Downstate Teachers of the Year share secrets of their success

From following in the footsteps of parents, to helping students like them, to being drawn to education without setting out to be a teacher — Downstate’s 2021 Teachers of the Year have stories that run the gamut.

And the teacher class of 2021 faced an added challenge: With coronavirus, educators and students throughout the state went home March 13 and never came back to their classrooms.

Despite the difference in topics or grade level, each teacher emphasized the importance of connecting and fostering strong relationships with their students and how that was made even more poignant by the separation COVID-19 brought.

The statewide Teacher of the Year is typically announced during a banquet in October.

Rebecca Vitelli, a preschool special education teacher in the Colonial School District, is this year’s state Teacher of the Year.

Below, learn a bit more about the Downstate Teachers of the Year.

Appoquinimink

When Karen Speciale studied abroad in college, it opened her eyes to teaching students like herself.

“I think that pretty much did it for me, where I was like, ‘Other kids need to be able to see that the world is so much bigger than what they have lived or envisioned or could imagine,’ ” she said. “Having the opportunity to communicate in another language and understand, not just language but culture, is huge.”

Karen Speciale

Ms. Speciale is going into her 19th year as an educator and currently serves as a world language teacher at Brick Mill Elementary. She has worked with Appoquinimink since 2002 before moving abroad in 2007. She continued her teaching in the Dominican Republic, where she’s from, at a bilingual school before returning to the area in 2012.

Being honored as this year’s Teacher of the Year was “surreal,” she said.

“It’s kind of like you think, ‘Oh wow, that’s great, but it’s definitely not going to be me,’ ” she said. “It’s definitely very humbling, especially because of the amazing people that I work with, so I know like their talents and their capabilities, so to be selected is very humbling and a real great honor and privilege all at the same time.”

With the complications this year brought, she noted that educators — and kids alike — are innovators and are ready to adapt. Through this process of remote learning, connection is a crucial part, she said.

“I think in our district we really strive to make those connections with parents and kids, and, I can speak for specifically in my building, making sure the kids are emotionally supported is huge and caring for them beyond just the academics is huge, which I think in turn makes them be open to listening to us or feeling comforted when they’re distressed,” she said.

Caesar Rodney

Beth Schmidt grew up in her mother’s classroom.

“I would always go and help her set up her classroom in the summer, and any free chance I got, I was in there,” she said. “When I went to college, I came home, I would go in and work in her classroom. I just followed in her footsteps.”

Beth Schmidt

As a Caesar Rodney alumna herself, she was drawn back to the district because of the community and Rider pride, she said.

“I just wanted to be a part of that,” she added.

A first-grade teacher at Nellie Hughes Stokes Elementary School, Ms. Schmidt has served six of her 15 years as a teacher in the district.

“Being named Teacher of the Year feels like the highest honor I could achieve being a teacher,” she said. “It means I’ve made a difference in the lives of children and their families, which is my whole goal as an educator.”

When schools were shut down for the final few months and learning went remote, it reaffirmed that educators are a constant in children’s lives, she said.

“At times, we might be the only constant in their life. And during a time, such as COVID, we were able to adjust, but still be there for them every day, even if it was virtually. And for some kids, that was a sense of relief in a time of uncertainty, knowing that we were still there, just in a different way,” she said.

Children’s social and emotional needs are top of mind for Ms. Schmidt.

“Teaching changes, curriculum comes and goes, but the heart of why you’re there remains constant: always there for the children first,” she said. “I truly believe that you’re there for the social-emotional part of the child first before you can teach them.”

Cape Henlopen

Jorge Moreno used to tell his students in Panama to look beyond their town’s mountains, to “look up, go as high as possible, the sky’s the limit.” He didn’t know that advice was for himself, too.

“I was able to succeed at my profession, to the point that I earned a scholarship to come to study in the U.S. and then teach in the U.S. And after 12 years of teaching here, I feel that that’s the kind of talk you provide for the students,” he said.

Jorge Moreno

Mr. Moreno joined Cape two years ago, drawn to the concept of the immersion program. Being selected as Teacher of the Year shines a light on the work the program does, he added.

