Top Teachers

Meet 5 local teachers who earn top marks



Maryanne Hellender

Fourth Grade | Little Flower School, Bethesda
Years teaching: 45

HOW TECHNOLOGY HAS CHANGED THE CLASSROOM: “When I first started teaching, the overhead projector was the big thing because, wow, you could flash it on the screen and change your transparencies. Now, I have a laptop that projects directly onto a Lightboard [a glass chalkboard pumped full of light], and it’s interactive and I’ve got life right
in front of me.

“When I’m doing a lesson on the pink dolphins of the Amazon, I can just call up images and have them floating across the classroom. It makes it so much more fun for the children when they can really interact with so many different subjects.”

KEEPING KIDS ENGAGED: “The students like some of the old-school techniques I have. I’ve had them make filmstrip presentations by drawing on each little strip. They get a kick out of that. But they also like doing PowerPoints and making movies on their Chromebooks. It’s fun having both eras be part of the classroom. It keeps them engaged and involved.”

LEARNING TO WORK TOGETHER: “I put on a circus with the fourth- and fifth-graders at the end of the year every two years. I teach them after school, and we really do a whole show with acrobatics, gag jokes, singing, and they dress up like lions. They learn a lot, too. I go into the math aspects, we talk about animals, and we even talk about the use of the animals in the circus, because that’s a controversial issue.

“I pretty much do it all by myself, so I really count on them to help with the production. When they’re given a task, they just step right up to the plate. They learn so much. It’s about working together and counting on each other.”


Summer Roark Thiero

Chemistry | Montgomery Blair High School, Silver Spring
Years teaching: 17

WHAT GOT HER INTERESTED IN CHEMSITRY: “I really connected with my chemistry teacher in college. He was an outstanding teacher because he was down-to-earth. A lot of professors, especially in science, can seem unreachable and above you. You have to try to connect and you have to find ways to hook the students and engage them. I’m constantly trying to think about that.”

GETTING KIDS TO RELATE TO CHEMISTRY: “When you come to the science department, we’re always cooking. It’s a good way to connect [with the students] in our experiments, in our work.

“I start with a basic waffle recipe and the kids really have to research the ingredients and then consider those ingredients from a molecular view. That’s really intriguing to kids. Then we start to talk about how those recipes are developed. What would happen if we added more baking soda or less baking soda or took it out? This year, I’m going to start a new one with chocolate chip cookies. A lot of kids don’t like waffles. Chocolate chip cookies are a classic.”

ON CO-SPONSORING THE SCHOOL'S ARTS AND SCIENCE CLUB: “We have three murals completed [in the science wing of the school]. They all have themes. One was a STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] theme, then we have a biology-themed one and a marine biology one. We really hoped we would get some talented artists. But we also look for students who don’t really have a place to go, or maybe are a lower-level artist but very much interested in science. It’s important that students see their own work, and there’s no better place for that than in the hallways.”


Todd Stillman

Social Studies | Richard Montgomery High School, Rockville,
Years teaching: 7

WHY HE CHOSE TO BE A TEACHER:  “A lot of people spend their lives behind a desk pushing paper, and I get to put on a little show every day and interact with a lot of awesome people. I really enjoy what I do.”

ON TEACHING IN A MAGNET SCHOOL: “The magnet kids, they’re still teenagers—they might absorb material faster or have a bit more curiosity [than other students]. Anthropology is a mixed class. I’ve got all kinds of kids in here from all kinds of backgrounds. For them to have a chance to discuss it together gives me a charge. It’s true that some kids have different kinds of academic ability and come from different places. But the important thing in high school is that you meet a kid where they are and give them a chance to build on what they have.

“I’ve got a great mix of kids. Everybody wants to learn about something unusual. We have a lot of fun together. I like to use different kinds of activities, like poetry and skits and discussions, to let the kids explore the issues for themselves.”

WHY HE HELPED START A HOMEWORK CLUB: “It’s a relaxed way for kids to go for help after school. All kinds of kids come. We’ve got some kids who are good at math and science who can help with that. If someone will cheer you on or help you see what you’re doing, you’re going to be more successful.”


Kamini Kumar

Science | Cabin John Middle School, Potomac
Years teaching: 15

ON BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS WITH STUDENTS: “My first year of teaching, I wanted to put so many rules on them. It was one of the worst experiences, because kids want you to be their friend. You want to be [their friend]. I have kids now who know they can come in and talk about what’s going on in their life, versus me just nagging them about their work. To get them to open up if they might be having a bad day or if they might be having trouble at home is important. But sometimes what they might need is more of a disciplinarian so they know you’ll be someone who is going to help them succeed, not just emotionally, but academically.”

ON BEING FUNNY IN THE CLASSROOM:“I joke with the kids a lot. But also, they know when I’m serious. Really, it’s just trying to have that balance. When I think of what kids need, they need humor. They also need people to be strict with them when it comes to teaching them things. In getting them to be successful, you almost have to get into their heads.”

ON TEACHING SCIENCE:
“We make sure that we pull in real-world examples anytime we can. If it’s a video game they’re playing, we’ll ask them to think about all that goes into video game design—the technology, the engineering, the art, the writing and, of course, the programming. There’s an example of all the disciplines that you can bring in to show them that everything they’re learning is really connected.”


Judy Shapiro

Fifth Grade | Burning Tree Elementary School, Bethesda
Years teaching: 19

ON KNOWING STUDENTS: “The biggest things that you have to know about your students are what they really like, what they’re really good at, and what they’re struggling with. And you have to be flexible, trying to look at what most students need. It’s not just our struggling students, it’s also the advanced students—being able to push somebody who’s really good at a certain topic to become better, without losing the student who’s struggling. It’s about moving everybody forward. Wherever they were when they started the year, your job is to make sure they have improved by the time they ended the year.”

ON CHANGES IN EDUCATION: “They’re still trying to find a quick fix for the problems in education, and I don’t think there’s a quick fix. Every five to 10 years, somebody comes up with a new idea, a new innovation, a new way to do it, and they change everything. It [lasts] for about five or six years. There are a lot of different things that go into a good education, and you have to look at a lot of different aspects.

“Schools have always encouraged creativity—doing unusual things and being creative in the way things are presented. The actual change has been in the way kids respond. We used to be much more [about] multiple choice, what’s called ‘the right answer.’ Now it’s much more open-ended, not ‘this is the correct answer.’ It’s ‘what did you think, and now go back and support your answer.’ It’s much more what they will need for middle school, high school and college.” n

Aaron Kraut is a senior writer for Bethesda Beat, Bethesda Magazine’s daily online newsletter.

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