Lynchburg Living Top Teacher Award Winners 2015-2016

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Few professions have come under as much scrutiny as that of education. It’s easy to become lost in the bureaucracy of it all, debating salaries, testing standards and teacher accountability in abstract terms. But day-by-day, teachers are quietly showing up and teaching our children. While the world outside argues over teaching methods, a teacher is on the front lines—helping the boys and girls who need help with problem #4, providing a shoulder to cry on, lending a pencil when someone forgets their own once again, giving 75 cents for the lunch line and so much more.

Teachers should be celebrated for their commitment to a profession that demands so much of them for so little in return. But when you ask them, and as you’ll see in these profiles, the students make it worth it every time they have a victory, a “light bulb” moment, a good report. And you can’t put a price on that.

For their perseverance and dedication in the face of many challenges, we commend this year’s Top Teachers.

In our second annual Top Teacher awards, we had more reader nominations and votes than last year. Our top 10 educators represent a wide range of disciplines and grades, but they each share a passion for education. Learn more about them here.

Interviews by Jennifer Redmond
Photography by Mitchell Bryant, LaShonda Delivuk, & RJ Goodwin


Most Voted Top Teachers

Caitlin-UntermanCaitlin Unterman
School: Forest Middle School

Years as an Educator: 4

Currently Teaches:
8th Grade Earth Science/ 8th Grade Science Exploration

Special Recognition:
U.S. Cellular’s “Calling All Teachers” Recipient

Educational Background:
Master’s Degree in Education

What led you to teaching?
I chose education as my career path because I love working with children; I am passionate about science, and I wanted to share my love of science with my students. The world of science is constantly changing, which makes it one of the most important topics for all of us to study.

What do you appreciate about being a teacher?
I appreciate the opportunity to make students believe that learning can be fun. I try to make sure my class is always interesting. Seeing the excitement on their faces when they walk into my science class is the best feeling any teacher can have.

What have you learned as a teacher?
I have learned that each and every student is different, and each has a desire to succeed; you just have to believe in them, instill confidence in them, and show them you appreciate their accomplishments—then they will show you how much they want to learn.

What do you want your students to learn?
I would like my students to learn that the opportunities waiting for them after they get out of school are
endless. With hard work, they can be and achieve whatever they want.

What one accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am most proud of the science exploration initiative that I created this year at Forest Middle School. We have partnered with NASA team members involved in the Mars Curiosity mission to provide our students a unique, one-of-a-kind educational opportunity.

What is one thing you would like others to know about education?
Being an educator is one of the most rewarding careers. That being said, it comes with great challenges. However, teachers are in the unique position of being able to have a lifetime impact on each and every one of our students.

From Her Nominations:
“Caitlin is an innovative and exciting educator. Among other things, she developed from scratch a Space Exploration course and got scientists from NASA directly involved; they will even be visiting the school to speak with her students.”

“Ms. Unterman has made an example of what can be done by thinking a little ‘out of the box.’ She is willing to try new ideas to keep her students on board. She may be young, but she is a dynamic teacher and a young lady to watch as her career unfolds.”


matthew-gilesMatthew Giles
School: Amherst Middle School

Years as an Educator: 8

Currently Teaches:
8th grade Pre-Algebra and Pre-AP Algebra 1

Special Recognition:
Profound Teacher Award in 2014 and 2015

What led you to teaching?
One day out of the blue when I was a junior in high school, my Aunt Natalie called me and told me she thought I would make a great math teacher. I gave it some thought, and since I loved math, loved to help people, and aspired to be a leader, I decided to go for it.

What do you appreciate about being a teacher?
I love waking up every day knowing that I have the opportunity to impact teenagers’ lives in a positive way. Also, I am a big 8th grader at heart, so I enjoy being with my students.

What have you learned as a teacher?
I have learned that establishing a rapport with my students and taking interest in their interests has not only allowed me to have great relationships with them but has also motivated the students to do well in math.

