Philly Mag’s Best Teacher Award: Meet the Finalists

Vote now for the top K–8 educator in the Philly region.

Back in April, Philly Mag asked for nominations in our first-ever Best Teacher Award, dedicated to recognizing the most outstanding K-8 educators in the Philadelphia region. After being inundated with nominations, we’ve narrowed down the field to five finalists.

You can vote now for the teacher you think is most deserving. The winner will receive a $5,000 gift for their school, along with a book donation, both courtesy of Subaru.

We asked our finalists to tell us more about themselves and why they teach. Here’s what they had to say:

Ryan Berger

Enfield Elementary School (School District of Springfield Township)

Who or what motivates you to teach?
I feel very fortunate to work for the School District of Springfield Township, the same school district that I attended as a student. During my years as a teacher, I have encountered many great students, families, and colleagues who have and continue to motivate me.

Kindergarten is one of the first exposures that many children have to school. My students inspire me, and in return I endeavor to make their first school experience enriching and exciting. Each day I have 23 kindergarten students who enter my classroom energetic and eager, and it is my job to channel their enthusiasm into a love of learning. It is this process, along with building relationships with families, that has motivated me throughout the years.

Additionally, I work with a wonderful and supportive team of eight fellow kindergarten teachers. Together we strive to make sure that every child is safe and engaged while providing all students with activities that encourage them to love learning. We routinely share ideas, strategies, materials, and our successes with each other. Brainstorming with such great teachers motivates me to try new techniques and resources. It is inspiring to hear what other teachers are doing in their classrooms, and their passion and dedication challenge me to be innovative in my classroom too.

What creative or innovative approaches have you used to connect with your students or school community?
I use technology as often as possible, and I am always on the lookout for new resources to incorporate into my classroom. In fact, this inspired me to earn a Master’s degree in technology and education from Arcadia University. When I find a new resource, I work closely with our technology coach to discuss the best way to introduce the tool slowly into my classroom. Because I have a comfort level with technology, I share my passion for technology with my colleagues. I have held small workshops to educate my colleagues on the available digital resources and to demonstrate how I use them in my classroom. I feel strongly that technology, when used appropriately, can enhance the learning experience.
For example, this year my students are using an app on the iPads that they are piloting to draw or take pictures, make videos, voice record, and type messages. The students are able to communicate with their classmates, as well as their parents at home. Each parent has access to their own child’s account, and can see what we are doing in the classroom. I really enjoy using this app because it allows parents to stay connected to their child’s learning. I love that it shows parents what their child is learning in class, but also allows them to discuss what they are learning at home. Parents receive notifications on their phone when their child has posted a piece of work, and they can record voice messages or leave a small note. Although the parents are not physically able to be in the classroom, I like that they get to play a part in the daily experiences of their child’s learning through this app.

What specific accomplishments are you specifically proud of?
I am proud to be a teacher, and I take pride in this school district. To have been a student and to now work here as a teacher is a real honor. Therefore, I strive to provide that same level of excellence that I experienced for the students and families with whom I work now.

Seamlessly including the use of technology into my classroom is another area that makes me proud. Technology can be uncertain and daunting, but the use of technology has allowed the parents of my students to feel connected to their child’s learning.
Mostly I am proud of my students for the hard work and energy that they bring into the classroom every day. We hold our kindergarten students to high standards and work hard to help them succeed. This year the expectation for reading has increased, but I am proud that all of my students have reached or exceeded the target. Although nothing makes me feel more fulfilled than when my students take pride in their own learning and their own successes.

Angela Chan

Andrew Jackson School (School District of Philadelphia)

Who or what motivates you to teach?
My students’ openness to learning and their willingness to be compassionate every day motivate me to stay in teaching. It’s rewarding for me to watch my students embrace a different perspective or marvel at a wonder as they navigate the complex world around them. When they are truly open to learning, it changes who they are in a powerful way. When my students adopt a compassionate way of being as a classroom community, it leads them to care about even those who are different from themselves, and it empowers them to take a stand for justice.

What creative or innovative approaches have you used to connect with your students or school community?
Connecting to students in an authentic way involves getting them to care deeply about something and building community around that. At this age, children need adults to give them opportunities to develop their passions. I’ve found that every child has a heart to care for the environment, including the living things that inhabit a place. We’re applying what we’ve learned and are working together to grow plants friendly to pollinators. We’ve taken field trips to explore the natural world and to collectively be in awe of the many interdependent relationships within.

These field trips have been a great opportunity for me to connect with parents. All parents are welcome to come and be engaged in the learning of their children, no matter what language they speak. Also, when I bring my students out into the world, the scope of their school community expands. They get to ask questions and hear from experts in the field, and the outside community becomes a part of their educational journey.

What specific accomplishments are you most proud of as a teacher?
About four years ago, the School District of Philadelphia was in the depths of a budget crisis, and my fourth grade students were slated to lose their beloved counselor and instrumental music teacher. They took it upon themselves to organize a lemonade stand and raise money, and to present the money to the School Reform Commission as a show of their commitment to their own education. They gave public testimony and performed on their violins to show how much their music education meant to them. They were exploring for the first time how to use their voices to advocate for themselves and for other kids in the city, and I couldn’t have been more proud.

