Sligo Middle School – Silver Spring
Joan Shane says she was good at math until junior high school. Her teachers, using an overhead projector, would stand in the front of the classroom, present one way of solving a problem and expect kids to get it. If she didn’t understand, there was no effort to explain in a different way. Shane says she later realized it wasn’t the subject she didn’t like—it was the anxiety and frustration that came with doing the math.
Teaching methods have evolved, and Shane, now a math teacher at Sligo Middle School, has embraced the freedom to use a variety of approaches. She focuses on individual instruction and building student confidence.
Strings of white lights encircle her classroom, and the walls are covered with motivational quotes, including: “Every exit is an entry somewhere else.” Students work at tables in groups while Shane moves around asking: “Do you get it? Kind of, sort of?” When each student turns in a completed paper, her response is “Yes!” or “Saah-weet!”
“I want them to be comfortable, to take risks, to make mistakes and grow from that,” says the 52-year-old resident of Chevy Chase. “They can do math if it’s taught in a way that reaches them and makes sense to them.”
Shane says she finds joy in seeing kids excel at something that had been difficult for them—whether in her math class or on the school’s cross-country team that she coaches.
She has been with Montgomery County Public Schools for 21 years, working at Oakland Terrace Elementary School in Silver Spring before coming to Sligo a decade ago. She serves as content specialist for the math department, mentors new teachers entering the profession, and is on the school’s instruction leadership team.
Principal Patrick Bilock says Shane has a way of communicating to kids that they can do anything. She challenges school leaders to make good decisions, including pushing for a student to be put in a higher math level when she sees potential. “She does not hold back when it comes to fighting for what kids need,” Bilock says. “She does it in a way that helps people to question what their thinking is and always comes back to what is best for the kid.”
Gabby Machuca has stayed in touch with Shane since she had her for sixth grade math 10 years ago. Now a senior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, she recalls Shane encouraged students to ask questions when they didn’t understand and welcomed them into her classroom during lunch. “It makes a big difference, especially in middle school, feeling like you have someone on your side,” Machuca says.
Landon School – Bethesda
In the health, wellness and ethics classes that Adam Diaz teaches at Landon School, he wants to provide students with an imaginary toolbox of sorts—one that contains a motivation tool, a forgiveness tool and a setting boundaries tool—to deal with difficult situations.
“We tell boys over and over that the only thing you can control is yourself,” says Diaz, 35, who has worked at the private all-boys school in Bethesda since August 2020. “Getting them to shift and understand what control I do have in any given situation makes them feel more empowered.”
Society is quick to label boys with behavior issues as toxic, says Diaz, who grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in North Bethesda. To help his students learn how to resolve problems, he has them practice how to be good listeners and how to calm themselves in stressful situations. Rather than “laying down the law,” he says, they often need the space and the vocabulary to talk with a trusted adult about how they’re feeling. “If you give them time, and if you’re with them consistently, you can actually be that person, that rock for them while they figure things out,” he says.
Diaz earned his undergraduate degree at Georgetown University and a master’s degree in education at the University of Granada in Spain. At Landon, he is a lower and middle school counselor, and he teaches health and ethics in the lower school, and health and wellness in the middle school. He also coaches tennis and football at the lower school.
This summer, Diaz was selected by the International Boys’ Schools Coalition to do an action research project on developing healthy masculinity. The coalition is a nonprofit organization of 300 boys schools of which Landon is a member. As part of the project, Diaz was to create materials for fifth grade boys to develop skills such as empathy, emotional connection and regulation, and vulnerability.
“Adam is just a calm presence,” says Courtney Collis, a learning specialist at Landon. “He’s wonderful at recognizing the strengths in a boy, recognizing the needs, and then how to address that. You will often see him taking walks and chatting, just trying to get to know a student and then helping in ways that aren’t necessarily obvious.”
Diaz says it’s rewarding to see students put the tools he teaches to use. He once worked with a boy who was having a hard time with emotional regulation and then saw him resolve a conflict with another boy. “He said, ‘I’m sorry, that was my fault and I’m not going to do that again.’ And the other boy said, ‘That’s OK. I forgive you,’ ” Diaz says. “That was such a massive moment. Just being able to see that change for me was like, you’ve scored a touchdown.
