September-October 2020

Extraordinary educators 2020

Six local teachers who are making a difference—from sharing life lessons with fifth graders to instilling confidence in high school students struggling with algebra

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From left: Recent Lakewood graduates Yosef Berhan-Selassie, Nicole Dirk and Benedict Santos with their teacher, Mrs. Cooper. Photo by Skip Brown

Megan Cooper

Lakewood Elementary School – Rockville

Learning starts on day one in Megan Cooper’s fifth-grade homeroom class at Lakewood Elementary, and the teacher is the subject of the first lesson.
After taking attendance and making sure she’s properly pronouncing each child’s name—which she considers an important sign of respect from teacher to student—she asks the kids to gather around her rocking chair on the rectangular blue rug in her classroom.

“We address the elephant in the room, because I feel like when they notice that they have a teacher who has a disability, some part of them gets nervous,” Cooper says. “Some part of them wants to know, ‘How is she going to be able to keep us safe?’ So I start out by [saying], ‘Raise your hand if you notice that Mrs. Cooper walks a little differently.’ You see the little tentative hands going up because they’re not sure if they’re really supposed to admit or address it. I have to reassure them and say, ‘Guys, it’s OK. You saw me walking down the hallway. You notice. Let’s talk about what it is.’ ”

“It” is cerebral palsy, a disorder the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is “caused by abnormal brain development or damage to the developing brain that affects a person’s ability to control his or her muscles.” Cooper, 45, was born two months premature and diagnosed when she was a year old after her parents noticed she wasn’t meeting milestones like sitting up and crawling.

She begins her lesson on her disability by explaining that different parts of the brain help a person perform certain functions, and the part that helps her do things like walk, jump and skip didn’t get enough oxygen when she was born. Often, a child will ask if she wishes she could run.

“I try to explain to them that you can’t really miss something that you’ve never done,” she says. “I would not give up having a disability for having the ability to run. It’s contributed to so many different aspects of my life. I wouldn’t want to see who I was without it.”

Cooper walks with a limp, so she always stands up and shows her students that her hip sockets are misaligned. “I tell them it makes it feel like I’m walking around with one shoe on and one shoe off all the time,” she says.

Then she prepares them for when they see her fall—something that happens often enough for Cooper to consider herself an “expert faller” (she’s only gotten hurt a handful of times). “Number one, take a breath. It’s OK. It might look a little scary to you, but I’m going to be fine,” she tells the students. “Number two, just ask me if I need anything. Chances are I won’t, but it’s just a good rule of thumb. If I’ve dropped something—because part of being an expert faller is getting rid of whatever is in your hands—then pick that up. But first and foremost, stay calm.”

At Lakewood, where Cooper has taught for 23 years, the sight of her slowly moving through the halls, using a cane to help maintain her balance, is as routine as the morning announcements. That is due in large part to Cooper’s insistence on not using her condition as a crutch, but as a vehicle to do what she does best. Teach.

“She’s great with helping kids learn about empathy and compassion for others,” says Carrie Gruver, a fellow fifth grade teacher at Lakewood. “They know that she can still do everything that any other teacher can do. They learn that you can still achieve your goals even if you have something that holds you back a little bit.”

That’s been Cooper’s attitude since before she knew what the word attitude meant. On her first day of kindergarten at Wheaton Woods Elementary School, she was accompanied by her physical therapist, Grace Deely, who explained to Megan’s classmates why she needed to use a walker and always wore dresses. Pants wouldn’t fit over her leg braces. Though she no longer uses the braces, she still shows them to her students.

“She anticipated what the kindergartners were going to want to know, and she addressed it,” Cooper says of Grace, her childhood physical therapist for 16 years and the inspiration for her daughter Ella’s middle name. “I never forgot it, and I knew that when I started working with kids I was going to do the same thing because it really set the tone. Answer the questions you know they’re going to have and it’s a lot easier.”

