Six Bethesda-area teachers who are making a difference in their students' lives.
Fourth-Grade Teacher, Westbrook Elementary School, Bethesda
Westbrook’s Web site lists Sandra Geddes as the “Stream Queen.” The title fits the teacher, whose students raise trout, shad, horseshoe crabs and underwater grasses at school. They also plant trees along Little Falls Stream, make it a habit to turn off the lights when they leave the classroom and develop a love of the Chesapeake Bay. All fourth-graders at Westbrook are members of the Stream Team. In fifth grade, nearly half continue their commitment to the outdoors as members of the school’s Aqua Eagles environment club.
When Geddes, a Potomac resident, started teaching at Westbrook in 1991, the school had just lost its science teacher. “I was in awe of this teacher,” says Geddes, who felt science was her weakest subject. She immediately asked, “What can we do?” and began developing programs that led to partnerships with environmental organizations. Westbrook’s Web site isn’t the only place where Geddes and her students receive recognition.
The New York Times and Maryland Public Television have featured the school’s science programs. The story of Geddes’ students raising shad was told by local biologist Sandy Burk in her book Let the River Run Silver Again! How One School Helped Return the American Shad to the Potomac River. The book is recommended by the National Science Teachers Association.
“Sandi is one of the best teachers I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with thousands of teachers,” Burk says. “She goes the extra mile and raises her own money to provide field experiences to provide real life restoration projects for her students.”
Though she’s well respected, Geddes, 65, doesn’t seek attention for herself. She wants the credit to go where she feels it’s due: to the students and the school.
Athletic Director/Physical Education Teacher, Green Acres School, Rockville
“Derek seems to have an inside joke with each kid,” says Peter Braverman, middle school head at Green Acres. “He gets to know every child by making them feel special with a nickname.”
“He’s very funny. He makes up nicknames for lots of the kids. Emily is ‘Emory,’ and Jenny is called ‘J-Mo,’” says Cameron Koubek, 11. Kids comment about how Edwards acts goofy and crosses his eyes just for the fun of it. Darcy Argain, 13, says, “He’s pretty much one of the kids, just a bigger version.” Even Edwards’ daughter, Kendal, gives him a thumbs up in the hallways.
“I tell my friends, ‘Yeah, I’m in the gym all day, having fun,” says Edwards, 42.
Every student from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade takes physical education four times per week. That’s 320 children. Although Edwards, a Bethesda resident, admits that he was tempted to move to Memphis, eat ribs and listen to the blues when he was teaching PE 12 years ago, he says he has found a home at Green Acres. He embraces a philosophy that enables every kid to play on a team. “We have a no-cut policy,” Edwards says. “We encourage everyone to play. You don’t peak in elementary school.”
When his former students play competitively in high school, Edwards is often in the bleachers. But even if they’re not involved with sports after Green Acres, Edwards says he runs into former students “everywhere, from the Clayboys cart in Bethesda to Nathan’s hot dogs in [New] Jersey. They keep me on my toes.”
Kindergarten Teacher, St. Jane Frances de Chantal, Bethesda
Sandy Hughes of Potomac is the kind of kindergarten teacher who understands that starting school can be tough for the whole family, not just the child.
When moms and dads drop off their children on the first day of school, she hands each parent a packet of tissues. “She understands that it’s a really big day when your child starts school,” says parent Adriana Bourgoin. “She was so reassuring.”
“At back-to-school night, she told us that our children would have three mothers: a mother at home, Mary [mother of Jesus] and her,” parent Michele Andrews says. “It brought a tear to my eye.”
When the children arrive each morning, Hughes, 62, shakes every child’s little hand. “It helps me know what kind of day a child is having and if a child needs amorning hug,” explains Hughes, who has been teaching kindergarten at St. Jane Frances deChantal since 1988. “It’s a magical year,” she says. “There’s just tremendous growth.”
Children aren’t the only things growing in Hughes’ classroom. She hatches chickens every year, one of many special activities. Hughes also gets her students involved in the school’s social justice programs; they collect pennies for Operation Smile and fill shoe boxes with toiletries for the homeless.
When Pope Benedict XVI was in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, Hughes had the children make “pope hats.” Every month brings a new celebration. In February, the children practice their best manners at a ball, where they dance to the music of Frank Sinatra. In March, they put out traps for leprechauns. “We almost caught one this year,” she says. “We saw little green pieces of felt and red hair.”
At the end of each day, Hughes sees that the children are safely in their car seats. “She’ll even give the parents a hug in the carpool line if we need one,” Andrews says.
The end of the school year is sad for Hughes. “No one wants to leave,” she says.
But Hughes makes sure her students will come back. Before they depart her class, each child makes a “time capsule” that isn’t opened for eight years. Before graduating from St. Jane Frances de Chantal, eighth graders return to Hughes’ classroom to open their capsules.
