2018 Top Teachers Around the Main Line and Western Suburbs
These 15 exceptional educators make the most of time in–and out–of the classroom.
(From left) Kate Madigan, Rob Gregory and Joe O’Sullivan, taken at Kennett High School. Photos by Tessa Marie Images.
American kids spend up to 1,000 hours a year in a classroom, where (parents hope) they learn the sort of valuable skills they’ll carry into adulthood. For that, we have our teachers to thank—and these go above and beyond every day.
English/Language Arts, Kennett Middle School
Coming from a family of teachers, Kate Madigan has spent most of her 18 years as an educator in the Kennett Consolidated School District and is dual certified in elementary and special education. “We are a beautifully diverse school. We are 40 percent Hispanic and have a large migrant population from Mexico,” says Madigan of Kennett Middle School, where she teaches primarily eighth graders.
Madigan celebrates that diversity in her classroom by working to foster a positive environment for bilingual and non-native English learners. Afraid of failure, some students won’t try. So Madigan won a grant to create a classroom program that involves incentives like trips to ropes courses and lunches out. “In the three years since this program’s inception, all students who took her class passed her language arts class and all content-area classes during their eighth-grade year,” says Kathryn Kahn, a fellow English and language arts teacher at KMS.
Madigan also allows students to learn from their mistakes, letting them retake quizzes and make revisions to assignments. “If you don’t learn to ride the bike the first time around, that doesn’t mean you aren’t able to try again,” she says. “Some kids need one chance to learn a skill—some need 10.”
English and Journalism, Avon Grove High School
When Rob Gregory isn’t in the classroom, he’s often in the press box overlooking Avon Grove High School’s football field, his voice booming over the loudspeakers. “Once in a while, I’ll have students sit with me in the press box when I announce the football games in the fall,” he says.
At Avon Grove, he teaches 10th grade English and elective classes in journalism. “I try to give students the most authentic experience as possible,” he says. “I require the students to really go out in the field and get an idea of what it’s really like to work in the media—to get out of their comfort zones.”
Nine times a year, Gregory works with his students to publish the school newspaper. “He’s one of the most hardworking, caring, energetic and truly great teachers I have ever come across,” says Angela Houghton, the school’s assistant principal. “There’s not a day you enter his classroom where the students aren’t actively engaged in learning.”
Social Studies, Kennett High School
After 15 years as senior vice president of one of the largest advertising agencies in New York City and a year as vice president of sales and marketing for the Philadelphia Flyers, Joseph O’Sullivan made a profound life change. Propelled by a desire to spend more time with his children, he moved his family to Kennett Square, where he’d attended elementary and middle school. “I wanted my kids to see that there are many different types of people in the world,” he says. “Kennett has a significant immigrant population, and a lot of those parents don’t have [knowledge of] the American school system or colleges,” he says.
O’Sullivan works with students and their parents to help them understand the process and what their options are. It’s something he’s no stranger to, having helped his own children through it. “I can help kids kind of cut some corners and then make their own decisions,” he says.
O’Sullivan is also no stranger to letters of recommendation, writing up to 50 a year. “I spend a significant amount of time trying to write the best letters I possibly can, to showcase who our students really are,” he says.
O’Sullivan often spends his summers teaching for the Migrant Education Program. “My success is based on the success of our kids,” he says.
Instructional Coach, Fern Hill Elementary School
Jenni Southmayd couldn’t be in a better position to affect change as she works with students and teachers to integrate technology more fully and effectively into the classroom. Inspired by her own teachers, she knew she wanted to have an impact on others. “I had the gamut of both inspiring and intellectual teachers,” she says. “I took that as a challenge to myself.”
She hasn’t come up short on that challenge in her four years with the West Chester Area School District. An Apple- and Google-certified teacher, Southmayd was part of successful efforts to land a grant for new STEM clubs at two elementary schools. “We target our female population to expose them to the careers that are available to them,” she says. “Starting that at an elementary level is critical.”
Southmayd also helped pilot a program that targets the so-called “summer slide” by encouraging parents to work with their students. “Part of that is making it engaging and fun,” Southmayd says. “We don’t want to kill that love of learning.”
Third Grade, Armenian Sisters Academy
Erin Schuele quickly discovered that a desk job didn’t fit her lifestyle or her go-getter personality. “I’m an active person,” she says. “I need to be moving around at all times.”
And she does plenty of that, thanks to her young students at Armenian Sisters Academy, where she’s been a teacher for five years. “I’m really a kid at heart,” says Schuele. “I’m silly, I’m playful, and the younger kids make me laugh. That’s one thing I love about teaching—there’s never a dull moment.”
One of Schuele’s primary strengths is her attentiveness to each student, especially when it comes to switching subjects. “Most kids need a little work transitioning from one thing to the next,” she says. “It’s about finding that delicate balance and reading the kids before you even think about switching subjects.”
Schuele’s sensitivity to students’ needs is also a huge benefit to parents. “Ms. Scheule demonstrated an unbelievable amount of patience, care and compassion as my son went through many ups and downs,” says Ani Speirs. “She partnered with my husband and me to create an environment where my son felt safe and could communicate freely.”