“Doing the immersion program is the perfect fit because, besides being a Latino immigrant with a dream of his own come true, I have a story to tell about a wonderful immersion program and its benefits to our state,” he said.

He grew up in a family of educators, which pushed him on the track himself.

“I grew up in this environment in which we nurture education,” he said.

While there was a lot of physical distance between his colleagues, his students and himself at the end of this year, he feels like it brought him closer to his students and their families in a way that is beneficial for the years to come.

“I’m inviting people into my house and so are the students or the parents who have trusted this program to provide the platform for education,” he said.

Looking back at his career so far, he said he cannot believe the places he has gone.

“I believe that being a teacher is the most beautiful career. I was born to be a teacher, and I am very happy to be a teacher,” he said. “I wouldn’t do anything else.”

Capital

Julie Eaby bleeds blue and white, she said.

The morning after she was announced as Teacher of the Year at Capital’s school board meeting, a parade of cars navigated her neighborhood to celebrate her and gather for photos.

Julie Eaby

She had expected something after seeing pictures of Caesar Rodney’s Teacher of the Year recognition, she noted. “Not this,” she said.

While she couldn’t yet believe she was Teacher of the Year, she noted it was an honor and tribute to her family, especially her husband, she said. “It’s an honor and a tribute to my fellow teachers because I take a little piece of everybody I’ve ever worked with with me and most importantly, a tribute to my students because I wouldn’t be who I am without them,” she said.

Mrs. Eaby just finished her second year at Booker T. Washington Elementary School, after 11 in the district. She’s been a teacher since 1993.

“I miss my kids,” she said. “The way this whole school year ended, on March 13, when we walked out of that room, I didn’t know that was going to be the last day I ever saw my babies all together.”

Being a teacher this year in particular makes her want to be even better though, she said.

“It’s not just COVID. The horrific events with George Floyd have really made me think about what I do each and every day. I know I always try my best, but I need to do even more,” she said. “Teaching at Booker T., I have a very, very diverse population, and I want to make sure that I’m doing everything that I can to be the best example of a leader that I can be, setting an example for my fellow teachers (that) kids are the most important.”

Delmar

When Kate Hakeem completed an internship in college, working at a summer program in Baltimore with children, it set her on the path of teaching.

“I was working with some elementary kids, and they were struggling readers, and it was an eye-opening experience, and I was drawn to wanting to make a difference and wanting to help kids learn to read better,” she said.

Kate Hakeem

Ms. Hakeem has been in the district for five years, serving as an English learner coordinator and teacher, the first full-time educator the district had hired for the role.

“I was really excited about the chance for building a program there,” she said. “I was also interested in its small-town pride. It’s a small district, but the people there really love the community and the community supports the school.”

When she began teaching in Baltimore, she was a Spanish teacher and occasionally had a student for two years, but generally her classes were transient. Now, she stays with some children for multiple years as they learn.

“The thing that’s been the most compelling for me has been being able to work with some of the same kids continuously,” she said.

This year also taught her the added value of working closely with families, too, and how vital school is for students.

“I had students asking me, before they announced the closure for the full year, ‘When are we coming back? I really want to come back to school,’ ” she said. “I also really wanted to go back to school. … School is a community in itself, but it’s also important for the whole community in the health and well-being of kids and families.”

She said she was “really honored and humbled” to earn the title of Teacher of the Year.

“I’m looking forward to learning from other teachers in the state and representing Delmar,” she added.

Indian River

Brandon McCabe didn’t exactly intend to be a educator, but when a position as an agriculture teacher opened up at his alma mater, Sussex Central High School, where he was substituting, he decided to interview for it.

“I graduated from Central, I went through the ag program, I was a (Future Farmers of America) member, and the opportunity was there, so I interviewed for it and ended up getting the job,” he said.

Brandon McCabe

But before he started teaching, he had coached baseball for years and found it was a way to help kids achieve their goals — something that remained with him.

“I really enjoyed the baseball aspect,” he said. “Once I got into teaching, then I realized I could help a whole different type of student, that I could help them obtain careers.”