North Chevy Chase Elementary School – Chevy Chase
“Hey, all right!” Sharon Mosley-Ramsey says to students throughout the day at North Chevy Chase Elementary School. It’s how she punctuates the end of morning announcements, signs her emails and greets students in the hallway—often with them repeating it to her.
Mosley-Ramsey doesn’t remember how it started, but knows she’s been saying it for most of the 30-plus years she has been at the school. It’s her way of offering encouragement, she says, to convey: “Good job. Keep it going. Be happy. Spread the light. Be the light.” When former students see her years later (sometimes as parents of her current students), they often say her catchphrase.
The 61-year-old Mosley-Ramsey, who grew up in New York City and lives in Olney, is a media specialist, enriched literacy curriculum teacher and co-lead teacher. She also is the sponsor for the Student Government Association and coordinates special events with the PTA, such as International Night. She helps organize food drives and spirit week, and mentors girls of color through the Sisters Supporting Sisters Club.
“It’s unbelievable what she takes on. We all just kind of think she has a cape hidden somewhere and she’s superwoman,” says school counselor Jannette Breeding. “She’s a force to be reckoned with and a role model for the children and for the staff.”
Mosley-Ramsey says she makes sure all fifth grade students have a role (reporter, anchor, manager) as they rotate through her media class to produce the weekly Wake Up NCC television show. “The kids’ creativity and seeing their leadership is what I love,” she says. “We want to build leaders early and give several different people that opportunity.”
When the show airs, you can hear a pin drop as students watch, says Kelli Phillips, staff development teacher at NCC. During the uncertainty of the pandemic, Mosley-Ramsey kept the show going. “She found a way to get teachers to make videos, to put in student jokes—and we had social and emotional lessons about how to take a mindful minute,” Phillips says. “At a time when everyone felt separated, the TV show gave us a sense of unity again.”
In the media center, Mosley-Ramsey has a variety of college logos posted next to the computer monitors. The logos include ones from her undergraduate alma mater, North Carolina Central University, and the University of Michigan, where she earned her master’s degree. She talks to students about preparing for college—emphasizing that it’s more than just grades that matter.
Stone Mill Elementary School – North Potomac
As students enter Lily Huang’s first grade classroom at Stone Mill Elementary School, she greets each one by name with a smile and a handshake, wave, high-five or hug. They start the day by taking out their journals. On an early June morning, the prompt is to write about three things that make them happy, two things that make them sad, and what they do to feel better. Huang gives an example.
“Three things that make me happy are my class, my family and food,” says Huang, whose three children (16, 20 and 22) attended the school where she has taught for 13 years, not far from her home in North Potomac. “You guys know what made me sad this week, right? When my son moved out. And also when my favorite sushi restaurant closed. When I am sad, I cheer myself up by singing.”
When the students finish, they each come up to Huang and read aloud what they have written before she asks follow-up questions. “It’s my one-on-one time to really understand where my students are coming from that morning,” says Huang, who gets to their eye level to talk and offers encouragement to kids who admit to having a terrible start to their day.
Huang says she looks at her students as if they were her own, especially if they are struggling, and thinks about how she’d like a teacher to treat them. The school year that ended in June brought the added challenge of helping her 27 students adapt to being in a classroom after many learned remotely in kindergarten during the pandemic. Huang says that meant emphasizing routines and teaching students how to share space and ask questions.
“This is where you can instill the love for school. This is where it all starts,” Huang says about first grade. She has been with Montgomery County Public Schools for 29 years and says she likes to “change it up” periodically, so she has taught first, second, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh graders along the way.
Huang, 52, graduated from Col. Zadok Magruder High School in Derwood before earning her bachelor’s degree in elementary education at the University of Maryland and her master’s in school administration from Hood College in Frederick.
“She is able to bring out the best in her students,” says Joanne Misovec, whose three children all had Huang as a teacher at Stone Mill. “She has this amazing ability to connect and build relationships so her students want to perform and do well.”
