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Claudia de León
Spanish Teacher
Albert Einstein High School
Claudia de León

“I frequently ask myself why I teach, probably every morning. This morning, I decided that, while the content of what I teach is important, it's probably the least memorable aspect of a person's high school career. What really stays with a person are the relationships that were built in high school,” says Claudia de León, a Spanish teacher at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington. “I think that adults often forget how difficult high school was, especially on an emotional level, and today, even more so. Everyone, especially young people, need to know that someone cares about them. Making those connections with my students outside of the curriculum is what makes this career worth it for me. There are so many kids that don't have an adult to look out for their wellbeing, or to talk to about what is going on in their lives. I wouldn't be where I am if not for the guidance and encouragement of some key adults, so I try to do give my students the same support. Their gratitude and growth is so evident, and that's probably the most rewarding aspect of being a teacher.”

While de León has taught Spanish at Einstein for six years, she’s “officially” in her fourth year of teaching. “I teach something different every year, so this year I'm teaching levels 2, 3 Honors, and IB 5.” De León completed her B.A. in Spanish from the University of Maryland, College Park and received her M.A. in teaching from Johns Hopkins University “I am currently working on a residential planning diploma from the Art Institutes of Pittsburgh Online.” If she wasn't teaching, de León would be an interior designer, “which is something that I'm working towards now. I don't anticipate leaving teaching anytime soon, but interior design is something that I'm passionate about, and that I can do in addition to teaching.”

One of the most influential people in de León’s life was her high school AP English Teacher, David Sampselle. “He is still teaching at Watkins Mill High School and inspiring other young people to push themselves, including my twin cousins who just graduated and now have full rides to Towson. I think that teachers like Mr. Sampselle are extremely hard to find. I can only hope to be half as amazing as he is, and to have the energy to continue teaching as long as he has been.

The best advice she has gotten as a teacher is to "’not take anything personally.’ Especially as a new teacher, you are extremely critical of yourself, and every bored-looking student, failing grade, dirty look, or unmet goal is proof that you are a fraud and should find a new career. If we all gave up as soon as we felt that we weren't doing enough, there would be no teachers. Most days, nothing goes as planned, and that's just part of the beauty of being human, and of working with them! No, you won't inspire every single student, every day of the year, so get used it. You're human, and your students need to see that, so celebrate the small victories, laugh at your own mistakes, and learn how to make the best of what you have. With that, also comes remembering that no matter how much taller they are than you, they're still children, and you have to be the bigger person and not hold grudges.”

She’d share that advice with anyone new to teaching but also tell them that “at some point, they need to draw the line between work, and making time for themselves. I've seen so many teachers get so immersed in their jobs, that they stop taking care of themselves. If you're unhealthy, you can't be there for your students, physically or emotionally. You have to put yourself first or you will burn out quickly.

The person that she most admires is a colleague.” She is the most upbeat and positive person that I know, despite battling cancer for a second time. I can't imagine having that kind of weight on my shoulders and still greeting everyone with a smile. Her strength, zest for life, and vision for what a school community should be is inspiring.”

De León recently “discovered a new favorite author, Carlos Ruiz Zafón. He is from Spain, and I've only read his books in Spanish, so I don't know if they would lose anything in translation, but he's fantastic. I would categorize his books as mysterious, suspenseful, and a bit mystical and dark. The plots and characters are very well-developed, and keep you turning the pages. I also really enjoy his colorful use of language. I've actually laughed out loud in public, so I know it's good. So far I've read ‘La sombra del viento,’ and ‘Marina.’”

James P. Williams | Nomination essay

Steven Ghent
Physical Education Teacher
Our Lady of Good Counsel High School
Steven Ghent

“I get great satisfaction working with the ‘underdog’ student that has little or no experience or success with fitness and movement experiences until I get them as students,” says Steven Ghent when asked why he teaches. “Watching as their self-confidence grows is one of my favorite benefits of teaching. It is very easy to record physical performance and improvement but very difficult to measure the growth of their self-confidence. It will help them in many other of life's challenges as they progress into adulthood.”

A physical education teacher for 35 years - 22 of them at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney - Ghent earned his B.S. in health and physical education from Frostburg State University and 30-plus credits in special education from Trinity College. Ghent, who set his sights on becoming a teacher/coach since his early high school years, might be a farmer if he weren’t a teacher. “One of my favorite things is to work outside in my yard and garden. It is very honest work. I also love animals and have several relatives that were farmers in Upstate New York.”