The highlight is when they read the “booklets about me” that they wrote in kindergarten. “They read stories about their family, favorite colors, gifts from Santa, and what they want to do in the future,” says Hughes, who has no plans to retire.
“As long as I’m still having fun, I’ll be here,” she says.
Third-Grade Teacher, Cold Spring Elementary School, Potomac
Nancy VanGrack’s students know third grade will be great. She has a reputation for letting them skip a night of spelling homework after a Redskins win, for celebrating “jolly days” by giving each student a Jolly Rancher candy, and for being on the lookout to “catch kids being good” for a pizza lunch in the spring.
But her new students are still in for surprises. The same teacher who will threaten the “wrath of VanGrack” if a student starts to misbehave still cries every year when she reads about the spider dying in E.B. White’s novel Charlotte’s Web.
For VanGrack, teaching is the fulfillment of a dream. When this Bethesda native graduated with a degree in education from the University Of Maryland in 1976, schools were closing and opportunities for teachers were scarce. She wound up working in a dental office.
After her two children were born, she volunteered at their schools and was a substitute teacher, but she longed for her own classroom.
When Cold Spring offered her a third-grade teaching job in 1993, she says she felt like she had won the lottery. After teaching at Cold Spring for two years, then for 10 at Wayside Elementary School in Potomac, she returned to Cold Spring in 2005.
“We’re still mourning over her leaving our school,” says Sheri Heller, a parent at Wayside. “She taught three of my four children, and I wanted her to teach the mall. She creates a community of caring.” Whether she taught the children at Wayside or Cold Spring, VanGrack’s students will find their photos on the back of a classroom door she calls her “Wall of Fame.”
Kindergarten Teacher, Luxmanor Elementary School, Rockville
When students come back to see Marcia Rehm, she’s likely right where they left her years ago: sitting on a tree stump she found along the road in 1982.
Rehm, 68, has taught kindergarten for 36 years, 33 of them in Montgomery County. Her 22 years at Luxmanor Elementary School followed 11 at Lakewood Elementary School in Rockville.
“I like connecting with the families,” she says of her long tenures. “On any given day I’m getting e-mails or seeing returning families. It’s rewarding to see what my students are doing.”
Parent Jennie Fascenda says kindergarten is a memorable year for students at Luxmanor. “My husband and I did the fifth-grade yearbook and DVD for many years,” Fascenda says, “and almost every year the children were asked which teacher they remember most, and Mrs. Rehm was always mentioned as the favorite. Whenever the children had a birthday, she made them feel extra special by having them stand on the tree stump while their classmates sang.”
Traditions are big for Rehm. In addition to standing on the stump, birthday boys and girls get to select a trinket from a jar shaped like a cupcake. Mother’s Day is celebrated with a tea, and Thanksgiving means that Rehm will be cooking a turkey for her students.
“Teaching is so enjoyable,” says Rehm, who admits to thinking about retiring. She would have plenty to do, living in a 100-year-old house in Rockville, and visiting her five children and nine grandchildren. But she would still work with children. “Children make me tick,” she says. “I’m not going to lose my touch.”
Chris Frazier Fifth-Grade Teacher, Garrett Park Elementary School, Kensington
Kids come back to Garrett Park Elementary School to see Chris Frazier. “Sometimes, I’ll look up and see this enormous person in the doorway and he’ll say, ‘Remember me?’” says Frazier, 43, who lives in Bethesda.
“He has that rare combination of being a teacher who kids respect and who is a friend,” says parent Farhad Heidarian. “He really connects with kids.”
Frazier can relate to students who struggle and then succeed. “As a kid, school just wasn’t for me,” he says. “I bounced around in high school and college and had just about given up until my wife convinced me to go back. She basically put me through college.
“When I saw studying as preparatory, I learned to succeed.” Frazier graduated from Bowie State University with honors and a new outlook on life. He taught in Prince George’s County for three years. “I loved the kids and the classroom, but I hated the commute,” he says. In 1999, when a fifth-grade teaching position opened up at Garrett Park Elementary School near his Bethesda home, he “jumped on it.”
Frazier has two children, Marijka, 11, and Colin, 9. “There’s a seamlessness to my life,” he says. “At school, I feel like a parent. At home, a teacher.” In the classroom, Frazier shares stories about his kids, his travels to Europe and South America and his passion for the Redskins, but he also reveals more serious stuff. When a student’s parents divorce, he’ll mention that his parents divorced, too.
Sometimes his students forget that Frazier is their teacher. When they call him “Dude,” they’re corrected right away. But when they call him “Mommy,” he doesn’t say a word.
Writer Kathryn Ryon McKay of Bethesda adored her fourth-grade teacher, Miss Martin, at Beverly Farms Elementary School in Potomac.