When Teresa Beilstein was a child, she hated being at school. She’d kick and scream and cry when she had to leave her mom for the day, overwhelmed by anxiety.
“It helped me understand that every single person has something that they’re dealing with, whether you can see it or not,” said Beilstein, a third-grade teacher at South Shore Elementary School in Crownsville, Md., and The Washington Post’s 2020 Teacher of the Year. Now in her seventh year as a teacher, she was chosen from 21 finalists from the District, Maryland and Virginia.
Not even a pandemic can stymie the driving force behind her teaching: build meaningful relationships with every student.
“The online transition hasn’t been as difficult because they know I’m going to be there every day at 8:45,” she said about her students. “We’ve built a lot of trust.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done. But building trust is about the little, intentional interactions that remind students that “I’ll always be there,” Beilstein said.
In Beilstein’s real classroom, those interactions looked like greeting every student in the morning, joining an anxious third-grader for lunch or pulling a child aside if she noticed he was having a bad day.
But in quarantine, those interactions look like mailing handwritten letters and setting up 20 video calls a week, one for each student.
“Some of my kids, they take me on a tour of their backyard, and they show me the treehouse they’ve been playing in,” she said. Other students show Beilstein their pets or introduce the teacher to their siblings. Sometimes they just want help with their math assignments.
She’ll never forget her class’s first Google Hangouts call, scheduled after weeks of uncertainty, weeks of nonstop news coverage, weeks of not seeing her students.
“When I finally saw their faces again it was like, ‘Oh right, I’m a teacher. This is what I do,’ ” she said. “They have helped me stay focused. They have helped me stay positive.”
And they’ve helped her stay creative. When she’s not chatting with students in real time, she’s recording lessons with her 14-pound, four-legged teaching assistant.
“The next experiment might get a little sticky,” Beilstein said in one video. Teddy, her white Mal-Shih (a cross between a Maltese and a Shih Tzu), was propped in a beige armchair and watching a peppy Beilstein drop marbles into bottles of honey and water.
“As you can see that marble in the water dropped right to the ground and the honey one is still falling,” she explained in a science lesson about friction. The dark marble dragged through the thick, brown honey.
“I have not worked this hard since I was a first-year teacher. It’s kind of like starting from scratch,” Beilstein said. Teachers like herself are reworking lessons as they go, redesigning the curriculum to reach students through computer screens.
“She has really taken this all in stride and found new ways to connect with the kids,” said Becky Sober, a special-education teacher who shares students with Beilstein. “Especially for a lot of the struggling learners. She finds ways to connect whatever we’re learning to their lives.”
Beilstein doesn’t mind being a student, either. South Shore has a large population of Spanish-speaking students, and she has “taken that on, to learn Spanish,” Sober said. “The students will teach her different words.”
Beilstein, who grew up near Boston, admits she stumbled into teaching. She spent two years in the banking industry after earning a degree in economics. Then she worked for five years in sales.
“I realized that I wasn’t really finding connection with the work that I was doing,” she said. So Beilstein looked to her mother, a veteran teaching assistant.
She took a leap of faith and went back to school.
At South Shore, she has beefed up the school’s science program, growing science fair participation from 5 to nearly 50 percent and developing a curriculum that is used in 80 elementary schools throughout the district.
But being a good teacher isn’t about science fairs or test scores, she insisted.
It’s about showing up, Beilstein said.
“I think our relationship is built on a mutual respect and understanding that I have high standards for them. But they know that I would never let them fail,” she said. “I’m leaning on those relationships right now.”