As a child, Cooper endured orthopedic surgeries on her hips, heels and hamstrings. She sweated in physical therapy twice a week after school, saddled up for equestrian therapy another day, and went to aquatic therapy once a week. “I used to wonder why I was tired all the time, but I didn’t think anything of it,” she says. Her parents and older brother didn’t heap pity or extra protections on her. When she fell, her father would yell “safe,” as if he was an umpire and she was sliding into second base.

Cooper, who lives in Derwood, says she was never bullied or ostracized during elementary school or her years at Julius West Middle School or Richard Montgomery High School, where she played clarinet in the band. Other than leaving five minutes early from class to make sure that she made it to her next one on time, she was like any other student.

“I never felt sorry for myself, but there were times when my friends would go on a hike and I wasn’t asked because they knew it was hard for me. Although I love hiking, it requires extra time,” she says. “Sometimes people might have assumed that I wasn’t able to do something that I actually would have loved to have done. But my attitude was: Your experience in life is what you make it. Am I going to wallow in this? Do I bemoan the fact that this is really tough, or am I going to deal with it? I always go back to, I have to figure it out somehow. If it’s not working, do something different, which is what I say a lot to my students now.”

After majoring in elementary education at Goucher College in Baltimore, Cooper began her career at Lakewood as a third grade teacher. She taught fourth grade for 10 years before being asked to move up to fifth nine years ago. She delights in gathering her students around her wooden rocking chair, which once belonged to a cherished friend of her family, and reading to them from books like The Man Who Loved Clowns, about a person with Down syndrome who teaches a family member to come out of her invisible shell and find joy in life. (She loves it so much that she made her husband, Robert, read it.) This summer she volunteered to lead a Zoom book club for her most recent fifth grade graduates.

“I’ve always felt that a child is never too old to be read aloud to,” says Cooper, who teaches reading and writing to all the fifth graders at Lakewood. “My big thing with them is to take out your literary shovel and dig past the surface of the text. What is the author trying to say without saying it? It’s a way of teaching them about inferencing without making it daunting. [Fifth graders] are on the cusp of being ready to break out of elementary school, but they’re still curious.”
Tiffany Hu was a fourth grader in Cooper’s class at Lakewood when she realized how much she liked learning. Now 24, she’s in medical school at the University of Michigan. As a middle school student, Hu volunteered in Cooper’s classroom to fulfill her student service learning (SSL) hours, and she has been back at least once every year to help out. She speaks to Cooper’s students about the importance of education and highlights the things she appreciates about having been in Cooper’s class.

“She was always so optimistic. I remember distinctly sitting on her rug during reading time. She would leave us with a cliff-hanger until we read the next chapter,” Hu says. “She never explained [her cerebral palsy] like it was a weakness. It was more like: This is how I’ve always lived life.”
For Rockville dad Chris Allen, trying to pry information from his son about school is like pulling teeth, he says. Yet he knew that 11-year-old Samuel wanted a certain teacher when he got to fifth grade last year at Lakewood: Mrs. Cooper. “She talked to us about her disability, and that moved me,” Samuel says. “She told us that she had cerebral palsy and it made it harder for her to walk. But even if you have cerebral palsy you can still walk, you can do a lot of jobs, you can do a lot of good things in this world. Mrs. Cooper is living proof of that.” 

—Mike Unger

Photo by Skip Brown

Cedric Lyles

Barrie School – Silver Spring

Cedric Lyles, a performing arts teacher for 18 years, knows how to motivate students to take a risk onstage.

Jordin Ramirez says he was a drummer with no interest in the theater when he came to Barrie School, a private school in Silver Spring, as a freshman. Lyles invited him to help backstage on the tech crew, and the following year encouraged him to be an actor. Initially, the 15-year-old says he was nervous, but Lyles told him: “You already perform playing the drums. See this as another performance—with legs,” says Jordin, who landed a lead role in the spring musical, Into the Woods, as a sophomore (the production was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic). “He brings out the best in you.”

Lyles says he learned about nurturing talent from his elementary school music teacher in Washington, D.C. When he was 8 years old, she told him to play “Hit the Road Jack” on the piano by ear with the lights out in her classroom. “I said, ‘I can’t see.’ She said, ‘Play,’ ” recalls Lyles, now 40 and a Silver Spring resident. “I played what she played and improvised. It was mind-blowing. At that point I realized there is nothing I couldn’t do musically. I just had to do it. I’ve been that kind of a teacher.”