His favorite moment as a teacher came several years ago when a former student stopped in for a visit. “She was a year away from graduating from her college. I had taught her seven years previous in Freshman Physical Education. She had always been into the Goth look and lifestyle and continued that through college. She told me that I was her favorite teacher and I asked her for the reason she felt that way. She said that I ‘wasn't a pushover.’ Short and sweet, but I have never forgotten her and thanked her for her kind words.”

The best advice he’s received as a teacher was the result of Ghent’s work as a special education teacher at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington in the late 1980s. “One of my kids reported back from Christmas break that he had a good gift from his dad over the holidays. He got a carton of Marlboros. The student was real happy. I was bewildered….(A coworker) told me that the kid was very happy with any gift from his dad, as it showed that he at least mattered to him this Christmas. There had been many more holidays that he got not gifts from his dad at all. “I learned that you had to resist looking through your eyes with your family and middle class experience being the filter that colors your reality.”

Ghent’s advice to prospective teachers is to be as “consistent as possible in all you do. Never think you can fool a student; it is easier to fool an adult. Don't take yourself too seriously. Have a good sense of humor. Admit when you are wrong. Over prepare for all of your lessons and classes. Be enthusiastic as possible, even when you are not feeling good. Be very free with compliments but make sure that they are based on real accomplishments. Always be on the lookout for the quiet or withdrawn student and make sure nothing negative is going on. Take care of the little things and the big things are easy.”

It was Mr. Andy Chiarelli, then a new teacher and coach at Glen Cove High School (on Long Island), who most influenced Ghent. “Mr. Chiarelli was very creative in his class and challenged me to work outside my comfort level without being overly concerned about making mistakes along the way. The mistakes were just part of the process. I also played lacrosse for him for three years and he developed my leadership ability. He helped me considerably with accepting the win/loss outcome of the games while being satisfied with the effort of myself and my teammates.

The person he most admires is his father, Bob Ghent. “He was a teacher in Great Neck, New York, who had a second career as an actor after retirement from teaching. He had an incredible work ethic and also was always there for all the different family events as we grew up. He was a man of conviction and did not hesitate to voice unpopular views. We went as a family to many civil rights marches and demonstrations as well as anti-war demonstrations. He served his country in World War II as an army sergeant in the airborne in the South Pacific. My children had a great time with their grandfather as well. “

“Flags of Our Fathers” by James Bradley is Ghent’s favorite book. It “taught me about my dad's generation and all the heroes in World War II who would never accept being called a hero. They sacrificed for all the generations that followed to have a better life. It gave me even more respect for all the men and women who have ever served their country.”

Kathleen Brown | Nomination essay

Gregg Gochnour
Science Teacher
Rockville High School
Gregg Gochnour

It is his passion for the life sciences and love of students that brings Gregg Gochnour back to the classroom each day. “I can't think of any job that comes close to teaching and inspiring young people,” says the 39-year classroom veteran.

Gochnour earned a B.S. in biology education from University of Maryland and M.A.T. in special education from Trinity College. At Rockville High School, he teaches Pre-IB Biology, Horticulture, and Anatomy and Physiology.

His favorite moment as a teacher comes “when students say, ‘Wow! I never knew that;’ when they discover or experience something in a lab we do.”

As a teacher, the best piece of advice he’s received is to “be over-prepared, stay organized, listen and know about the lives of the students you teach.” To those considering a career in the classroom, Gochnour cautions them, “Be prepared to be exhausted but invigorated everyday; start fresh each new day.”

As a student, Gochnour had both negative and positive experiences. “I had a terrible biology teacher when I was in high school. When I decided to change majors from fish and wildlife management to biology education, I knew I could make a difference and make the subject come alive.” A positive influence was one of Gochnour’s math teachers, “who taught me as a struggling student and somehow made difficult things simple to understand.”

Among those he most admires, Gochnour’s parents stand out. “My mom and dad are great models of work ethic, family values and gave me latitude for the many adventures of life in childhood.”

His favorite book is the Bible. “It's a book that anchors and refreshes me for the action packed life I have.”

Melanie Atzili | Nomination essay

Jessica Lidh
English Teacher
John F. Kennedy High School
Jessica Lidh

“I teach to empower students. I want to help my students find their voices so they can best express their ideas, their convictions, and their passions,” says Jessica Lidh, a second-year teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. Lidh teaches IB English as well as a course in College Readiness.