What do you want your students to learn?
Teaching math is important, but being a great role model, leading by example, and positively impacting students’ lives is the most important. At the end of the year, I want my students to be great problem solvers, know how to utilize 21st century technology, but most of all, be able to make wise decisions in life and, in turn, positively impact others’ lives.

What one accomplishment are you most proud of?
A recent initiative that I am most pleased with was the Pi Day Run at Randolph College last year. I had 26 students and colleagues join me in creating t-shirts with the digits of Pi on them and then running in a 3.14 mile race on Pi day (3/14/15). Running is one of my passions, so it was awesome seeing the students excited about running and math at the same time! Despite the rainy morning, we all had a blast and enjoyed some pie at the end of the run. I would like to make this an annual event for the students and faculty at Amherst Middle School.

What is one thing you would like others to know about education?
Education must be a team effort from all sides with all members upholding their responsibilities to allow students to learn, create and apply themselves at the highest level possible. Education is at its best when students, teachers, administrators, parents and the community collaborate together.

From His Nominations:
“Mr. Giles has mastered the art of not only knowing his content very well but also developing meaningful relationships with his students. They know that he not only cares for them and respects them but also
provides very high quality instruction on the daily.”

“Mr. Giles went out of his way to help my son adjust to being in a new school last year and has been very patient helping my son adjust to a new country since he was adopted from Europe. Outside of the classroom,
Mr. Giles offers encouragement to his students in helping with his church’s youth group and coaching soccer at the school.”


Pat-RonyPat Rony
School:
Holy Cross Regional Catholic School

Years as an Educator: 3

Currently Teaches:
4th grade

Special Recognition:
Nominated for Tech/EDGE 2015 STEM Teacher of the Year

What led you to teaching?
After graduating from college, I became an educator in the business world as a corporate trainer. Later, I stopped working to start a family with my husband.

Once my children started school, I became more involved within their school. I volunteered to help in the classroom and eventually became a substitute teacher. A teacher told me I had a special way of working with the students and suggested that I should become a teacher.

After discussion with my family and prayerful consideration, I enrolled at Lynchburg College to earn my
teacher’s certification.

What do you appreciate about being a teacher?
I enjoy the interaction that I have with students. I greet the children every morning and have a personal interaction with them. In the classroom, I like to see the spark in their eyes when they finally understand a concept that they have been struggling with.

What have you learned as a teacher?
Every student doesn’t learn the same way. Each one is unique and has a style in which he or she learns the best. When teaching a lesson, I have learned that what I planned for the day may not be what will work best for the students. I have learned and practiced to adjust my thinking so they can grasp the concept to learn the best way they can.

What do you want your students to learn?
I want my students to be independent thinkers and not have to rely on me as a crutch to get their work done.
The students need to think it through to solve their problems in the classroom or on the playground.

What one accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am most proud of using the Nearpod app on Nook tablets in the classroom to make lessons more interactive, exciting and hopefully memorable. Nearpod is an “interactive, network presentation tool” that allows students to view teacher presentations on their own screens while I teach. They can also answer questions, draw images, take polls, view videos or visit web pages. I know immediately if the students understand the concepts, and I can re-explain for clarification if needed.

What is one thing you would like others to know about education?
Teaching is not just about sending students to school. It is a joint effort between the parents/guardians and the teacher. When that bond is present, the students are poised for success.

From Her Nomination:
“Pat Rony is a top teacher because she is an amazing role model as an excellent female STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] teacher. She incorporates excellent STEM tools in her classroom and lessons and encourages my daughter to want to experiment and explore.”


Cheri-W.-FalwellCheri W. Falwell
School:
Liberty Christian Academy

Years as an Educator: 16

Currently Teaches:
6th grade English and History;
5th grade Bible and English

Special Recognition:
“Apple” Excellence Award recipient

What led you to teaching?
I believe each person has a special calling in life. For me, I felt led to become a teacher when I was a senior in High School. Teaching is my passion.

What do you appreciate about being a teacher?
The thing I appreciate most about being a teacher is the fact that I am able to be a part of helping to shape students into becoming the men or women God has called them to become in life. These children are our future generation. I am happy to be a part of their journey in getting there.