Leslie Grace

George W. Nebinger Elementary School (School District of Philadelphia)

Who or what motivates you to teach?
Growing up, I attended summer camp at my elementary school. There, I would find all the old teacher books
and worksheets discarded for recycling, and I would reenact the role of teacher. Once I figured out that I could not
only be a teacher, but also an art teacher, I knew what direction my life would follow. It took me a few placements and teaching experiences to realize that my teaching home would be in an urban education setting. I have found my place in helping my students find their voice and to learn how to express themselves. Advocating for my students and for all the Philadelphia students as well as art teachers, has become a major priority in my life. My students who come from so many different walks of life, and the art teachers who have learned to work with so little are the motivations to teach in my life. I strive to be the best for my kids who deserve so much more than they are given, and who urgently need art in their lives, and I strive to be as strong as the art teachers I have know throughout all my life.

What creative or innovative approaches have you used to connect with your students or school community?
Two years ago, I was asked to be the community liaison at my school. Living in the neighborhood that I teach in, I gladly assumed this role. I attend all the Friends of Nebinger meetings each month, and try to attend as many home and school meetings as I can. Every event the school has, whether a performance or a fundraising night at a local restaurant, I am there. I get excited to see my kids in “the real world.” I don’t hide from them ever, and I try to find as many ways to connect
to my students and their families. I find free field trips for my students to attend, I try to create art-making experiences that are not only authentic to their lives, but also incorporate relevant literacy, math, science and 21st-century skills. For example, currently all my classes are completing a stop-motion animation film using iPads (which I fundraised for), and each grade has a different theme. Second grade had to consider the parts of a story and story board their animation with cut paper, and fourth grade created animal habitats out of clay and paper to create their stop-motion film. The films my students make are exhibited to the community the same night as our school dance performance and guitar performance, which is open to the community. Another big community/school event is our annual themed art show, where EVERY student will be showcased.

What specific accomplishments are you most proud of as a teacher?
I am proud of building an art program at Nebinger Elementary from nothing. The school did not have art for at least 10 years when I was hired here. Having no budget, I had to be creative in how I would make the program come to life. Through intense fundraising, family, friends, and the community helped me build my program through their generosity.
The art program at Nebinger is thriving now! Through fundraising I received all my art supplies, as well as technology, tables, stools, a carpet, books, and more. I am so proud to be able to give my students a high-quality art experience that they deserve. In addition, I am very proud of the Philadelphia Art Teacher Alliance, a professional learning community for, you guessed, Philadelphia art teachers. We are often so isolated in our specialists roles, and the need to connect to other art teachers for support, ideas, and guidance is critical to our survival and sanity. I am proud to have organized this group and continue to sustain it through monthly meetings at institutions throughout the city. Together we all advocate for the arts, for each other, and for our students. We even had an art show of just Philadelphia students’ work at the Pennsylvania Department of Education building this past year.

Desireé La Marr

Richard Wright Elementary School (School District of Philadelphia)

Who or what motivates you to teach?
My students and families are the most important aspect of why I teach. The fact that many of my students come from challenging and complex homes and yet are committed to learning and pushing forward gives me inspiration to do what I can to give them tools and help them become successful. They inspire me when I want to give up and throw in the towel.

What creative or innovative approaches have you used to connect with your students or school community?
What I do I would not say is innovative—just old-fashioned love, sometimes tough love. I encourage perseverance, but most of all I let them know every day that I love them, even when they make mistakes. For my parents, I let them know by words and actions that I have their child’s best interests at heart, that I would treat their child no differently, that my expectations for their child are the same as for my own children.

What specific accomplishments are you most proud of as a teacher?
I am most proud of the positive relationships that I have been able to build with students and families. I have had students come back years later and thank you, that they remember me for my smile – and that means so much as an educator. For the past four years I have started community involvement programs to help educate and support our parents, which brings the schools, staff and students together as a community.

Meaghan Stolnis

Pierce Middle School (West Chester Area School District)

Who or what motivates you to teach?
The students in my class are my number-one motivation to come to school each day and do my absolute best as their teacher. Their positive attitudes, perseverance, and willingness to learn new things are a few key factors that play a role in my motivation as an educator. I also find motivation when I reflect on my high school years and remember some amazing and selfless teachers who really made a difference in my life.

What creative or innovative approaches have you used to connect with your students or school community?
The main approach I use to connect with my students is identifying and building upon their strengths. I am a Special Education Teacher in a Life Skills classroom. My students have a variety of different intellectual disabilities. However, my mission is to focus on their abilities. While doing so, our class formed community partnerships with local nursing homes and restaurants. These partnerships allow my students to practice functional skills in a real-life setting while also providing service to our own community. We also connect with our own school community by running a coffee cart multiple times a week and participating in several other vocational tasks throughout the school environment.

What specific accomplishments are you most proud of as a teacher?
One of my colleagues and I started a mentoring program to help students with disabilities establish and maintain genuine friendships. We conducted a lot of research and created a formal proposal for our administration. Within weeks of the program being approved and announced to the student body, we had over 90 students involved! This is definitely one of the accomplishments I am most proud of; especially when I see the true friendships that have formed between my students and their peers. I am also very proud of providing my students, and other students, with a classroom environment in which they feel safe. This allows them to reach many “little” victories each and every day. In my eyes, these little victories, are really BIG ones.