Lyles trained as a concert pianist, majored in music at Morgan State University in Baltimore and earned a graduate certificate in arts management from American University in the District. He taught first in Baltimore’s public schools, then at Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills before coming to Barrie in 2016.

In 2003, Lyles was one of the founders of ArtsCentric in Baltimore, promoting diversity in the arts through productions and educational programs. Over the years, he has recruited his students to participate in shows for the organization, which became a nonprofit in 2016.
According to Lyles’ teaching philosophy, “A work of art is a work of the heart.” When a student’s performance clicks, he says, the moment is euphoric. “People find themselves, they change,” he says. “The kinds of things that happen to people once they discover their inner ability… being a part of that experience is worth it every time.”

—Caralee Adams

Photo by Skip Brown

Justin Fraser

Walter Johnson High School – Bethesda

Justin Fraser was studying to become an actuary when a college math professor saw that he had a knack for explaining problems in class. He suggested Fraser become a math teacher and hired him to work at the campus tutoring center.

“I always loved helping people,” says Fraser, 45, who has been at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda for eight years and teaching for 21. “It lured me into education.”

Fraser teaches algebra 2 to students who have struggled to pass math and need to learn at a slower pace over two years. He initially was hesitant to take on the class, but the extra time allows him to get to know his students and figure out how to motivate them.

“Once you build a relationship, they will work for you—that’s the key,” says Fraser, who teaches about 150 juniors and seniors. He rewards students for meeting their goals with quarterly pizza parties. Students who earn an A get their names painted on a wall of his classroom.

One of those students was Hermela Samson, a 2019 graduate of Walter Johnson who says she didn’t like math when she came into Fraser’s class. “I was always second-guessing myself,” says Samson, who got extra help from Fraser after school, even when she was a freshman at Montgomery College. “I’ve become more confident. Now, math is my best subject.”

Entering Fraser’s room, which is decorated with life-size paintings of SpongeBob and other Nickelodeon characters, students laugh at the funny memes he creates daily with photos they’ve provided, says Chase Rieder, who worked as a paraeducator with Fraser for five years and now teaches at North Bethesda Middle School.

“Kids know for those 45 minutes it’s going to be like a Las Vegas show. It’s not just a class,” Rieder says of Fraser’s interactive teaching style. “He’s just an older kid with a beard. Students are really comfortable with him.”

Principal Jennifer Baker says Fraser can reach any student, including those who previously failed math and are in the school’s credit recovery program. “He really goes the extra mile to assure they are understanding the material and know that he cares,” she says.

—Caralee Adams

Photo by Skip Brown

Ligia Valladares

Julius West Middle School – Rockville

Ligia Valladares likes to start her weekdays at 5 a.m. with a gym workout before heading to Julius West Middle School, where she has taught physical education and health for four years. Later, in the school’s wellness room, the 32-year-old often does pull-ups or rows alongside her students as they rotate competitively in teams through fitness stations she’s modeled after the popular Orangetheory Fitness routine.

“I never feel like I’m going to work, I always feel like it’s fun,” says Valladares, who lives in Silver Spring and is a graduate of Wheaton High School and the University of Maryland.

During her lunch hour, Valladares opens her classroom to students. Building a close rapport is helpful in health class, especially when making middle schoolers comfortable during lessons on sensitive topics. She also coaches girls soccer at Julius West and started La Familia, a mentoring club for Latino students.

“I’m a person who has way too much energy,” says Valladares, who credits her parents and sisters with fueling her passion for education. Her mother has worked at Bethesda Community School for 32 years. Her oldest sister, Irma Najarro, teaches third grade at South Lake Elementary School in Gaithersburg, and her other sister, Melissa Valladares, is the owner and executive director of Bethesda Preparatory Preschool.

