September-October 2021

Extraordinary educators 2021

Meet five local teachers who are connecting with students in tough times—from dancing with second graders every morning to talking openly with teens about mental health

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Photo by Skip Brown

Unsil Kim

Thomas S. Wootton High School
Rockville

To teach art virtually during the pandemic last school year, Unsil Kim assembled 300 packets of supplies—sketchbooks, paint sets and drawing pencils—for a drive-thru pickup at Wootton High School. Students in her ceramics class made salt dough at home to create sculptures of alligators and braided bread baskets.

It wasn’t quite the same to watch them work remotely, so Kim had students submit process videos of their projects, which provided a glimpse of their personalities.

“I’m very blessed because my students keep me young. They help me not to take things so seriously…to laugh and look at things from their point,” says Kim, 52. “One of the funniest things is when they show me dance moves on TikTok and get me to try it.”
A graduate of Rockville High School and the University of Maryland, Kim lives in Gaithersburg and has taught for 17 years, including four at Wootton.

One of Kim’s students, Sharon Oh, co-founded the Korean American Student Association at the school, and Kim is the club’s sponsor. Oh, who graduated in June, says she appreciates that Kim paints alongside her students, sharing her progress and shortcomings. “She’s not just there to teach us. She’s actually learning with us, which is comforting.”

Kim says being genuine with kids enables her to develop a rapport with them. She tells students that the class is like a family, and says that getting to know them—and helping them through a rough patch, if needed—is one of the most important parts of her job.

“Works of art, they can break the next day or be ripped apart. …What remains is the student,” Kim says. “I really hope my students, when they leave my class, don’t think ‘Mrs. Kim liked me because my art was exceptional,’ but I hope they say, ‘She liked me for who I am.’ ”

Kim had always thought that later in life she’d teach college students online, but no longer aspires to after a year of distance learning. “I still want to be in the classroom. I just realized how much I loved it,” Kim says. “Students really need a warm person, physically. The idea that in the future all our kids are going to be taught by robots—that’s not going to work, not if you’re going to do it the right way.”


Photo by Skip Brown

Alex Haight

St. Andrew’s Episcopal School
Potomac

Alex Haight used to fill his blackboard with notes for his students to copy as he lectured—sometimes coming in on weekends to get it all done. These days, students are expected to think critically about history for Advanced Placement exams, rather than just memorize dates, so Haight has changed his approach to be more interactive and focus on bigger-picture themes.

“I feel like the best classes I teach are when I do a minimal amount of talking,” says Haight, who likes students to learn about subjects, such as the New Deal, by debating the conservative and liberal viewpoints. He started coaching boys soccer at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in 1996 and became a high school history teacher the following year. “It would be hard to do one without the other. I love doing both,” he says.

The 51-year-old Rockville resident, whose father was a history teacher, is also big on making sure his 11th and 12th grade students become competent writers. In a capstone history class that he developed five years ago, students collaboratively write a book—most recently comparing the COVID-19 crisis with the 1918 pandemic. Known for providing extensive edits, Haight has recently used research on effective techniques to adjust the way he provides feedback. Instead of rewriting an awkward sentence, he might insert a squiggly underline or offer a clue. “It either leads to the student having to rethink it or talking to me,” he says. “I’ve evolved to let them have some ownership.”

Hanaah Junaideen chose Haight to review her senior research paper last spring because she knew he wouldn’t just write “good job” and hand it back. She counted 100 comments. “I was very happy going through [the edits] because I knew writing them and taking the time was because he cares,” she says.

Author Christina McDowell of Washington, D.C., a 2003 graduate of St. Andrew’s, has stayed in touch with Haight and says she values his friendship and mentoring: “I credit him as the teacher who taught me how to write. And he taught me how to think independently of others, and to form my own opinion, my own argument. He was so instrumental in my career as a writer.”


Photo by Skip Brown

Rosie Justilien

Quince Orchard High School
Gaithersburg

At Quince Orchard High School, Rosie Justilien is almost as busy outside the classroom as she is in it. The 36-year-old teaches honors English to freshmen and seniors but spends much of her time helping mentor students through extracurricular activities.

“I always tell students, even if you have a roadblock, don’t let that deter you from reaching your goal,” says Justilien, whose parents are from Haiti. She grew up in Miami and was a first-generation college student. “I knew that I was going to become a teacher, no matter what. I was going to go to college and finish.”

Justilien, who moved to Gaithersburg in 2018, looks for opportunities to encourage students one-on-one to prepare for life beyond high school. Before COVID-19, she worked as a ticket manager at games and as a student monitor for after-school events, where she chatted with teens on the sidelines.

