said Principal August Frattali.
“Moosa knows how to make students feel comfortable asking questions, how to learn from their mistakes, and how to feel good about interacting with other students in collaborative work,” Frattali said.
Shah, chairman of Rachel Carson’s science department, never set out to become a teacher.
After graduating from Chantilly High School, Shah studied biology at George Mason University. He briefly enrolled in dental school at the University of Maryland before discovering where he really belonged: at the head of the classroom. He found his passion as a student teacher at Robinson Secondary and Cub Run Elementary, and in 1992 he took a full-time position with the school system that had nurtured his own budding interest in education.
As a teacher, Shah said, “you’re not going to get paid much, but when you make a difference with a kid it’s really powerful.”
Rishitha Anumola, a former student of Shah’s and now an eighth-grader at Rachel Carson, said that the teacher is known for his self-deprecating sense of humor. Playing on his own first name, Moosa, he has decorated his classroom with pictures of moose and a sign that reads: “Beware of attack moose.”
“Regardless of the mood of the student walking into his classroom, they will always walk out with a smile on their face,” Rishitha said.
On a recent afternoon, Shah guided students through a lesson on plant biology by having them observe onion skin cells through a microscope. Of the two dozen students in his classroom, only five spoke English fluently, and there were natives of China, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Iraq and Liberia.
Shah likes to keep his lectures short and provide lots of visuals. On a slide projection, Shah displayed the magnified onion skin.
“See the circular thing inside? That’s the nucleus,” Shah said. “Cells are the building blocks of life.”
Nahom Kifefew, a 12-year-old who was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and whose first language is Amharic, said that Shah knows how to communicate complex ideas in simple terms.
“He speaks slowly, and he says he will help you anytime,” Nahom said.
Shah identifies with his immigrant students. He became an American citizen while in high school, but he still has family in Afghanistan, though he has never been back to the country of his birth. He credits his early years there with inspiring him to serve as a teacher.
“My firm belief in education started in Afghanistan,” Shah said.
— T. Rees Shapiro
Just outside the back door of Westover Elementary School in Silver Spring is classroom trailer No. 1. It is not big or fancy, but a sign posted near the doorway captures the vision of the teacher inside: “The Royal Suite.”
This is where Mary Hawkins-Jones practices the art of teaching. Her talent? Expecting hard work. Forging personal connections. And perhaps something a little loftier: believing in the students’ potential in a way that helps them believe, too.
One girl told Hawkins-Jones she wanted a career as a cook.
“You don’t want to be a cook, baby,” she told the child. “You want to be a chef. You want to own your own restaurant.”
Hawkins-Jones is bright-eyed, optimistic. At 46, she has been a teacher half her life. Her message with students is: “I value you, I believe in you, I believe you’re going to make a difference.”
Last year, she achieved unexpected celebrity: She was named the Most Hopeful Teacher in America by Gallup, the polling giant. Hawkins-Jones sees hope as “the confidence that moves someone forward.” A teacher’s encouragement can spur that confidence, she says.
Her principal, Patricia Kelly, sees Hawkins-Jones’s commitment to children as extraordinary.
“We can train teachers in content areas, but it’s the issues from the heart and what people actually believe that make the difference,” Kelly said.
Students in Hawkins-Jones’s class gathered in groups to collaborate on challenging words in an assigned novel on a recent school day. Hawkins-Jones partnered with a student who is just learning English, urging her to try words that others demonstrated for the class.
The girl hesitated.
“C’mon, I’ll say it with you,” Hawkins-Jones said.
Together they worked through each syllable. The class applauded.
Teacher Traci Clary says Hawkins-Jones has a gift in understanding the complexities of children, both high achievers and less motivated students. Her talents are reflected in gains on standardized test scores, Clary says, and in how students regard her.
Clary’s sons, now in eighth and 10th grades, had Hawkins-Jones when they attended fifth grade at Westover. “They quote her today,” Clary says.
Cristina Ulrich was assigned to Hawkins-Jones’s class in 1990, as a shy, Spanish-speaking first-grader. Hawkins-Jones helped her break out of her shell and ultimately inspired her interest in both teaching and in the primary grades. “I saw the influence she had on me early on, and I wanted to have that kind of influence on my students,” Ulrich said. Last year, Ulrich was named Montgomery County’s teacher of the year.