Valladares, whose parents emigrated from El Salvador in the 1980s, invites Latino guest speakers from different professions to share their stories at La Familia, which meets about every other week and has grown from 35 to 60 members in two years.

“I learned from the experiences of other people and it inspired me,” says Valeska Peraza, an eighth grader from Rockville who joined La Familia two years ago after being encouraged by Valladares. “A lot of people started from the bottom and they worked to get up really high now. It helps me be motivated to work hard.”

Valladares, who was promoted to eighth grade team leader at her school this fall, says her journey wasn’t easy, so she tells students not to give up: “I always had a great supportive circle around me, and that’s what I want to provide to our kids. I want them to believe in themselves.”

—Caralee Adams

Photo by Skip Brown

Alison Stern

Green Acres School – North Bethesda

Growing up in England, Alison Stern held pretend classes for her dolls and volunteered at an elementary school as a teenager. Soon after fulfilling her childhood dream of becoming a teacher, she found herself disillusioned with British education policies that limited her flexibility in the classroom.

Stern came to Massachusetts in 1999 to work as an office manager at a summer camp, where she met her husband, Ed, a teacher. They married in 2004, moved to North Bethesda, and she began teaching fourth grade that year at Green Acres School, where she has worked since.

“I’ve ended up in a school which is everything I believe in philosophically,” says Stern, 49. “It has the freedom for creativity and spontaneity. There is a big focus on meeting children where they are.”

Known for guiding with a combination of structure and warmth, Stern uses big projects to get students excited about learning. A unit on rain forests incorporates lessons on plants, animals, native people and deforestation, and concludes with students writing fictional stories. Another on global celebrations culminates with a “World’s Fair,” in which students share traditions from different countries, dress in costumes and create models associated with the holidays.

Samantha Friedman says Stern’s dedication enabled her son Eric to learn as much with remote instruction in the spring as he did in the classroom. Stern gave students personalized assignments, held individual online conferences, and reached out late on Friday afternoons if items weren’t turned in.

“That’s a real level of commitment,” says Friedman, who lives in Gaithersburg. “She’s very caring, responsive and invested.”

Every summer, Stern returns to work at the camp where she met Ed. The couple brings their two sons, both of whom attend Green Acres. In her cabin at night, she reads as much children’s literature as she can to find fresh recommendations for her students.

“She loves making sure kids read and building relationships,” says Karen Buglass, a former fourth grade teacher at Green Acres who worked with Stern for 10 years. “She talks with kids about their interests and then books miraculously appear on the shelf.”

—Caralee Adams

Photo by Skip Brown

Nicole Wade

Chevy Chase Elementary School

Nicole Wade has attended her students’ birthday parties, soccer games and music recitals.

“It’s important for them to see me as a person, not just a teacher. I want to show them that I care outside of school,” says Wade, 46, a third grade teacher at Chevy Chase Elementary School for 18 years. (She also taught fourth grade for a year. )

When Jonathan Leon-Salans was a student of Wade’s, she came to dinner at his house a handful of times and became a family friend. “She didn’t bat an eyelash when she found out I had gay dads,” says Leon-Salans, 22, a law school student who has kept in touch with Wade. “She really formed a bond where she was interested in you and your life.”

Wade creates a challenging and nurturing environment in which kids work hard but also have fun, says fellow Chevy Chase Elementary School teacher Karin Rich, whose three children (now 10, 13 and 15) were in Wade’s class. Every summer, Wade invites students to come with her to Six Flags (with parent chaperones), arranging for free tickets from the park based on a reading incentive program. “She is right in there with everybody—going on the rides and to the water park,” Rich says. “It’s very rare to find a teacher that does things with kids over summer. It’s nice because it doesn’t make for such a hard goodbye at the end of the year.”

On the last day of school, Wade gives students their own list of the top 10 reasons why she loved having them in class. She takes the time to recount something personal—like when they helped another student or shared a certain project. This year she drove to each of her 27 students’ homes to drop off the notes in goody bags and wave at a distance while holding a sign that said, “Congrats, you did it! I will miss you. Have a great summer! Hugs, Mrs. Wade.”

—Caralee Adams