What have you learned as a teacher?
You are never too old to learn and become a greater teacher in order to better serve your students, and your students can teach you just as much as you teach them if you will allow it.

What do you want your students to learn?
I want students to realize their God-given potential and to live lives that glorify God in the spiritual, academic, social, physical and vocational realms.

What one accomplishment are you most proud of?
When I was a teacher at Forest Middle School (FMS), I loved the fact, and still do, that my students came and asked me to help them start a Bible club that would meet before school. Although I am no longer at FMS, the club has continued to carry on long after my absence. At LCA, each Valentine’s Day, I have my students follow Ephesians 4:32 “Be kind and compassionate to one another…” Each student receives a paper entitled, “Words of Encouragement from My Friends.” The paper is passed around the room, and each student writes something they like about each person in the room. I love to watch the smiles on each child’s face when they get the completed sheet back and read the things that each classmate thinks is special about that person. It just instills in each child’s heart that they were created to be a uniquely designed masterpiece.

What is one thing you would like others to know about education?
While there are so many things I would like others to see inside the heart and soul of a teacher, I will sum it up in a few words. Teaching is not just a 7:30-3:30 job. It is a calling—a passion—that drives me to work before the hours of the day begin and long after the day ends including weekends, breaks and summer. I pour my heart and soul into each lesson written and taught and each talk I have with my classes or individual students. I pray for my students, past, present and future. I want them to learn academically, but when they leave my room, I want each student to know how very much I love them and how very much Jesus loves them. This mission is not taken lightly but very seriously because it is my responsibility to prepare this next generation of future leaders. I want to leave my legacy in each of them just like I want to leave a legacy for my own son.

From Her Nomination:
“She’s not a top teacher, Mrs. Falwell is the top teacher. My daughter had her two years ago in 5th grade, which is when she was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. The compassion [Mrs. Falwell] showed towards our daughter was meaningful. She is vested in all of her students daily, keeps the parents informed and teaches so her students learn and retain knowledge.”


Casey-WoodCasey Wood
School:
E.C. Glass High School

Years as an Educator: 10

Currently Teaches:
12th grade English and Public Speaking

Special Recognition:
Psi Scholars Teacher of the Year Award 2014

What led you to teaching?
Outside of family, my teachers were the most influential people in my life. Some of my former teachers are now my best friends, and I hope that I can build relationships with students that are as meaningful as the ones that they have built.

What do you appreciate about being a teacher?
I like to learn as much as I like to teach, and I appreciate the fact that my students can teach me just as much as
I can teach them.

What have you learned as a teacher?
That everyone is fighting their own battle, and you should always approach people with kindness even if it is not reciprocated.

What do you want your students to learn?
I want my students to be confident and content enough with themselves to live a truly happy life.

What one accomplishment are you most proud of?
Last year, the E.C. Glass Rock Band was able to record an album in a professional recording studio. I am proud of this because I have been playing music all my life and never had this opportunity myself until my late 20s.

What is one thing you would like others to know about education?
There’s a lot more to an education than test scores and diplomas. Ask the students—they’ll be the first to tell you!

From His Nomination:
“Casey has inspired dozens, if not hundreds, of kids to pursue knowledge, reading, music and, most importantly, critical thinking, which I think is the number one requirement for succeeding at life.”


Julia-WingfieldJulia Wingfield
School:
Holy Cross Regional Catholic School

Years as an Educator: 22

Currently Teaches:
3rd and 5th grade; Title 1

Educational Background:
Masters of Education from Lynchburg College

What led you to teaching?
I came to this career after 10 years in retail. I had worked up to the level of Operations Manager of a retail store and worked part-time as a bookkeeper for a family business. I enjoyed both of those positions, but something was missing. I realized I wasn’t in positions that allowed for creativity. My family has several members who are in education, so I talked with them about the field. I began substituting to see how I might feel about teaching, and I really enjoyed the interaction with the children, watching them respond, and seeing the sparks as they figured out the world around them.