Hawkins-Jones says she helps her 26 fifth-graders set goals and revisit them regularly. In their work, she urges them to reach beyond proficiency.
“I know you have more in you,” she tells them. “I love it when they take the time to go back at it one more time.”
Raised as one of 11 children in Arkansas, Hawkins-Jones says her mother was a housekeeper and a midwife and her father was a Southern Baptist preacher and a mechanic. Service was a family value. Six of her 10 siblings joined the military.
Hawkins-Jones says she knew she wanted to be a teacher after caring for a young child at age 12: “I taught her the ABC song, and, at the end of the summer, I had this little girl counting, and I was like, ‘Okay, I like this. I like it!’ ”
The joy of teaching has not faded. She has walked students home, visited with their families. “If they ask me to attend an event, if I can put it in my schedule, I’ll attend,” she says. “For me, it says, ‘Yes. She not only cares about my academics, she cares about me as a whole person.’ ”
— Donna St. George
Allison Alison was a Los Angeles attorney representing hundreds of children who were victims of abuse or neglect in the early 1990s before she moved to Ashburn to raise her family near her home town.
She represented children in Loudoun County courts for a few years, then decided she wanted to help them in a different way.
“I wanted to see if I could motivate kids,” she said. “I knew school was their chance.”
So she went back to school herself and got a master’s degree in education. Thirteen years later, Alison, 51, teaches Advanced Placement U.S. history, government and psychology at Stone Bridge High School, from which her own children have since graduated and where she has helped hundreds of teens develop the skills and confidence they need to succeed in college and life.
Throughout her teaching career, she has drawn on her early experiences as a lawyer. She approaches her AP class as if it were law school, for example. Rather than delivering long lectures, the students have hefty reading assignments and are expected to come to class prepared to talk about what they have learned.
“I want to empower them,” Alison said.
She teaches them to make detailed outlines, then counts on them to lead the discussions.
During a class in March, the students took turns explaining key historical events from the Cold War. Alison guided the discussion as it moved from the Marshall Plan to the Korean War and the Berlin Wall. Then she helped bring history to life.
She passed around folded slips of paper. Some of the papers had dots, and some were blank. She told the teens to sort themselves into groups, with the goal of creating a large group of students whose papers were blank.
They couldn’t show their papers to anyone. The activity seemed simple, but as the students morphed into bigger and smaller groups, they began to drill and doubt one another.
“I don’t have a dot! I swear! I would show you my paper if I could,” said one girl whose face was growing pink.
“Remind you of anything you read about?” Alison asked as the class settled back into chairs.
“McCarthyism,” they said.
Alison expects hard work from her students, but she rewards them, too.
Those who score well on quizzes get to shoot baskets at a Nerf basketball hoop she has next to her desk. She also sends home personal notes thanking students for their effort.
She likened starting a class to creating a family. And each year she takes a class picture the students can keep.
Students praise her for checking in on them and offering help for their stresses both inside and outside school. Counseling skills honed during her days representing troubled youth have been useful in her work with teens, Alison said.
“I know when something is going
on at home,” she said. “I do a lot of listening.”
She worked with students to organize an assembly to raise awareness about bullying, an event that grew out of a sobering classroom discussion in which students spoke honestly about their own anguish or guilt about it, she said.
In what has become an annual event, upperclassmen talk to younger students about their experiences and how they can handle — and avoid — bullying at school.
Alison also sponsors a club in which students are trained to listen to their classmates when they are going through a difficult time.
Deborah Schwind, a Stone Bridge parent who nominated Alison for the Agnes Meyer award, wrote that through her mentoring and instruction, Alison gives a “very special treasure” to parents: “a mature, compassionate, more informed child.”
— Michael Alison Chandler
Tiffany Ross set out to become a social worker, but her first job out of college was not what she had envisioned. She quit without knowing what would come next, and a teaching position fell into her lap.
It was a temporary gig teaching kindergartners at Bunker Hill Elementary, the same Northeast Washington school she had attended as a little girl. She had no idea what she was doing, but she had generous colleagues who served as mentors — and she loved it.
“It was one of the best ways to become a teacher,” Ross says. Not waxing philosophical about education in academic seminars, but apprenticing to experts and facing new challenges in the classroom every day. “I just had to figure it out.”
