How six educators are making their classrooms -- and their students -- better
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Bradley Hills Elementary School, Bethesda
Anne Davis was always certain that she wanted to be an elementary school teacher—until her senior year in college, when she actually spent time in a classroom. “It was so overwhelming having 25 kids just staring at me every day, waiting for me to tell them what to do,” says Davis, now 32. Davis’ supervising teacher encouraged her to take it day by day and to push through. And she’s glad she did. Davis has taught at Bradley Hills Elementary School in Bethesda for 10 years—the first five in kindergarten and the others in second grade—and can’t imagine doing any other job. She often tells her story to rookie teachers to show them it’s all worth it.
“I come in every day and, no matter what kind of night or morning I’ve had, I love that [my students] can always make me laugh and bring me back to the reality of what’s important,” Davis says. “I love the 7- to 8-year-olds because they are so sweet and innocent, but yet can do much more academically. They are such sponges that soak up everything I expose them to.”
Each year Davis brings in chicks from her family’s farm for a day or two to get the kids excited about science. She emphasizes manners and independence, and uses positive reinforcement. When she notices good behavior, she adds flat marble gems to a jar; once it’s full, she rewards the class with a treat of its choice, such as a pajama movie day.
Bradley Hills parent Michelle Herman says she admires the way Davis incorporates lessons on persistence and motivation. “She does a really good job of making them the best little people possible,” says Herman, whose son Gavin was in Davis’ class last school year.
To promote a culture of care and respect, Davis tries to get to know the kids individually and also helps them understand one another. She invites parents and grandparents to come in and share a holiday or family tradition, which could include playing an instrument or making a craft. “I try to foster the whole idea that everybody is different and has different things going on in their lives—in the way they think and learn,” Davis says.
Oneness-Family School, Chevy Chase
For Malkia Zimbi, school is about more than academics. A teacher for 18 years, she believes education should emphasize the students’ social and emotional development.
“Kindness, courage, trust and honesty—like everything else, they don’t grow unless you practice them,” says Zimbi, 45, who teaches fourth- and fifth-graders at the Oneness-Family School, a private Montessori school for ages 2 to 14 in Chevy Chase. “It is not just our minds that need to be cultivated, but our hearts and spirits must be, also.”
At Oneness, Zimbi leads the MindUP program for students in first through eighth grade; three times a week they do calming, focused-concentration exercises to develop empathy and problem-solving skills. She also coordinates the Random Acts of Kindness program in her combined fourth- and fifth-grade classroom, which includes kids covering other students’ lockers with positive messages on Post-it notes, and giving flowers to passersby on Wisconsin Avenue on World Kindness Day.
When Zimbi came to the school six years ago, she started a buddy program that paired students in her class with 2- and 3-year-olds at the school for about an hour each week to play, read and interact. She says she marveled as the children learned how to relate and developed “heart-to-heart” connections. “It was like, oh, my God, there is a gold mine here,” Zimbi says of the program, which has since spread throughout the school.
Head of School Andrew Kutt says Zimbi knows how to tailor instruction to students’ individual needs, and how to get the most out of each kid. “Her enthusiasm is infectious, and it spreads to her students,” Kutt says.
Zimbi says she tries to listen to her students and respond to what they need. “For 18 years, every class I’ve had asks something else from me,” Zimbi says. “Students need to be honored as human beings and heard, regardless of age.”
After studying business and history in college, Zimbi worked on Wall Street for five years before leaving in search of something more meaningful. “We all have to choose how we are going to contribute to humanity, and I’ve chosen to work for the future of what could be,” she says.
Winston Churchill High School, Potomac
People either hate chemistry or love it, says Clinton Brown, a chemistry teacher and the head of the science department at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac. The 68-year-old says he’s learned that the trick is to make this difficult subject seem simple—and have fun along the way.
“If the kids say, ‘Ah, that was easy’—if you can do that with a complex idea—you’ve won,” says Brown, who has taught for 46 years, first at Thomas S. Wootton and Richard Montgomery high schools in Rockville before coming to Churchill in 1998. To put their six children through college, Brown and his wife, Ginny, who teaches molecular biology at Churchill, also worked nights as adjunct professors at Montgomery College.
Brown knows it sounds like a cliché, but says what he loves about teaching is seeing the future in front of him every day. “You see faces that light up. You see personalities that you know are going to blossom. You see abilities that are a little raw and unrefined. But you know in four or five years many come back from college and tell you I’m here or there,” says Brown, who recently had coffee with a 1976 Wootton graduate who is now a local pediatrician. “Those kinds of things inspire you to keep going.”
Principal Joan Benz describes Brown as a sage with a calm demeanor who mentors fellow teachers and students. “In his class, students don’t fail. He reaches out to them,” she says. “Parents will want to get their next child into Mr. Brown’s class because the older sibling has had such a great experience.”
Brown is known for never raising his voice, patiently answering questions and slipping in jokes and quirky facial expressions to connect with students. Sophomore Emma Bomfim says she was nervous about taking chemistry as a freshman because she had heard it was difficult and, looking over the material, she couldn’t pronounce half of the terms. But she says Brown was available for extra help, explained things in new ways until everyone grasped the topic, and made students laugh. Bomfim now plans to pursue a career in science.