Mr. McCabe has worked as an agricultural structures and engineering teacher since 2010.

Taking his hands-on classroom environment to a remote-learning structure this year proved challenging, but it solidified the importance of fostering strong communication with students, he said.

“Those relationships, I felt, were a key part in staying connected and helping to educate students as they were home for the last three months, basically, of the school year,” he said.

Being recognized as Teacher of the Year for Indian River confirmed what he strives to do in his classroom, he said.

“As an ag teacher and career and technical education teacher, we really try to impact students’ future careers, and it’s just good to kind of be recognized (for) what I do, but also what the ag department and the CTE does,” he said.

Looking back to when he first started teaching, Mr. McCabe said he would tell himself to be a lifelong learner.

“No one knows everything. You have to be willing to learn, or you’ll be stuck,” he said. “You have to always be learning and willing to teach yourself.”

Lake Forest

As she was growing up, Amber Hobbs found it important to make connections with her teachers.

“As I got older, I realized that once you have that connection with an adult and you know that they’re loving and want you to succeed, you put forth more effort. Once I realized that that happened in a classroom, I wanted to do that,” she said.

Amber Hobbs

She noted that her childhood was difficult, and she found adult support among her teachers, and she realized she could help students who are in similar situations.

Ms. Hobbs has served as a kindergarten teacher at Lake Forest North for three years and as a teacher for 16.

“I really believe that the biggest part of student learning is the teacher-student connection,” she said. “It improves not just academics, but it improves their ability to try harder and their willingness to even put forth more effort in class.”

This year was by far the hardest of her career, she said.

It wasn’t just teaching content to a group of 5-year-olds remotely, she noted, it was helping students and parents understand the technology and feel comfortable using it to engage. The experience gave her tools to bring into her classroom for next year, though.

“I dove headfirst, and I feel like even though we were at home … we really were able to get kids engaged in different ways by learning new tech,” she said.

Although she is honored and humbled to be selected as Lake Forest’s Teacher of the Year, she felt every teacher went above and beyond this year.

“They had to put their family on hold to make sure that they could get their school family up and to par with what they needed, and we had to constantly keep changing, depending on what happened with COVID,” she said.

Laurel

Lindsay Parsons thought she was going to do something else when she first enrolled in college, since teaching runs through her family.

“I was just drawn to their early childhood program and that brought me back to education and helped me decide,” she said.

Lindsay Parsons

Ms. Parsons is a graduate of the Laurel School District and has returned as a pre-kindergarten teacher at North Laurel Early Learning Academy for five years. Being recognized as Teacher of the Year was “honestly a surprise,” she said. She attributes her success to her mentors in college and her students and families.

“I was up against some strong competition and some very experienced teachers,” she said. “It’s definitely an honor to be able to represent our district.”

This year proved harder than her first year, she noted, but it reminded her to take every piece of advice that comes. Finishing up her fifth year during coronavirus emphasized that every year is different, but with changing times, teachers have to be able to evolve.

“I just kind of learned that you have to roll with whatever is thrown at you and you’re capable of more than what you believe you are,” she said.

She added that students are resilient — and sometimes, they teach you, too.

“Every child you meet will be just as important as the year before, because they will all have an impact,” she said. “I thought my first class was going to be the one that I just loved forever. It turns out my heart’s bigger than I realized, and there’s a lot of students in it.”

Milford

There are several different events in Kim Webb’s life that pointed her to a career in education.

There is her cousin, Michele, who has Down syndrome. Despite the diagnosis, which can mean a short life expectancy, Michele has grown into a remarkable woman, Ms. Webb said. And there’s Stephanie, a special education teacher Ms. Webb spent a great deal of time with. Her “enthusiasm and creativity and sincere love for each student that she taught made a lasting impression on me,” she said.

Kim Webb

“It would be those two events that led me into the field of education,” she said. “I decided to become a Stephanie and offer a kind and caring heart to all of the Micheles of the world, so to speak.”

Ms. Webb, a fourth-grade inclusion teacher at Lulu Ross Elementary School, has been a teacher for 17 years. She began her time at Milford in 2003. She moved to Caesar Rodney School District for several years, before returning to Milford.

