2019 Top Teachers Around the Main Line and Western Suburbs
These 15 local educators go above and beyond.
(From left) Buffy Brown, Tim Simmons, Carol Peery Ayers, Andrew Foreman and Andy Mullen. All photos by Tessa Marie Images
Carol Peery Ayers
Spanish, Germantown Academy
Learning another language can be difficult, so Carol Peery Ayers tries to normalize it, which begins with a no-English policy in the classroom. “If they don’t understand what I’m saying, I act it out, I draw it on the board—I somehow get them to understand,” she says. Ayers has been teaching Spanish at Germantown Academy for the past 21 years, and she also serves as co-chair of the Modern Language Department. Her devotion to diversity at Germantown Academy has led to her roles as Diversity and Community Life Coordinator and an advisor for the Black Student Alliance.
Ayers lived in Costa Rice for a time, so she understands that grasping Spanish is more than simply learning the language. She also delves into the culture, the history and the politics. And students can experience it all first-hand if they travel abroad to Seville, Spain, where Ayers leads an exchange program. “My goal is to build a confidence in my students so that they feel comfortable and proficient speaking to a native speaker,” she says.
Mathematics, Owen J. Roberts High School
Jessica Brilla had hoped to become an actuary, before a college job as a campus tutor led to a position as a teaching assistant. “I really enjoyed it when somebody would get that a-ha moment,” she says. “It made me so happy because I knew I helped them to get it.”
Fueled by her love of numbers, Brilla has been teaching at Owen J. Roberts High School for 17 years, also serving as the math department chair. It’s not the easiest subject, so she strives to make class fun, whether it’s telling math puns or posting memes. “I embrace the nerdiness,” she says.
Brilla also worked to introduce the school’s International Baccalaureate Career Program, where students focus on communication, problem solving, multicultural understanding, ethical dilemmas and community service. “We’re one of the only Pennsylvania schools that has a two-year program,” she says.
Brilla also makes herself readily available to students. “I need them to know that questions don’t happen only in class—they happen all the time,” she says. “I never want them to feel like they have to wait until the next day.”
Even when students are struggling at home, Brilla encourages them to take a photo of their work and share it with her via the Canvas online learning platform. “If they’re willing to work on it outside of school, I feel like I need to be there to help them,” she says.
Kindergarten, Episcopal Academy
“I think kindergarten is the most challenging grade level,” says Buffy Brown. “Kids enter kindergarten at a different level—some might know their letters, some might be reading.”
A self-described kid at heart,
Brown has been teaching kindergarten for 17 years, almost all of that time at EA, where she’s also a member of its admissions committee. And she knows how to keep children engaged. “For morning meeting, we’ll get up and sing a song and do a little acting out of something,” she says. “In math, I make sure they have manipulatives or games that also grow their minds.”
It’s a critical time for brain development, and Brown takes the challenge to heart. “Their minds are so flexible,” she says. “If they can learn to treat each other and themselves with respect, they can go on into their later years and focus on the academic work because they’ve learned how to regulate their feelings and express themselves.”
Brown takes engagement to the next level with a community garden. “At the end of every school year, I have them plant sunflowers,” she says, noting a tradition that dates back many years.
The following school year, students cut them and plant vegetables, which they later donate to the West Chester Food Cupboard. “It really gets the kids to feel like a family or community because they’re working together for one big project,” she says.
English, Sun Valley High School
Allison Burns helps connect students to literature by showing them how it can apply to their own lives. “What I really liked about English was that it taught us how to communicate more effectively through literature—and that’s my goal when I teach,” says Burns, who was lucky enough to have a teacher who opened her eyes to just that.
For the past six years, Burns has mostly taught ninth grade English at Sun Valley High School. “Ninth grade is a really powerful time,” she says. “It’s a big transition year between middle and high school, and it’s important for us to foster that love of choice in their learning.”
Beyond English, Burns piloted a careers course that’s now a requirement for all students, partnering with My Path Ahead, a program founded by a Sun Valley alum. “[We] get a lot of guest speakers into our classrooms to allow students to engage with them at a personal level and figure out what’s interesting to them,” says Burns. “It’s a very self-reflective course.”