Were she not a teacher, Lidh - who earned her B.A. in English from Flagler College and M. Ed. from the University of Maryland - would be a writer. “I love creating unique characters and putting them into unusual situations. Sometimes even I don't know how they'll work their way through the obstacles I throw at them.”

Among her favorite moments as a teacher: “Hearing I was nominated for ‘Someone's Favorite Teacher’ was pretty amazing. I also love it when students come and tell me that they couldn't stop talking about my class's discussion, so they ended up continuing it into their next class. Sorry to those other teachers!”

Of the advice she’s received as a teacher, the best is, “To be myself and to be fair.” Lidh advises prospective teachers to “always bring your passion into your teaching and always make lessons relevant. If you can't figure out why it's important for your students to know what you're're teaching the wrong the stuff.”

It was Mr. Ornstein, Lidh’s 12th-grade AP English teacher at Magruder High School in Rockville who most influenced her. “He challenged me in a way I'd never been challenged before and exposed me to new ideas and concepts. I always felt like he genuinely cared about my voice and my ideas.”

Her grandfather is the person Lidh most admires. He “worked his way from picking the cotton fields of Missouri to working for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington D.C. He always taught me the importance of ambition, education, and hard work.”

Lidh’s favorite read is “a series of four books in Swedish called, ‘Utvandrarna.’ The title means ‘the Emigrants.’ The series follows one family's struggle coming to America in the 1850s. Some of the characters easily adapt to their new lives while others pine to return home. The whole story makes me laugh and sob...sometimes at the same time.”

Jessica Andino | Nomination essay

Danielle Neely
Mathematics Teacher
Clarksburg High School
Danielle Neely

“I teach to make a difference,” says Danielle Neely. “I had a wonderful teacher when I was a high school student and she motivated me and inspired me to achieve more than I ever imagined and to be successful. I always wanted to give back and I want to make my students feel the same way that she made me feel. I teach because I want to be a positive influence on other students.”

Now in her sixth year in the classroom, Neely teaches pre-calculus and algebra 1 at Clarksburg High School. Her B.S. in mathematics, secondary education was granted by North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and her M.S. in educational leadership was awarded by Hood College. Were she not a teacher, Neely would most likely be “a counselor because I enjoy working with others and making a difference in the lives of others.”

Her favorite moment as a teacher came “during staff appreciation, when the students are given the opportunity to write notes to a teacher of his or her choice. I am always overwhelmed with how many notes my students give me. It shows that they care for me and that I'm making a difference. I always hang on to those notes and I can't bring myself to throw them away. Whevever I'm having a bad day, I take them out to cheer me up.”

When it comes to advice, the best she’s been given as a teacher is that “it's the most rewarding job in the world. You may not see it immediately, but you will definitely see it. And when you see it, it makes every moment worthwhile.” She offers this advice to prospective teachers: “Each day is a journey. You never know what you're going to get. But if you make the most of each stop on the journey, then your career will be delightful and rewarding.”

Neely was influenced by her high school English and journalism teacher, Laurie Wilson. “There were times when she saw more potential in me than I could see. She always pushed me to be the very best me that I could be. She encouraged me and guided me. She was my biggest cheerleader and she still is to this very day.”

It is her grandmother who Neely most admires. “She is one of the strongest women that I know. She loves me unconditionally and encourages me to achieve all that I want. She gave up things for herself so that I could have things that I needed in life as a child. She was always there to help and guide me through it all. Even when she didn't know how to help me do my homework, she stood right by my side and encouraged me to complete it. When I was frustrated and wanted to give up, she knew just what to say to motivate me and inspire me. She truly is a wonderful woman that I love dearly.”

The Bible is Neely’s favorite book. “It is filled with so much information, history, and knowledge. It is something that I cherish and live my life by on a daily basis. No matter how many times you read it, you always find something new and interesting.”

Mustafa Odeh | Nomination essay

Aaron L. Overton
Computer Programming Teacher
Wheaton High School
Aaron L. Overton

“The high school students of today will be the drivers of a growing economy in the not-so-distant future, but only if they have skills that will be immediately marketable upon graduation,” says Aaron L. Overton, when asked why he teaches. “Relating my industry experience to students to help them prepare for that is intensely satisfying. Also, these kids make me laugh almost every day.”

This is Overton’s first year in a high school classroom, though he previously taught seminars to adults - “Oh, how different!,” he says. Having graduated Magna cum Laude with a B.A. in computer science from Hunter College, City University of New York, Overton now teaches computer programming at Wheaton High School.