Sixth Grade, East Vincent Elementary School
Tori DeCesare was in grade school when she first experienced technology as a learning tool. But while technology is great, DeCesare also knows that simple interaction goes a long way. She makes an effort to get to know her students—partially through a weekly letter-writing assignment where students tell her about their week, what they’re looking forward to, and anything else on their minds. “It’s a way to connect on a deeper level,” she says. “When you have that relationship built, they trust you, they want to learn and they want to be there.”
One of DeCesare’s initiatives is to highlight the positives of social media, “whether you’re trying to get attention from different companies or businesses, or trying to take a stand,” she says.
Outside of the classroom, DeCesare is involved with REACH, an after-school program for underperforming children. Three times a week, they work on life skills and relationship building. “I thought that if I could reach out to these students as someone else they can go to during the school day, then maybe it would make them want to come to school and be more engaged,” she says.
(From left) Jenni Southmayd, Erin Schuele and Tori DeCesare, taken at Fern Hill Elementary School.
Darcy (Schneider) DiGiacomo
Eighth Grade Integrated Program, Radnor Middle School
Darcy DiGiacomo’s enthusiasm for Radnor Middle School’s integrated program model is unending. Her and a co-teacher spend most of their day with the same 40 students, teaching them language arts, science and social studies with a STEM focus. “We get to make sure everything makes sense together and show the kids just how intertwined all three of those subjects are,” she says. “I love getting a chance to learn what really makes my students tick.”
Her students compete at regional competitions in things like underwater robotics, where a Radnor team landed a spot in the national championship. “When we enter these competitions, we really reaffirm what we’re teaching in the classroom,” says DiGiacomo.
Determined to be a model for her students, DiGiacomo makes her own learning a priority. “I continue to take classes, whether they’re online or through professional development,” she says. “I really try to jump at any chance I can get to learn something new.”
DiGiacomo also coaches eight-grade volleyball and ninth-grade basketball, and she served as the eighth-grade-level chair last year, planning year-end events like a dance and an end-of-year awards ceremony. “I wanted them to have the best eighth-grade year possible,” she says.
Computer Science and Engineering Department Chair, Episcopal Academy
It was happenstance that Matt Memmo’s career pivoted from technology coordinator at Episcopal Academy to the classroom. Twelve years ago, a student expressed interest in an advanced-placement computer science course, and Memmo was asked if he would take it on. “I really fell in love with teaching and the relationship with students,” he says. “The next year, I moved to an official class and developed a new program.”
Along the way, Memmo also worked with students on independent studies that covered everything from artificial intelligence to application design. This school year, he kicks off his role as the chair of the newly created Computer Science and Engineering Department. “It’s going to allow us to create a sequence of classes from pre-kindergarten all the way through grade 12,” says Memmo.
Memmo has also been named one of EA’s D’Ambrosio fellows. He and others are working on furthering emotional intelligence throughout the school and better connecting to students.
When not teaching, Memmo is the faculty advisor for the drone club. “We actually have kids design and build frames of drones, then put them together,” he says.
Head of the Hebrew Department, Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy
As a kid, Angela Zonshein was already practicing to be a teacher, giving her siblings assignments and quizzes in an imaginary classroom setting. “It was a no-brainer for me,” she says. “I knew I was born to be one.”
Since then, her focus hasn’t waivered, whether teaching math in Israel, where
she grew up, or Hebrew at Jack M. Barrack. While her students already have a basic understanding of the language, it can still be daunting. “From the beginning, you need to establish a positive relationship with the students,” says Zonshein. “You need to talk to them at eye level and create that safe, nurturing, open environment.”
To help students engage further, Zonshein introduces pop culture references. “I do love fashion and music, and I don’t mind sharing from my own personal life,” she says.
Zonshein even had students write their own Hebrew-language children’s book. “It was a cool idea, and they did an amazing job,” she says. “The students wrote beautiful stories and illustrated them.”
As the head of the department, Zonshein also works with teachers to identify students who are progressing quickly and those who need extra help. “I love the place I work,” she says. “I come there with a big smile, and I enjoy being around the students and my colleagues.”
Social Studies, Academy of Notre Dame de Namur
Sally Gallagher knows a thing or two about education. She’s been with the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur since 1985, where she began as a teacher and then transitioned to administration before returning to the classroom.
As a social studies teacher, Gallagher brings the real world into her classroom. At the high school level, she focuses on pressing global issues like healthcare, human trafficking and maternal mortality. “I want them to see that the world is so much bigger than they are,” says Gallagher. “It’s really incumbent upon them to go out there and serve.”
To further encourage that interactive perspective, Gallagher treats many classes like seminars, where open discussion is key. “I always want it to be a conversation where everybody is heard and respected,” she says.
Gallagher is also the school’s outreach coordinator for Women of Hope, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit for women in need. Each month, she leads a group of students who volunteer their time with the organization, serving a dinner and socializing. “I really try to encourage them to engage with the ladies,” Gallagher says.