(From left) Chris Gari, Monica LaMonaca, Jennifer Hahn, Minna Ziskind, Brian Fetterman and Allison Burns
Mathematics, Academy of Notre Dame de Namur
After years of working in electrical engineering and corporate finance, Andrew Foreman wasn’t exactly poised for a career in teaching. Yet, for the past 11 years, he’s done just that, serving as a math teacher at the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur. “I’ve always enjoyed using mathematics to solve real-world problems, and that’s the passion that I try to communicate to my students,” says Foreman.
In the process, Foreman tries to make math as accessible as possible. “I do online videos where they can watch it on their own and get the repetition as they need and inquiry-based web quests where you go online and explore based on interests,” says Foreman, who has also served as math department chair. “I pride myself on one-to-one support before and after school.”
Because of his background in corporate finance, Foreman also piloted an elective where students learn skills in banking, the stock market and saving for retirement. Students also research their anticipated starting salary and the cost of living for where they hope to work. “They have to come up with a livable budget for their first year out of college,” says Foreman, who began the course when he saw a need for teaching students the ins and outs of student loans and credit card debt.
Such practical projects extend to a Design Thinking and Entrepreneurship elective Foreman co-teaches, where students create businesses and present them Shark Tank-style.
English, Valley Forge Military Academy
At first, Brian Fetterman had a hard time connecting with English and literature in high school. But thanks to his teachers, he came to love both. “I’d always struggled at writing, and they made it easy. By the time I was done with 10th and 11th grades, I excelled at writing and was helping other kids,” recalls Fetterman. “That kind of transformation is what I look for now. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.”
Fetterman has been teaching English for 24 years—the last eight at Valley Forge Military Academy. “I want kids to want to come to my class,” he says.
Making the classroom fun means incorporating music. “We look at musicians as artists, just like authors are artists—they’re all writers,” Fetterman says. “It’s an easy way for me to tap into something the kids are interested in.”
Over the years, Fetterman has been involved with Valley Forge’s offshore fishing team and book and film clubs. He’s also served as a scoutmaster for the academy’s Boy Scout troop. “I feel blessed that I chose a career like teaching,” he says. “What we do is serve a purpose larger than ourselves.”
Marketing and Finance, Technical College High School Brandywine Campus
When the recession hit and his job as a sales manager was eliminated, Jim Fusco turned a negative into a positive. He headed back to school for his teaching certification and landed a position at Technical College High School Brandywine, where he now teaches marketing and finance. “I was just so amazed at what these students were learning,” he says of his initial reaction to the curriculum there.
Under Fusco, students learn skills like interviewing, public speaking, sales presentation and social media marketing. He has students participate in online simulations, where they assume the role of an online marketing manager and learn how to generate revenue off of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. They can also work in an on-campus retail store to “learn about cost of goods, profit margins and customer service in a real-world setting,” says Fusco.
To ensure his curriculum remains up to date, Fusco has an occupational advisory board of professionals who review the course and make suggestions. He reciprocates by sitting on a business board at Harcum College. He’s also the advisor for DECA, a club where students create business plans and compete across the region and nationwide.
Social Studies, Welsh Valley Middle School
Chris Gari really wanted to play varsity basketball, so his middle school coach agreed to work with him in exchange for some help on the court. “That was the first time I [realized] I had the ability to help other people,” he recalls.
Teaching, it seems, was a natural fit —and so was social studies, thanks to his love of history. “I tell students right off the bat that I know this stuff happened a long time ago,” says Gari, who has spent the past 13 years at Welsh Valley Middle School. “A lot of it is beyond the scope of what they can imagine, but it’s important to understand where you come from so you know where you’re going.”
Whether the class is studying cave drawings or the laws of the sixth king in the first Babylonian dynasty, Gari incorporates simulations and group projects. For one, students build their own civilizations based on real city-states, creating governments and forging alliances.