To be recognized as Teacher of the Year is a “tremendous honor,” she said.

“I can only hope that, throughout this process, I can represent my co-educators with continued evidence of my passion, positivity and integrity in the field of education,” she said.

Ms. Webb noted that she has “always valued the importance of effective communication and making powerful connections with my students, their families and our Milford community.”

While schools were closed, she noted that she missed those in-person interactions with the students and families.

“This experience definitely has inspired me to continue to build those strong connections with my students and their families, and I think when you do that, students and families open up their minds and their hearts for learning,” she continued. “And because of those connections, I was able to help some of my students and their families during these challenging times.”

Polytech

Cameron Sweeney was halfway through his degree, headed toward a career in marine biology when the recession hit in 2007. There were a total of seven marine biologist positions in the country, he said.

He recalled a teacher from high school, who made history, economics and politics so enjoyable. Coupled with current volunteer work where he was working with children, he was set on a new path of education. Before he totally dove into teaching, though, he joined AmeriCorps.

Cameron Sweeney

Through his work with AmeriCorps — a program that focuses on mentoring and tutoring children, rebuilding communities following disasters, aiding veterans or working with local communities to address poverty — he was stationed in St. Louis to teach English.

“It was a group of kids that were kicked out of every other public school and this was their last resort. I had kids that were 22 or 23 years old, trying to finish their GED (diploma),” he said. “And I saw how much they cared about this because they saw it as their only option to achieving what they wanted, which was freedom from the poverty they had experienced as kids, freedom from the violence they experienced as kids. That really sealed the deal, and I came home and finished my master’s at Wesley College and got my (first teaching) job at Seaford.”

Mr. Sweeney just completed his seventh year of teaching, with four years at his alma mater, Polytech, as a social studies teacher. He noted he was thankful for outpouring from students and parents after he was announced as Teacher of the Year.

“I really like helping kids to find what they really love to do. It’s always been very exciting for me to watch kids grow and learn about who they want to be and what they enjoy and what they’re passionate about. For me, that’s been the biggest benefit of being a teacher,” he said.

Seaford

Kathi Adams had planned on staying in Virginia after she completed her college degree. Whenever she came home during breaks, though, she would substitute in Seaford, where she went to school. When a position opened up, she decided to do the interview for experience.

“I think I was extra calm because I thought I was going to go back to Lynchburg, and then, they offered me the job, so I took it,” she said. “And I’ve been happy ever since.”

Kathi Adams

She has worked in the district for 29 years and currently serves as a kindergarten immersion teacher at Blades Elementary School. To be recognized as Teacher of the Year is an honor, she noted.

While she may not have thought she’d end up back in Delaware, she did know she wanted to be a teacher since she was in second grade. She recalled getting the teachers’ class manuals as a child so she could play school over the summer and working with a boy in her class who had a physical limitation, which set her on the path of pursuing special education.

As she thinks ahead to the fall, she noted that she isn’t going to concentrate on what children don’t know.

“I’m going to meet them where they are and go from there. We’re going to make the best of the situation,” she said. “We’re going to make it the best for them that it can possibly be. We want it to be a super school year.”

Looking back at her nearly 30 years as an educator so far, she highlighted the importance of establishing those relationships.

“Don’t believe the advice that says you shouldn’t smile during your first year, that’s not true,” she said, adding that “establishing relationships with your students and taking interest in their life is going to take a teacher so much further with those students.”

Smyrna

When she was a senior in high school, Holly Hufford didn’t know what she wanted to do for a career until she went to the National Future Farmers of America convention.

“I was so moved by everything that I saw there that I decided that I need to do this,” she said. “I want to be able to give them leadership skills, how to do public speaking and all of the neat little things that I had learned while I was in high school that I didn’t even realize I was doing until I got to the national convention.”

Holly Hufford

A graduate of Smyrna High herself, she has been a teacher for 17 years and in the district for 13 years. To be named Teacher of the Year was a “shock to the system.”