(from left) Darcy (Schneider) Digiacomo, Matt Memmo, Angela Zonshein, Sally Gallagher, Cheryl Joloza, John Koenig,
Fourth and Fifth Grade Science, The Haverford School
Cheryl Joloza’s love of the sciences was inspired by her microbiologist father and fostered by her teachers. Initially a researcher, Joloza moved to the classroom 23 years ago. She’s spent a dozen of them at the Haverford School, where she teaches integrated science to fourth and fifth graders. “I try to make sure that there are real-world connections—not just discreet in-the-classroom science,” says Joloza.
Joloza uses mini CO2 racecars and real-time volcanic activity as learning opportunities. Another time, she had students study the International Space Station and track its progress via iPad as it passed over the region. Her lessons often bleed into VEX Robotics, a program she’s been involved with at Haverford for several years. Teams have placed highly in the region and gone on to the national championship. “There are so many unbelievable things happening outside of our school, and I knew that we needed to be a part of it,” she says. “Robotics is just one of those things.”
Joloza also facilitates the parent group Seeking Equity Through Education and Diversity. “We talk about the issues surrounding social justice, race, class and religion, and we really put ourselves out there,” she says. “We take risks with some courageous conversations about difficult topics.”
Science, Lower Merion High School
“I’ve always been interested in things like the weather, rocks and the stars,” says Michael Stettner.
After 25 years at Lower Merion, Stettner teaches mostly 11th- and 12th-grade classes in environmental science, geology, oceanography and meteorology. Hard evidence of his love of the sciences can be witnessed all around his classroom, which is filled with all sorts of rocks, minerals and fossils. He encourages students to examine the collection “so they can feel the different textures.”
Stettner is also the school’s Science Olympiad coach. Over the years, his team has earned two state titles and gone on to national competitions. “It compromises about 23 events, ranging from building rubber-band-powered airplanes and mousetrap cars to learning about diseases,” he says.
Stettner has also been big on fieldtrips to the mountains to collect fossils and minerals, or to the beach for an oceanography lesson. “Kids who don’t like being in school flourish outside when they can get their hands dirty,” he says.
History and Philosophy, Conestoga High School
In John Koenig’s classroom, students don’t just stumble upon Aristotle and Plato—they come to understand their teachings and apply them to other disciplines and even their own lives. “Philosophy gives kids the chance to do something that’s broader and more personal,” he says. “I want it to feel safe for students so they can come to their own ideas and feel as though they’re valuable to others.”
Part of that means looking at things from different perspectives. “I try to involve multiple perspectives, build student confidence, build relationships, present counterexamples,” Koenig says.
Koenig spends part of his summers teaching an online course at the Westtown School. He also makes trips to Africa, where he’s been working with a group on a start-up school in Ghana.
A Conestoga graduate, Koenig sees his role as a way to give back to the community. “Teaching comes from what I think is a mandate involving the public good,” he says. “In 10 years, these students are going to be influencing our whole society—they’re going to be running for office.”
Lower School DREAM Lab Coordinator, The Baldwin School
Growing up, Stephanie Greer never imagined being where she is now.
Equipped with a music degree she initially hoped to use in Los Angeles, Calif., Greer found herself substitute teaching. “It was really by chance, but it definitely is my purpose,” she says.
Greer has now been teaching for the better part of 17 years, and she’s spent the past three at Baldwin, where she helps young girls negotiate the obstacles of a STEM education. “It’s very broad, from computer science to robotics to crafting to research,” she says. “I want them to feel that anything they want to learn, they’re capable of—and they have the tools and confidence [to do so.]”
Greer’s colleagues have taken notice. “She’s thoughtful about course development and believes strongly in being a role model for young girls interested in computer science and engineering,” says Laura Blankenship, dean of academic affairs at Baldwin.
To help them further connect with the material, Greer encourages students to take on projects of personal interest. She recently introduced the popular FIRST LEGO League as an after-school program at Baldwin. She also worked with other schools to bring about the inaugural Maker Faire, which debuted this past April. “One student taught how to do sutures, another made jewelry and another built robots,” says Greer of the fair, which had about 300 attendees.
English Department Chair, Avon Grove High School
Since joining the Avon Grove faculty four years ago, Ashley Penn has quickly made her mark. Recognizing that reading isn’t one-size-fits-all, she lines her classroom with an array of books students are free to borrow. Seeing their teacher read is also encouraging. “They come up and say, ‘What’s that you’re reading on your desk? Tell me about it.’ I chose things that I’m passionate about, so I can transfer that passion to them.”
Penn always works to make books more relatable, teaching the classics with a twist. As part of her unit on George Orwell’s 1984, for example, she has students create their own dystopian societies.
Outside the classroom, Penn helms “AG Talks,” a TedX-like program modeled on AP Talks, an advanced placement format Penn re-conceptualized it to be more inclusive. Alumni are featured, discussing everything from mindfulness to positivity. Students also participate, tackling subjects like autism awareness and even sexual assault. “To be able to organize something that pulls in community members and alumni and showcases our current students is amazing,” she says.
About Our Selection Process
We asked readers to submit nominations for great teachers throughout the region. Those included in this story were selected via a thorough editorial process.