Outside the classroom, Gari is assistant coach of the Harriton High School girls’ basketball team—rather fitting when you consider the origins of his early love of teaching. “The game of basketball opened up a lot of doors for me,” he says. “I want to be able to help kids have those same opportunities.”
Mathematics and Economics, Agnes Irwin School
Jennifer Hahn’s mother doesn't want her daughter becoming a teacher—even though she was one herself, back when it was one of the few career options for women. Hahn, however, had other ideas. “I just think numbers are so cool—how you can fit them together and solve problems,” she says. “It’s magic, really. And I try to instill that in my students.”
After presiding over students at Lower Merion High School, Rosemont College and other institutions, Hahn joined the faculty at the Agnes Irwin School, where she teaches eighth-grade algebra. “It’s the last year where you can change their view on mathematics,” she says. “In eighth grade, they’re still at that point where they’re willing to have fun with it, and they’re willing to try and fail and to try again. When you get to high school, it becomes about so much more—about the grades and college and adding to your resume.”
Hahn carries her enthusiasm for numbers into the economics elective she teaches in Agnes Irwin’s upper school. The class hadn’t been taught in 15 years, so Hahn wrote the curriculum from scratch. She even has the class create its own business. “We start looking for a need in the community,” she says. “We do market research, make stock certificates and sell shares to get our startup capital.”
In her efforts to seek marketing help from Villanova University, Hahn created a conference where professors share their expertise on supply chain management, marketing, finance and other topics. Over the years, students have sold monogrammed water bottles, stickers and customizable school sweatshirts. “It’s just amazing,” says Hahn.
Reading Specialist, Concord Elementary School
To bring books to life, Monica LaMonaca and her students sometimes act out characters’ parts. For her kindergarten and grade-school kids, she employs game-like hands-on learning activities. She also works with parents to encourage them to read with their kids and use flash cards or phrases.
LaMonaca has been at Concord Elementary School for the past 19 years, working with about 80 students each year and focusing on those who need extra help. “I love holding a book, showing them and having kids see that excitement—then getting another [book] and another one,” she says.
LaMonaca also cofounded an eight-week board-game club last year. “The first week we were playing anything with dice, so we taught them Yahtzee, Tenzi and Coverall,” she says, noting that it’s a great way for kids to get away from electronics.
LaMonaca is seeing a ripple effect, with kids wanting to play those games at home. “I just love to see them flourish,” she says.
Third and Fourth Grade General Education, Barkley Elementary School
Lindsay Mangold’s seven-year career has been focused on culturally responsive teaching and social and emotional education. Mangold is the co-creator of a curriculum and techniques that “address behavior in our classroom as a response to the social and emotional needs of our kids,” she says.
At the root of it all is restorative justice. Rather than reprimanding a child for misbehavior and leaving it at that, Mangold feels it’s more beneficial if all students get a positive lesson out of it. “Conversations about anger and friendship” eventually lead to teaching the class about the power of the brain’s amygdala, how it regulates emotions and what students can do to calm themselves when they feel overwhelmed or upset. “We don’t just want kids to learn how to calm down, we want them to recognize the feelings and have the tools to be really great citizens,” she says.
To further build on that, Mangold helped launch LEAD Teacher, an online resource for educators based on their classroom lessons. It’s now available to all Phoenixville Area School District elementary teachers as an optional resource. “My hope moving forward is that we’re able to bolster and build the project as we take kids and collaborate with teachers using the program,” she says.
(From left) Jim Fusco, Lindsay Mangold, Jessica Brilla and Joe Michener
Social Studies and Business, 21st Century Cyber Charter School
Imagine having to connect with and teach students who may be hundreds of miles away. That’s what Joe Michener does every day as a social studies and business teacher for the Downingtown-based 21st Century Cyber Charter School. “We have students from Philadelphia to Erie,” says Michener, who was drawn to cyber learning’s tech-forward sensibility, though it was a far cry from his first career in business. “Being able to connect with students across all socioeconomic levels was intriguing to me.”