Fourteen years later, Ross, 37, is still teaching, now at Marie Reed Elementary in Adams Morgan, where most of her students come from low-income families and speak English as a second language.
Ross is part of the school’s bedrock, taking on non-glamorous tasks that make the school stronger: organizing assemblies, finding volunteers for Saturday school, writing curriculum during the summer for other teachers to use throughout the year.
But more important, says Principal Eugene Pinkard, she is fiercely dedicated to her students, many of whom arrive in her classroom speaking little English and depart with newfound communication skills and confidence. Ross makes sure that children have what they need to learn, and she expects them to learn a lot.
“She gives them a wonderfully balanced message of ‘You’re accountable for what you do, and you’re never alone,’ ” Pinkard says.
Ross’s fourth-grade students filed into her classroom on a recent morning and dived into the day, turning in homework and pulling out math notebooks without needing direction. They moved around the classroom in the rhythm of comfortable routine, with Ross always one step ahead, setting out materials for the next activity.
“Ms. Ross always tells us it’s not good to waste time, because every time you waste time you don’t learn,” said one earnest student, Sabiha Tonni.
That morning, Sabiha and her classmates were learning how to add fractions by first converting them into decimals, one of those math tasks that can leave students lost in a thicket of abstract rules.
Ross didn’t let that happen. “What do the numbers represent?” she said, reminding students to think of decimals as dollars and cents, which they already know how to add. She watched for signs of understanding and confusion as students sat cross-legged on a carpet, each answering practice questions on whiteboards they held in their laps.
Later, students split into smaller groups while Ross huddled with three girls who hadn’t totally grasped concepts from the day before.
“She’s actually really good,” Sabiha said. “If we don’t get something really good, she will explain it to us instead of just skipping it.”
Ross started teaching these students last year when they were in third grade, then moved with them. It’s not the first time she has stuck with a class; parents often ask if their children can spend a second year with Ross. She does it even though it often means more work preparing lessons.
“This is my first year in fourth grade, so there’s a lot of studying going on after work,” Ross said.
Students appreciate the extra time with their teacher, who they say offers a huge dose of kindness alongside high academic expectations.
“She teaches us things we don’t know,” says Elizabeth Ani, a ponytailed girl who spoke limited English when she arrived in Ross’s class a year ago, and who can now say exactly what she thinks.
— Emma Brown
Coit Hendley, chemistry teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High in Prince George’s County, had the highest number of African American students pass the AP chemistry exam in the country, a feat recognized by the College Board in 2006.
And in 2008.
And in 2009.
And in 2010.
Last year, Hendley was named one of two top high school STEM teachers by the National Science Teachers Association and Pasco Scientific.
He has reeled in grants to fund his students’ research projects, and he has trained other AP chemistry teachers on curriculum changes.
Hendley, 61, has taught high school chemistry for 36 years. It’s a calling to him.
“His driving force goes beyond success on one test,” says Jane Hemelt, coordinator for the science and technology program at Eleanor Roosevelt and the parent of one of Hendley’s former students. “Coit wants his students to be prepared for their next step: college.”
Walk into Room 133 — Hendley teaches AP chemistry and a research practicum, a yearlong individual project — and it feels like a college lecture hall.
“How many feel they could have done better?” Hendley asks about an exam. About three students raise their hands. “I’m seeing fewer hands. That’s better.”
Students quietly scribble notes as Hendley begins the next topic: solution reactors in quantitative analysis.
In his desk is a glass container of chocolate chip cookies, a thank-you from a former student now attending college.
“I honestly try to teach my students as if they were my kids,” said Hendley, whose wife, Mary, is a reading specialist at Northview Elementary in Bowie. “You want your kids to walk the straight line and do the right thing. But it also means you go the extra mile for them. You listen to what they say, and you try to adjust your expectations on their personalities and their needs.”
Students said Hendley interacts with them during lab experiments, ensuring that they understand the work. He is prepared for class, which makes them prepared to learn.
“He sets a high level of achievement, but at the same time never puts unreasonable demands on the students,” Hemelt said.
Hendley, a National Board Certified teacher, majored in chemistry at Cornell in the 1970s but took a year off school after he realized he didn’t want to spend his life working in a lab. He worked in two factories while he contemplated his future.
