Meet six local teachers who are making a difference
Robert Frost Middle School, Rockville
Sunila Varghese has discovered that science comes alive for her students when they sit on a pier watching a sunset or lie on the grass gazing at the stars.
For the past 20 years, the sixth-grade science teacher at Robert Frost Middle School has taken one or two trips a year with 28 students to study ecology and conservation on tiny Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay. They leave their cellphones and watches behind, operating on “island” time while getting an up-close view of life on the bay during the three-day trip.
“I remember one of my students saying to me, ‘This just rocked my world,’ after seeing the Milky Way and shooting stars,” recalls Varghese, 53.
Student Maya Halpern says she enjoyed wading through the mud and keeping a log of the turtles and birds on the trip last year. “I learned about science while also having a lot of fun,” she says.
Varghese says she has learned in 29 years of teaching that connecting with nature and providing hands-on experiences keep kids engaged. She emphasizes the power of each student to make a difference—by recycling, limiting their energy use at home or raising money for an environmental cause.
She encourages her students not to shy away from challenges or fear failure. This lesson evolved from Varghese’s own experience in 2010, when she didn’t pass the exam to be a National Board certified teacher, a voluntary designation for teachers who meet certain high standards. She passed the following year (one of 60 teachers in Montgomery County in 2011) and was honored at the White House for the achievement. As a result of that process, Varghese changed the mindset in her classroom to emphasize attitude and effort over perfection.
“Kids this age want to do everything right, especially in our community,” Varghese says. “It doesn’t have to be that way. You can still learn so much, and it might be OK that you get a B.”