Still, the virtual classroom can present its challenges. “You have to be more engaging,” Michener says. “I always look at it as if I’m competing with entertainment space, whether it’s in their home or whether they’re with their friends at dance or tennis. How am I going to engage them?”
To do so, Michener uses Nearpod, an interactive technology that presents material in short bursts. Students then create something based on the lesson.
Utilizing the background from his former career, Michener spearheaded electives on marketing and business law. He also created what he calls Joe Cyber, in which school employees work from home, simulating a student’s day. “It has really impacted me—when I create assignments, when I design lessons,” he says.
Over the last year, Michener was involved in the submission of 21st Century Cyber Charter for a designation as an Apple Distinguished School. He’ll find out whether his efforts paid off this fall.
Guidance Counselor, Valley Forge Middle School
“When you have middle school kids, it’s really important to find the humor in [situations], because it can be very frustrating and confusing to know what’s normal and what’s not,” says Andy Mullen. “If you can’t laugh, you’re going to end up crying.”
Trading his finance career for a role as a guidance counselor, Mullen authored Middle Schooled: Parenting Tips and Reminders to Keep You Smiling. The idea for the book came about when he began sending weekly emails to parents, using humor to lighten the mood and make the missives more readable. Soon enough, parents were telling him how much they enjoyed his emails. One even suggested he put together a book, which he self-published.
Mullen has spent his 17-year educational career in the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District at Conestoga High School, then Valley Forge. “If you can connect with them now, you can set them on the right course for the rest of their high school career,” he says.
Sometimes kids simply require an empathetic ear. “Other times, they need a more concrete solution to their problems,” says Mullen. “I often tell the parents, ‘Me being here is like you being here. My job is to advocate for your kids.’”
Tim Simmons wanted to be a full-time musician, taking up teaching nearly
25 years ago as he awaited his big break. “There’s something about music that creates this safe space,” he says. “If you go into it open and willing to experience it, music really will change you.”
Originally an English teacher, Simmons transitioned to music at Delaware Valley Friends School, which serves students with language-based learning differences. Finding his true calling, he spent years studying the benefits of music on the brain. “A lot of my research was really about the transcendent nature of music and some of the neurology behind that,” he says. “I was seeing kids in the English classroom struggle to read—to speak even. Then I was seeing them in the music classroom [as] a completely different person.”
In his research, Simmons found that music and language intersect in certain spots in the brain, including beat synchronization. “Our ability to synchronize with a rhythm is connected to our ability to process language,” he says. “The brain takes these kind of temporal snapshots of how long it takes for sounds to go from their most minute volume to their loudest volume. Those distinctions are how we separate sounds into discrete words and phrases.”
Simmons also found that prosody—fluctuations in pitch, volume and duration—plays a role, too. To bring the two concepts together, he uses improvisation. He also tells stories that involve a character who deals with trauma through music. Though there’s been no official study, Simmons believes his methodology is making a real difference. “I’ve seen it awaken students and make them thrive, be part of the community and have a sense of identity,” he says.
Dr. Minna Ziskind
History, Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy
History was a natural choice for Minna Ziskind, who is the daughter of two historians. “I think it helps us understand the world we live in,” says Ziskind, who teaches high school students at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. “It’s relevant to so many things about empowerment and identity, which are important to teenagers.”
To make history relevant to today’s kids, Ziskind connects them to current events. “I think our students are very curious about the world they’re living in,” she says. “History provides important ways to understand [the current political climate], whether we’re arguing about Confederate memorials, government’s role in climate change, or checks and balances.”
To further bring concepts to life, Ziskind’s 11th grade students play figures from the Industrial Revolution, culminating in a quasi debate. “I set it up so there are also people of diametrical opposites—Adam Smith and Karl Marx, Eugene Debs and Andrew Carnegie.” All the while, Ziskind encourages students to share their opinions. “History is not just memorizing dates and facts—it’s thinking deeply about how the world operates, how power operates,” she says. “Having history be about these deeper, more salient issues makes it more interesting.”