Six local teachers who are making a difference—from getting middle school students excited about science to helping second graders learn about the world beyond their classroom walls
McLean School, Potomac
Nearly 300 origami butterflies hang from the ceiling over the main worktable in art teacher Kymberlee Behnia’s classroom, helping to create a peaceful, comfortable vibe as she draws or paints alongside her students.
“I want my students to know that this is a safe space for them to creatively explore and feel vulnerable without judgment,” says Behnia, who has taught high school students for 24 years at the private school for children in kindergarten through 12th grade. “It’s about getting past their insecurities and taking artistic risks.”
Behnia, who teaches drawing, painting, printmaking and ceramics, says she’s teaching as much about managing frustrations and solving problems as she is about art. That means incorporating mindfulness, deep breathing and music into her classroom lessons. “Because I struggled in school with attentional and learning issues, I feel like it helps me relate to students with more empathy and an understanding that structure and consistency are as important as flexibility and compassion,” says Behnia, 56, of Bethesda.
Maggie Wills, who graduated from McLean in June, says Behnia is like a second mom to her students. “She gives you space to talk to your friends, but you also kind of want her to overhear because she gives really good advice about having a positive attitude and dealing with difficult situations,” Wills says.
Nicknamed “Mama B” at the school, the mother of two adult children is known among colleagues for her kindness, organizational skills and dedication. Behnia decorates bulletin boards, creates backdrops for theater productions, paints murals on hallway walls and displays student art throughout the school.
“Her projects are just so inventive. She does something different every year,” says Heather Carvell, an English teacher who has co-taught a visualizing literature class with Behnia. “She gets the best out of students.”
Thea Singleton Alexander
Silver Creek Middle School, Kensington
A lot more than math is going on in Thea Singleton Alexander’s eighth grade classroom. Students have posted inspirational words on a vision board along the back wall. There’s a “calm corner” with jigsaw puzzles. Exercise balls, yoga mats and throw pillows are scattered around the room. “True or false: The Wicked Witch of the West dies at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz?” she may ask in her daily trivia game.
Singleton Alexander also holds “community circles” where students share their thoughts as they pass around a talking stick. Most days, her class “pet,” Nigel, a stuffed monkey, posts pictures on Instagram of things that have been covered in the daily lesson. Her classroom is a popular place for students to eat lunch and share their latest personal drama, or introduce their 37-year-old teacher to a hip social media app.
“Middle schoolers want to be heard,” says Singleton Alexander, who lives in Silver Spring. “They are not quite who they want to be, but are just starting to have an idea and they still want your help.”
With a master’s degree in the social sciences of education from Stanford University, Singleton Alexander moved to Maryland in 2011 and taught at A. Mario Loiederman Middle School in Silver Spring before coming to Silver Creek when it opened in 2017. Establishing trust and rapport makes it easier to teach math, she says. She differentiates instruction but lets the students choose the level of difficulty at “mild, medium or spicy” stations depending on their comfort with the skill. “If you want kids to make good choices, they have to have practice making choices,” she says.