What do you appreciate about being a teacher?
In our school, we get to know the whole family. I appreciate the effort that families make to send their children to our school. I appreciate their trust in me to work with their child, and I appreciate that each child is unique and has something to offer his/her fellow students.

What have you learned as a teacher?
Less is more! The less I say and lead, the more the children say and lead.

What do you want your students to learn?
Life is about figuring things out. How can you think about a problem in several different ways? How can you use your resources?

How should you treat other people while problem solving?
What one accomplishment are you most proud of?
My greatest accomplishment is that I end each day and each year thinking to myself “I want to do this again.” I add more STEM activities each year to my repertoire, and I add more opportunities for students to learn from each other.

What is one thing you would like others to know about education?
Teachers love your children. We set high expectations for them. We are tough on them, and we fuss at them sometimes. We may have some hard conversations with you about your child. But nothing makes teachers more proud than seeing your child succeed. Last, but not least, let your child be a child. Children will learn to read and do math (I do encourage reading for pleasure and noticing math in everyday home activities), but try not to push your child ahead in reading and math. Let them enjoy their childhood.

From Her Nomination:
“Julia was my son’s first teacher at HCRS; she made the transition seamless for him. She is truly an unsung hero, responsible for moving things forward without any need for recognition or accolades; that’s why it would be great to recognize her! She is a master differentiator in the classroom, meeting various skill levels with ease and introducing new and different teaching methods all the time. She makes the classroom exciting and is a phenomenal classroom teacher, encouraging the children to challenge themselves and to always give their very best.”


Ann-ShenigoAnn Shenigo
School:
Holy Cross Regional Catholic School

Years as an Educator: 39

Currently Teaches:
5th grade and Drama Director (3rd grade, kindergarten and Director of Development in the past)

Special Recognition:
Athena Award nominee through the Lynchburg Regional Chamber of Commerce

What led you to teaching?
I started teaching swimming lessons [at a young age]and loved seeing the children excited when they reached their goals.

What do you appreciate about being a teacher?
The students and their desire to learn—they are like sponges. They want to know the “whys,” “whens” and “hows” of whatever topic we are talking about and how it relates to them.

What have you learned as a teacher?
Patience. We all learn at different speeds and so knowing at what pace a student will be successful is so important. Also, variety—my lessons change from year to year, and I hope—while improving as I learn—that new approaches and tactics will enable my students to feel that sense of accomplishment.

What do you want your students to learn?
We need to teach the basics, and teach them well, to provide solid foundations for our students. But we also need to be focused on technology where most of our future jobs are focusing. I am thrilled to have Chrome Books in my classroom that my 5th graders can use the entire year.

What one accomplishment are you most proud of?
I recently received a letter from a parent that said, “Your ability to instruct classes large and small, with such diverse abilities, is skilled and intentional to produce students that think critically, at high levels, and with solid moral foundations.”

What is one thing you would like others to know about education?
We are shaping our future leaders. It’s important for us to teach critical thinking, problem solving, time management and self-discipline as well as core subject areas.

When our Holy Cross students go on to college and into the work world, they have these core competencies to be successful and resilient.

From Her Nominations:
“If I had to establish a school of my own, I’m pretty certain that Ann Shenigo would be the first person I’d try to hire away from HCRS. She is, quite simply, one of the truly indispensable people who make HCRS all that it is.”

“She is an amazing educator! Creating wonderful, stimulating projects for the students
throughout the year and is well-respected and loved by her students. She has also directed plays for 20 years that sell out year after year.”


Margaret-Dowd-DanielMargaret Dowd Daniel
School: James River Day School

Years as an Educator: 35

Currently Teaches:
2nd grade; team leader
(1st and 5th grades in the past)

Special Recognitions:
1974 Freedom Foundation Teacher Award; William M. Walker Family Meritorious Teacher Award 2006

What led you to teaching?
There are two people who inspired me to become a teacher. One was my mother, and the other was my senior Government teacher, Mrs. Sawyer. My mom loved children her whole life. She taught children with Down’s Syndrome on Sundays during church services for parents in the community. This gave them time to attend their church.