“She really cares about students and our higher education, and is always looking for scholarship opportunities for us,” says senior Amina Cedeno, who is a member of Quince Orchard’s Chick-fil-A Leader Academy and president of the Minority Scholars Program. Justilien serves as the faculty sponsor for both programs, which met on Zoom this past school year. “She’s always listening and makes us feel welcome and accepted as we are—showing us that even if we are high schoolers, we can do a lot of things.”

Cedeno, who lives in Gaithersburg, says she appreciated how Justilien, through the scholars program’s meetings, provided a safe space to support minority students during the difficult year confronting racial injustices. Justilien admires the resilience she’s seen in students and is uplifted working with young leaders who are passionate about being change agents in their community. She says a quote she’s lived by is from Mahatma Gandhi: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Justilien says she’s open about the challenges she has faced, which can help foster class discussions on difficult subjects. After tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open last spring for mental health reasons, Justilien used the news to talk to students about what made them anxious. She also told them about her fear of public speaking, and how, a few years ago, she joined a Toastmasters club, which helps people improve their communication skills.

“I think just being vulnerable at times with your students and being relatable helps build connection—and just being you,” Justilien says.


Photo by Skip Brown

Shira Hill

Ritchie Park Elementary School
Rockville

In kindergarten teacher Shira Hill’s classroom, she’s ready for whatever her students might need. She provides a wobbly stool, squishy seat or standing desk for students who have a hard time focusing. She has a jar with glitter and liquid that students can hold and tilt to calm down when they get stressed, and fidget tools for others to release excess energy. In the back of her room, stuffed animals are available when students need something to hug.

Hill, 45, grew up in Potomac, graduated from Winston Churchill High School and got her education degree at the University of Maryland. She knew from an early age that she wanted to be a teacher. In her 23 years at Ritchie Park, she’s taught first, second and third grades and conducted staff development, and this fall will be her fourth year as kindergarten team leader.

Hill says academic expectations have intensified for kindergarteners in recent years, and while she wants her students to learn, she also wants them to develop social skills, and she works to build a relationship with each student and their parents.

As Hill got ready to teach in person again this past spring, she looked for ways to make sure the transition was smooth. During remote learning, she had noticed one of her students had a T-shirt and toy of Blippi, who makes videos for kids on YouTube. Hill bought a large wall decal of the character to put up in her classroom. “I wanted him to feel comfortable,” Hill says. “He went right over and did a thumbs-up—because that’s what Blippi does. He was very excited.”

“The way she differentiates and connects to all the children is amazing. … She can connect to remedial students with behavioral needs and extends learning for higher achieving students,” says Samantha Ross, a special education teacher at the school whose son was in Hill’s class last school year. “Every student in her class feels like they are the most important person.”


Photo by Skip Brown

Dee Lozupone

St. Jane de Chantal School
Bethesda

At Back to School night meetings, Dee Lozupone sometimes gets emotional while conveying to parents at St. Jane de Chantal School how quickly kids grow up, the importance of just loving them—and that she loves them, too.

“I want to make that parent feel I’m just as invested and care just as much about their child,” says Lozupone, 62, of Gaithersburg, who has taught at the private Catholic school for nearly three decades. She took 10 years off to raise her three children and tries to share with parents—who, she says, are increasingly anxious—the wisdom she’s gained over the years.

“Kids just need love, reassurance—and fun,” Lozupone says. She kicks off the school day with her second grade class singing her favorite song, “I Saw the Light” by Todd Rundgren, and dancing to “Let’s Groove” by Earth, Wind & Fire after morning prayers. “They’ve got to laugh, and they have to learn to laugh at themselves. I tell them that I make a mistake every day. No one’s perfect.”

At de Chantal, Lozupone, who has taught kindergarten, second and sixth grades over the years, started long-lasting school traditions, including the Valentine’s Day Ball and leprechaun trap making. She’s also mentored several educators, including Catie Skibo, a kindergarten teacher whose daughter loved Lozupone so much as a teacher that she dressed up like her for Halloween. The costume included Lozupone’s signature hairdo, black pants, striped top, fancy shoes and mug that reads “Wake up and smell the coffee”—one of her “Lozisms” or catchphrases. Others include “Save the drama for your mama” and “I love you, go sit down.”

Tracia Debnam of Rockville credits Lozupone with boosting her daughter Sydney’s reading skills and empowering her to believe in herself. Sydney no longer shies away from public speaking and was elected to student council. On the last day of eighth grade in the spring, Lozupone was among the teachers Sydney ran to and hugged. “When they embraced, it was a beautiful moment of genuine love for one another,” Debnam says.