Washington Waldorf School – Bethesda
Taisto Saloma’s roots run deep at Washington Waldorf School. He graduated from the private school in Bethesda in 1993, and now his two sons are students there in first and third grade. Saloma’s mother was a longtime teacher at Waldorf, and he’s been on staff at the school for nearly 20 years.
Saloma, 47, who grew up and still lives in Takoma Park, says he likes the school’s holistic approach to education and the flexibility it gives him in the classroom.
“We want each student to develop and follow their, some would say, destiny, or path that’s uniquely meant for them,” says Saloma, who teaches high school American history and government. “As much as I believe that the Constitution is important and that everybody should know it, it helps me to understand that not everybody is going to really want to dive into federalism—and that’s OK.”
The small classes at the school (an average of 18 students) allow him to get to know his students and be responsive to the moment, Saloma says. He’s always looking for fresh material to engage students with and is part of the school’s effort to make the history curriculum more expansive and diverse.
“He’s not afraid to diverge from his notes and talk about real-world issues that matter,” says Sam Merkel, a 2022 Waldorf graduate. “It makes students feel heard.”
In his government classes, Saloma says, he wants students to understand they don’t have to be an elected official to make a difference. “At a time when kids feel the weight of the world and a lot of the pain, I want to share how there are many people working to improve communities in a positive way,” says Saloma, a graduate of Guilford College in North Carolina, where he majored in history with a minor in sports management.
Before becoming a teacher, Saloma was a golf professional. He is the athletic director at Waldorf and coaches boys and girls basketball and girls soccer.
Because Saloma has been through the school himself, Head of School Lelia True says he understands the Waldorf philosophy and knows how to relate to students and parents.
In the recent capital campaign for the school’s first-ever gym, True says Saloma was key in communicating the value of the facility from an athletic and community perspective—helping raise money for the $7 million project, which is expected to be completed in 2023. Says True: “We couldn’t have done it without him.”
Col. Zadok Magruder High School – Derwood
Virginia Twombly says she can understand students of hers who don’t want to go to school. As a teenager growing up in the Midwest, she was socially anxious, felt hopeless, and dropped out of high school at 17. She eventually found her way back to school, earning her undergraduate degree in secondary education and a master’s in special education—and she’s committed to helping her students succeed, too.
At Col. Zadok Magruder High School in Derwood, Twombly is a resource teacher for special education and head of the Enhanced Social Emotional Special Education Services Program, which serves up to 40 students with a range of emotional disabilities, such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. She says her students are vulnerable and often overlooked because the issues they are dealing with are not visible.
“When they’re in a good place mentally and emotionally, they are so bright and can academically just soar,” says Twombly, 53, who lives in Brookeville. “They just need a safe place to grow up and be able to learn how to handle their frustrations, emotions and anxiety. With the skills and with the strategies, they will be fine. I know that.”
In a wing that’s separate from the rest of the school, Twombly works with a team of four core academic teachers, seven paraeducators, a behavioral specialist, a clinical social worker and a psychologist. The hallways are less crowded, and there is a mindfulness room with comfort toys, beanbag chairs, aromatherapy diffusers, and visits from trained therapy dogs. Students spend time in nature, working in a school greenhouse and taking regular trips to the Kingsley Environmental Education Center in Boyds.
It’s all about meeting students where they are, says Twombly, who has been at Magruder for six years and with the county school system for 16. Sometimes that means driving to their homes (with another adult) to bring them to school. One student said she didn’t want to come because she’d bother others with her urge to turn the lights on and off. Twombly went to Home Depot and bought her a light switch to hold in class—a solution that helped get the girl to come back.
Kimberly Corbin of Silver Spring says the program and Twombly’s influence were “lifesaving” for her daughter, who graduated last spring. “They had the freedom to take a nap, make some tea, go to the meditation room—whatever tool they needed to calm them and push through the moment,” Corbin says. “When my daughter went into the program, she hated school. When she finished, she was there every day and helping coach other students through challenges.”
Caralee Adams is a freelance writer in Bethesda who covers health, education and other topics for Bethesda Magazine.
This story appears in the September/October 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.