“It’s nice to be recognized by your district for the things that you do, but at the same time, there’s a bit of humility of ‘there are so many wonderful teachers in our district,’ ” she said.

During the time she was apart from her students at the end of this year, the connections she made with students were important.

“You are a safe base for them; you’re a safe person for them,” she said.

She noted that as a first-year teacher, she struggled and hadn’t yet made the connections with the kids because she was worried about getting the curriculum right. She remembered crying every day until Thanksgiving because she was overwhelmed. But if she could tell herself anything, she said, it would be to persevere through that because once she started to make the connections, everything changed.

“It just kind of came together for me. It clicked,” she said. “That’s always my suggestion to new teachers: Your first year is survival. You’re surviving your first year, you’re treading water. Once you get that first year under your belt, that’s when the magic happens.”

Sussex Tech

Kelli Gehrke was working as a graphic designer when a temporary position opened up at Sussex Tech. She decided to go for it — and when the position became more permanent, she had to decide whether she’d leave her design job and become a teacher.

Eight years later, and she loves it, she said.

Kelli Gehrke

“We have such an amazing staff at Sussex Tech. All of the teachers are so supportive. All of them love the kids,” she said. “And that’s probably the reason that I stayed there so long.”

While she had plenty of experience with kids — her mom had a day care, and she worked as a nanny, softball coach and with the YMCA — she learned that there was more to teaching than giving students the skills they needed to become graphic designers.

In the technical classroom, she has the same students all four years, for about an hour-and-a-half a day.

“They become like your kids. You learn everything that’s going on in their lives, you learn how to help them inside of school and outside of school. And it’s just so rewarding,” she said. “Where, before, I just thought you sent your kids to school and they were taught by the teacher and they went home. I didn’t realize how amazing it is and how involved you were able to get in the younger people’s lives.”

Art, she added, is an effective tool to help connect with students and allow them to communicate their ideas.

Even though teaching remotely went smoothly this year, she wants to get better at figuring out how to improve getting that same daily interaction with her students if the fall presents any challenges in returning to the classroom.

“I’m very grateful that we have Zoom or ways to actually have face-to-face so we can actually see each other because I think that is imperative to the kids,” she said.

Woodbridge

After Jessica Leone took an elective environmental science class, she knew that’s what she wanted to do, too.

“My story’s a little different than other agriculture teachers in the state, because they normally had it in high school or grew up in agriculture and I did not,” she said. “I just kind of fell into it.”

Jessica Leone

Originally from New Jersey, Mrs. Leone began her teaching career in Capital before moving to Woodbridge for the past five years.

In an agriculture classroom, there’s a lot of hands-on work: projects in the greenhouse or woodworking, for example. When COVID-19 closed schools, it was difficult to adapt her classroom virtually. So, she tried to be creative, sending her students outside or having them talk to their parents about different topics.

“The students seemed to respond well to that,” she said. “It was something a little bit different than ‘Here’s a PowerPoint,’ or ‘Do this worksheet.’ ”

The process was a lesson in patience and flexibility for her, as she was at home with her husband — also a teacher — and their three children.

Being named Teacher of the Year amidst everything going on was exciting, she said.

“As an exploratory teacher, you work really hard, and a lot of the kids really like our classes, because we’re different than a normal content,” she said. “I’m excited to represent a subject that isn’t a normal content.”

As a teacher just starting out, she felt there was a lot of emphasis to be perfect, like a “Pinterest teacher.”

”As new teachers, you want to come in and like, change the world, and it can get very overwhelming,” she said. “ … It’s OK not to be that Pinterest-perfect teacher. You’ll still make it through, you’ll still impact the students the way that you want to, and if you just focus on making the connection, then your school year is going to go fantastic.”

Other district teachers of the year include: Brandywine: Dr. Jud Wagner, physics & engineering teacher at Brandywine High School;
Christina: Jeffrey Dombchik, secondary instrumental teacher at Christiana High School and Middle School Honors Academy; New Castle County Vo-Tech: Anthony Reid, a teacher at Howard High School of Technology and
Red Clay: Kim Stock, English language arts teacher at Thomas McKean High School