“I realized, ‘Why spend the time in school unless you have a purpose for being there?’ ” he said. “I had a purpose initially, and I lost that purpose. I had to figure out what I was doing, and I found the calling. And it is a calling. It’s not a job.”
Hendley started teaching in Anne Arundel County in 1978, then joined Prince George’s schools nine years later. He taught at Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro before heading to Eleanor Roosevelt in Greenbelt, where he has worked for 23 years.
All of his national accolades are special, he said, but none really compares to his National Honor Society Teacher of the Year and his Science and Technology Teacher of the Year awards, given to him from Eleanor Roosevelt students.
“When the students vote for you for an award, you know your job has been achieved,” he said.
— Ovetta Wiggins
Roaring at 155 miles per hour with his foot pressed to the throttle, Cassidy Nolen can feel the undulations of the track beneath him as his 400-horse-power Corvette courses around each turn.
“Driving is my release,” Nolen said of his weekend passion. “It’s a symphony of moves. A dance you perform with the car. There’s a beautiful rhythm to it.”
During the week, Nolen’s job as a technology education teacher at Arlington County’s Kenmore Middle School allows him to explain to his students the physics of momentum and centripetal forces that racecars like his experience on the road. Nolen performed most of the work under the hood of his Corvette by hand, even rewriting the code within the car’s internal computer system.
A onetime auto mechanic, Nolen’s lifetime of tinkering helps him create assignments for the classroom that students can relate to real world applications. Last summer, he led a program in which youngsters used their math skills to design a boat. The students then constructed a small watercraft based on their calculations and rowed the boat on the Potomac River, proving their mastery of geometric principals and their vessel seaworthy.
“When you actually see something middle schoolers built go out on the water, it’s really exciting,” Nolen said in a video produced after the event. “This has got to be one of my favorite days of teaching in my entire career.”
Nolen is known to work side by side with students to help them learn the answers to their own questions. The boat project was just one example, wrote Margaret Chung, supervisor of the Kenmore mathematics department.
“Students applied their knowledge and skills in geometry and measurement and made connections to algebraic functions,” Chung wrote. “Students learned the importance of applying the properties of isosceles triangles and the accuracy of their measures in building a boat.”
A 16-year veteran of Arlington public schools, Nolen’s students use state-of-the art 3-D printers to create wind turbine blades, write code for video games and build guitars with cigar boxes.
“I push the kids to be better than the week before,” Nolen said.
One student, Luel Moges, wrote that Nolen in his free time helps kids fix their broken Xbox consoles and iPhones, restoring the devices to perfect working order.
“He cares about everybody that is in his classroom and would help them with anything,” Moges wrote. “Mr. Nolen really lights up the day for me.”
An Arlington native, Nolen grew up in Fairfax County and graduated from West Potomac High School before studying at George Mason University. He later received a master’s degree in education from Virginia Tech. Nolen worked as a line technician for Ford Motors before deciding to pass his fascination with technology and engineering to children as a teacher.
Nolen seeks to bring his personal avocations to the classroom. A self-described “gamer,” Nolen has helped his students refurbish classic arcade consoles, teaching them about electrical circuitry and computational logic along the way.
He’s even merged his racing career with his teaching. On the weekends, Nolen serves as an instructor at a defensive driving school, where he uses his skills as a high-performance time trial racer to help teens become more confident behind the wheel.
Nolen said that he’s most proud when watching his students discover a new love of science, engineering or math through their hands-on work in class, writing computer code or churning out their own designs.
“It’s that ‘aha moment,’ ” Nolen said. “You’re trying to build the spokes and then they finish the wheel themselves. When they get it, it’s far and away the most rewarding part of my job and what keeps me coming back September after September.”
-- T. Rees Shapiro
Lori Shabazz has wanted to teach kindergarten since she was 5 years old, and her own kindergarten teacher became one of the most important people in her life.
Mrs. Yoshiyoka helped her learn to read and to add and subtract. She also came to her birthday party and got to know her family.
“She always told me I was smart and that I would grow up to be something,” Shabazz recalled. Her family moved frequently because of her father’s job, and she sometimes struggled to catch up at her new schools. But she always carried Mrs. Yoshiyoka’s voice in her head.
“I know I am smart because Mrs. Yoshiyoka told me so,” she recalled thinking.