Mrs. Sawyer was a “dream come true” teacher. I loved her style of teaching. She made government homework interesting. Not only did I tackle her assignments first, but I also put forth my best effort on projects. Mrs. Sawyer made learning fun, interesting and intriguing. Every student was special to her.

What do you appreciate about being a teacher?
Over the past 30 years, I have had the privilege to teach at James River Day School. Our curriculum is created by teachers and reviewed every year by a committee. One of the things I appreciate the most about being a teacher is the trust that has been given to me over the years to help maintain our strong curriculum.

What have you learned as a teacher?
There are changes in education that occur every 10 years or so. I have found that in order to stay vibrant and current in the field of education, I need to adapt to the changes. Also, respect for the teacher, student and parent is very important.

What do you want your students to learn?
I want students to learn good character and manners. These qualities will take a student a long way in life. Students today need to have good character, to be responsible and well-mannered. Also, students need to know it is ok to make mistakes. This is how we learn to be a better person by the mistakes we make and knowing how to correct them.

What one accomplishment are you most proud of?
There are three accomplishments of which I am the most proud. When I came to James River Day School, there were no plays for the lower grades. Now each K-4 class has plays, and the middle school has a drama program. Secondly, the Hall of States has been a real love of mine. Students choose a state at random, work on a booklet and project. They prepare a speech. On the Hall of States day, parents come and listen to their speeches and visit the hall, which displays their projects. Finally, this year I started planning STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Math + Art] activities on Fridays. There is a task for the students to complete. They write in their journal about the project and then build it and elevate their work.

What is one thing you would like others to know about education?
Teachers are teaching our future leaders. Teachers need to listen to their students and give them time to express themselves. Students have so much to teach us and share. Change your lessons yearly and make sure that you provide as many opportunities for physical movement as possible during the day.

From Her Nomination:
“Mrs. Daniel has been in the profession for more than 30 years but constantly keeps things interesting and fresh. She is eager to learn new technology, try different teaching strategies and stretch her pedagogical practices. Her consistency and structure serve her 2nd graders well. At James River Day School, Mrs. Daniel is a fixture.”


Michelle-BurnettMichelle Burnett
School: Peakland Preschool

Years as an Educator: 20

Currently Teaches:
One Year Old class (kindergarten and 2nd grade in the past)

What led you to teaching?
Teaching was the only profession my mother warned me not to pursue. She was the secretary at Boonsboro Elementary School for almost 30 years. She saw firsthand how hard teachers worked, even when not getting the pay, nor the respect, they deserved.

But even though she didn’t want her own kids to go into the profession, she constantly talked about how teaching was the most important profession. She was the loudest cheerleader for teachers I ever knew. She was often heard saying, “Without teachers, there would be no other professions.” Needless to say, my mother had a huge influence on the way I view teaching.

What do you appreciate about being a teacher?
I appreciate the growth and maturity that I have the privilege of observing in my students. When I tell people that I teach one-year-olds, I can see the disbelief in their faces. It’s like they are thinking, “What can you possibly teach a one-year-old?” Every day, I am amazed at the skills that my students display in problem solving, intellect and empathy. It is incredibly humbling and gratifying when one of my parents says, “Wow! I didn’t know my child was capable of that.”

What have you learned as a teacher?
I once had a principal whose mantra was, “Sometimes you have to lose the battle to win the war.” As a 22-year-old, just out of college, I thought that was a ridiculous notion.

Now that I’m twice that age, I’ve seen the light. I’ve learned to keep my eye on the only thing that is important—the children. Pride has no place in the teaching profession.

What do you want your students to learn?
I want my students to feel like they are important—important to me, important to their community, and important to the world. Building self-worth has to begin at this very young age. I want their self-confidence to help them evolve into self-sufficient, caring individuals.

What one accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am so proud to be a member of the Peakland Preschool family. Being invited to teach here for the last 14 years has been my greatest accomplishment. It is a privilege to work in this environment with these students, parents and teachers. There is truly nothing I would rather be doing every day.