If he wasn’t teaching, Overton would “still be only doing web development for my clients instead of teaching and doing web development for my clients. So I guess if I weren't a teacher, I'd actually get some sleep.”

His favorite moment as a teacher occurred when “a student of mine had been struggling for a couple weeks to get a program working properly. It was relatively simple, just to get a graphic of a star rotating on the screen. Finally, he fixed the last problem, rant it, and there it was, a rotating star. His face lit up and he yelled out loud, ‘Yeah! I got it!’ That tiny little success is the moment that a long-term interest is born.”

The best piece of advice he’s received as a teacher is that “there's a big difference between telling a kid he's smart and telling a kid he's working hard. Since smart is a permanent state of being, it gives an excuse for him to stop trying. Praise for working hard reinforces a work ethic that means he will never stop trying for success. That’s not our natural tendency, but I've already seen the difference it can make.”

To those thinking of becoming a teacher, Overton recommends they “develop good time management skills, which includes figuring out how to teach in a way that scales to dozens of students. Methods that require any significant one-on-one will exhaust you in no time. A 10-minute per student commitment can turn into five hours or more with 60 students. Be ready to find ways to teach without requiring that kind of investment so you can remain effective.”

The teacher who most influenced Overton was Don DeWitt, his high school calculus teacher at West Valley High School in Fairbanks, Alaska in 1985-86. “At the time, I thought of him as wacky, but his deep knowledge of the subject area combined with a willingness to get way off point on almost any subject that came up turns out to be a model I am following. Learning can't be a grind and he made sure it wasn't, yet I learned that material very well under his guidance.”

It is his younger brother, Adam, who Overton most admires. “He's been so successful in the things he does and really has become, as an adult, a great sounding board for most anything I think about. That he still seems to feel like he competes with me from time to time is actually flattering, as he can definitely make me feel like I pale in comparison.”

“Ender's Game” by Orson Scott Card is Overton’s favorite book. “The complexity of the philosophical challenges interwoven with a great science fiction story are a combination that is rarely found. Card knows how to set up an impossible scenario, then prove it wasn't really impossible after all. That sits nicely with my insistence on saying nothing is impossible.”

Christian Gonzalez | Nomination essay

Donna Paoletti Phillips
Social Studies Teacher
James Hubert Blake High School
Donna Paoletti Phillips

“After my first experience student teaching in the Bronx, NY, I could not imagine spending my days doing anything else more fulfilling. I leave school happy every day. I always wanted to stay in school to earn advanced degrees and never stop my own education. As a teacher I realized I never had to leave the classroom,” says Donna Paoletti Phillips, who teaches Global Issues and the Law A and B, Law I and II, and National State Local Government at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring.

Phillips, who has taught for 18 years, attended Columbia University, where she earned a B.A. in history with a minor in psychology, social studies secondary teaching certification, and M.A. in leadership in teaching. Her Ph.D. in education policy is from the University of Maryland. Had she not entered the teaching profession, Phillips would be a pediatrician. “I originally was pre-med because I like working with people, and especially young people. I might also try to be a dancer on Broadway. Ha ha.”

Phillips’ favorite moment as a teacher came when a special needs student led her 8th-grade Simulated Congressional Hearing team to a first place victory against honors-level classes. “As a team captain, she overcame a stutter, extreme shyness, and learning disabilities to pull together a motley crew of students who worked harder for her than they ever did for me. When they announced her team as the first place team, beating out 14 others, I cried in the middle of the assembly. She went on to take AP government in 9th grade and advanced level courses all throughout her high school career and went on to college at the University of Maryland.”

The best piece of advice Phillips has been given as a teacher is to “honor the profession. There will be people who enrich your soul as a teacher and others who do not. Don't let personal differences stand in the way of honoring the profession and respecting the work that all of your colleagues do. You can learn something from every teacher in the building. Oh, and laminate everything! I still have posters from my first year of teaching.” To those contemplating a career in the classroom, Phillips shares her laminating advice and suggests that “when teachers give you unsolicited advice, take it. They mean well and really do know what they are talking about. Remember that every child in front of you is someone's pride and joy. Love them and they will love you back.”

It was Phillips’ French teacher, Madame Kissinger, who greatly influenced her. “She loved her subject and while her style was very stoic and reserved, she firmly pushed all of her students to work to their fullest capacity in the subject. She had a wry sense of humor and rewarded us with smiles and ‘Bravo’s’ when we took risks in French.”