Shabazz has spent her career trying to give back that gift of confidence and caring to hundreds more students at the beginning of their academic lives. After 18 years in the kindergarten classroom, she has been named the Agnes Meyer Teacher of the Year in Alexandria.
Shabazz, 43, is a mentor to other teachers, admired for her ability to tailor lessons to different ability levels and to extend her teaching well beyond the classroom.
At Patrick Henry Elementary School, where she has taught for the past decade, many of her students live in poverty.
“For some children, their moms are there when they get off the bus after school,” she said. “A lot of my children, their parents work very long hours.”
So she tries to give them extra affection and attention, she said.
“I hug every child every day,” she said. “I tell them I am so glad they are here.”
Her principal, Ingrid Bynum, who recommended her for the award, said Shabazz has been known to buy clothes for students in need. She also has arranged food drives and connected families with sponsors to give them longer-term support.
At the end of the year, Shabazz gives the children her cellphone number so they can stay in touch, she said. She still hears from former students who are now in high school or college.
“I don’t just love them for 180 days, but for their lifetime,” she said.
Her current students show their appreciation through pictures of rainbows and hearts or little tokens they proudly present to her. On a recent Friday, those tokens included a puzzle piece, a plastic stick from a cupcake that says “Mi Amor,” and a yellow plastic bumblebee ring. She treated each gift as the treasure it was intended to be.
During a reading activity that day, she prompted a little boy with racecars on his sneakers to sound out a list of words. “S-SH-SHUT,” he said haltingly, then moved on to the next word, “S-SH-OT.”
“What? You are a reader!” Shabazz exclaimed as she pulled him in for a hug. “You are so smart.”
-- Michael Alison Chandler
Ramona Richardson had an idea that gardening might be a good way to teach her kindergarten students to be stewards of the environment, so she applied for a grant from a hardware chain store to buy start-up supplies.
Seven years later, her early efforts are in full bloom. Raised garden beds now line the back of Coles Elementary School in Manassas, creating outdoor classroom space for children in every grade. Richardson’s learning gardens have become a model for schools around Prince William County. She also teaches grant writing to other teachers.
The gardens are just one example of the leadership, hard work and energy that helped Richardson become the Agnes Meyer Teacher of the Year in Prince William.
In her nomination letter, principal Kathryn Forgas summed up the veteran teacher as an “incredibly passionate, dedicated, forward thinking, collaborative team player, who is also an innovative instructional leader and talented professional educator.”
At Coles Elementary, teachers appreciate her skill at reaching children at all levels. Richardson, who has been teaching for more than three decades, is known for her “math tubs,” which are filled with different activities that teach the same skill but with varying levels of support or enrichment.
Her colleagues also admire her dedication. Coles Elementary serves many students who are learning English as a second language, and Richardson works well outside the boundaries of the school day to help them succeed.
When she realized that most of her kindergartners needed extra help this year with basic letter and number recognition, she invited them to come to school early three days a week. She invited their parents, too, so they could learn ways to help their children at home.
For those who don’t have steady support outside of school, she came up with a different strategy to encourage reading: She bought CD players, books and books on CD with help from another grant. Children take them home so they can listen to a book and follow along at night.
Outside, she gives students plenty of opportunities to learn from nature.
There’s a butterfly garden full of native Virginia plants, a shade garden, and a sensory garden where children can explore fragrant lavender, curly cabbage and edible pansies.
Other theme gardens teachers have planted with their students include a Jack and the Bean Stalk garden full of beans; a pizza garden, stocked with tomatoes, oregano and basil; and “cultural crops,” in which students planted staple crops from different countries.
Many students at the school live in trailers or townhouses with little outdoor space. “They don’t know where their food comes from,” Richardson said.
But at school, “they can come outside and eat the strawberries as they are walking by,” she said.
For older students, gardening has inspired group projects designed to address social issues, such as the problem of hunger in the community. They also have tackled environmental projects, researching ways to keep deer and raccoons out of the garden or energy-efficient ways of collecting rainwater for the plants.
The gardens also bring a lot of joy to the school. In her letter, the principal described how students in two classes worked together to plant one day.
“The kids returned from the project with dirty hands but happiness on their faces,” she said.
-- Michael Alison Chandler
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