What is one thing you would like others to know about education?
Teachers care about their students more than most people realize. They work hard and put in numerous hours that no one sees. It is common for teachers to spend a great deal of their own money on supplies for their students and classrooms. Teachers are good people who are in this profession for all the right reasons.

From Her Nomination:
“Michelle is phenomenal in that she is patient …truly cares for each child and makes them feel special, and is always quick to hold and nurture each child as if they are her own!
Not only this, but she also really enjoys doing what she does; you can see it every time you have a conversation with her. I will forever
be grateful for the wonderful care she
has given both of my girls.”


Tracy-FosterTracy Foster
School:
Rustburg High School

Years as an Educator: 14

Currently Teaches:
10th Grade English and
10th Grade Pre-AP English

Educational Background:
Masters of Education in
Teaching and Learning

What led you to teaching?
I always wanted to be involved in a career that served others. I also enjoy helping students make important decisions that have long lasting effects.

What do you appreciate about being a teacher?
In the classroom, I appreciate the brief window of opportunity to teach young adults to think, analyze and communicate in a way that will improve their lives forever. In my work environment, I appreciate being surrounded by optimistic people who generously collaborate and celebrate successes of other students and colleagues.

What have you learned as a teacher?
A wonderful college professor told my class, “Make sure you remember that you are ultimately teaching students, not just a subject.”

I’ve learned that every student brings a strength to our classroom, and students learn more when they are convinced the teacher knows and believes in their strengths and cares about them individually.

What do you want your students to learn?
I want my students to know that learning is not about achieving a grade—it’s the application of knowledge that brings personal growth.

What one accomplishment are you most proud of?
I’m not sure that I’ve had a “great” accomplishment. I have tried to assess the needs of every student, to consistently instruct in a way that enables each student to learn successfully, and to challenge every learner in ways that bring both academic and personal growth. When I look back at the end of my career, I hope to feel a sense of accomplishment knowing that my small, consistent daily efforts made a significant difference in the lives of my kids.

What is one thing you would like others to know about education?
Teachers are the finest group of individuals I have had the privilege to know. I am surrounded by a team of educators who invest their time, talents, finances, energy, experience and emotion into the students with whom they have been entrusted. Teachers pour their lives into young learners and often gauge their own success by the successes of their students.

From Her Nomination:
“Mrs. Foster has by far been the most influential teacher I have ever had. She never fails to challenge her students in class and understands each of our strengths and weaknesses as individuals. She not only cares about our academic achievements but each of us personally as well. She provides a safe learning environment where we can open our minds to new concepts and ideas never thought of before.”


Congratulations to All the 2015-2016 Top Teachers

Top Teachers 11-25:

Debra Serio
Jefferson Forest High School

Julie Mayhew
E.C. Glass High School

Mike Morris
Liberty Christian Academy

Mrs. Olivia Linn
Blue Ridge Montessori School

Naomi Marks
Liberty Christian Academy

Nicole Griffin
Liberty Christian Academy

Tony Mitchell
Holy Cross Regional Catholic School

Erin Spickard
Liberty Christian Academy

Page Miller
Perrymont Elementary School

Doug Smith
Virginia Episcopal School

Chris Nelson
Liberty University

James Mashburn
Liberty University: School Of Aeronautics

Jason Knebel
Virginia Episcopal School

Douglas Miller
Liberty University

Michael Hueber
College of Osteopathic Medicine at Liberty University


Top Teachers 26-33:

Dr. Tad Hardin
Liberty University: School of Music

Michael Weigner
College of Osteopathic Medicine at Liberty University

Matt Johnson
Virginia Episcopal School

Ronnie B. Martin
College of Osteopathic Medicine at Liberty University

Jason Wells
College of Osteopathic Medicine at Liberty University

James Kribs
College of Osteopathic Medicine at Liberty University

Mr. Paul Randlett
Liberty University: School of Music

Eugene Patterson
College of Osteopathic Medicine
at Liberty University

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