James Madison is the person Phillips most admires. “He and a few other founders wrote the Federalist papers which put forth the American form of political philosophy. In Federalist Paper # 10, he effectively and irrevocable defined the difference between a republic and a democracy. He argues for the inevitably of factions due to our inherent human natures, and in Federalist # 51 established that because men are not angels, government needs auxiliary checks. His attention to the causes of human behavior and the justification for our form of constitutional democracy as a result has been the bedrock of our long-lasting government. The amount of research he did, prior to the constitutional convention and the eloquent way in which he put his arguments forward reminds me that it is important to always be prepared with knowledge to back up my claims, and that often it is important to know, but you do not always have to show what you know. Wait for the right moment. And use the written word to immortalize one's works.

Phillips has many favorite books, but one she especially likes is “Immortality” by Milan Kundera. “He is a beautiful, poetic writer who weaves history, revolution, existentialism, and human nature into his stories. The essence of his book comes back to me frequently when I think about the personal journeys of all of my various students. We are all striving to become immortal. For what will you always be remembered?”

Toure' Burgess | Nomination essay

Lauren Shetler
Science Teacher
Academy of the Holy Cross
Lauren Shetler

Why does Lauren Shetler teach? “I value education, and I feel that is it the most powerful way to make positive change. More simply I miss teaching too much when I’m not doing it,” says the biology, chemistry, and environmental science teacher at Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington. Now in her third year of teaching, Shetler also serves as the school’s pom and cheer coach.

Shetler earned a B.S. biology and B.A. in economics from Muhlenberg College and is working toward a M.Ed. in urban education from Alvernia University. While she cannot imagine herself not teaching, Shetler could see herself teaching “in a less traditional way, maybe as a wildlife biologist. I have to be around people, working alone in an office is not something that I could do.”

Her favorite moment as a teacher occurs “when I say something that allows a student to make a new connection, fall in love with an idea or change their mind. There is a very specific look they get in their eye and it’s amazing. It doesn’t happen every day, but when it does its pretty spectacular.”

When it comes to advice, the best she’s been given it, “It’s ok to need a break or have a bad day once in a while.” She advises those considering teaching as a profession to “make sure you love it, because it is more than just a job. Volunteer to teach an afterschool program. If you are supposed to be a teacher, you will know.”

Shetler has been “lucky to have many amazing teachers, however, Ms. Peggy Manbeck from Conrad Weiser High School in Pennsylvania has had a big impact on my life. She was my biology teacher but also my cooperating teacher when I student taught. Much of my class structure and teaching style was influenced by her.”

The person Shetler most admires evolves and changes but the individual is one who uses his or her “talents to improve our world by spreading respect and tolerance. This could be a friend, coworker, a famous leader, author or one of my students.”

Shetler’s favorite books? “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis. “It was read to me for the first time by a teacher. It was one of the first books that I really enjoyed reading and that I talked about with my friends, I love when there is a community surrounding a book. It has also stood the test of time for me, I read the series again every few years and my experience changes each time.”

Julia Beattie | Nomination essay

Melissa Young
Spanish Teacher
James Hubert Blake High School
Melissa Young

Melissa Young teaches because “it matters. It is never boring. I love to see my students make progress,” says the 20-year classroom veteran. If she weren’t an educator, Young might have been a journalist, “also because it matters.” A Spanish teacher at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring, Young holds an A.B. in Hispanic studies from Vassar College with a teaching certification in secondary Spanish and a M.S. in Spanish linguistics from Georgetown University.

Young’s favorite moment in her language classroom is “when a student begins to joke in the target language, no matter how silly it is. Outside of class, I love when students think enough of me as a teacher to tell me something exciting they are doing.”

Standing just 5’1”, Young says the best advice she has received as a teacher is, “If the student is taller than you, sit him or her down for the ‘little chat’ and then stand up yourself.” Advice she’d offer to those considering a career in the classroom is to “make sure you like this kind of work before you commit to it.”

There are many people, including Eleanor Roosevelt, who Young admires. But there is one teacher who had the most influence in her life. “Apparently my high school Spanish teacher Sr. Hernandez had quite an effect on me.”

While she doesn’t have a favorite book, Young does have a favorite author, Isabel Allende. “She tells stories beautifully.”

Estefania Velez | Nomination essay