They’ve notched countless hours rousing students to do more, whether it’s conquering another language, building a better robot or delivering serious scoops for the school newspaper. Meet six local teachers at the head of the class.
Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart
Framed photos of every homeroom class she has taught in her 24 years at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda sit on a shelf in Lesley Sheldon’s classroom. Many students stay in touch long after they’ve left her class, seeking advice, sharing milestones and becoming friends.
“She was truly one of my biggest cheerleaders throughout my whole life,” says Meghan Zorc, who had Sheldon for first grade in 2003-2004 and remained in contact, texting her on the day she was accepted to dental school. “She’s just one of those people I wanted to tell immediately because she really saw me from the first day. …She makes you feel like the most important person in the room every time you talk to her.”
Sheldon, 46, who is originally from the Bahamas, came to the U.S. to attend a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin, where she met her future husband, David. Zorc’s family threw the couple a wedding shower, and later, before the birth of her third child, parents from Stone Ridge hosted a baby shower, flying in Sheldon’s mother from the Bahamas as a surprise.
It’s because of the tight-knit community and the school’s faith-based approach that Sheldon says she’s spent her entire career there. “I was immediately smitten by this place,” says Sheldon, who lives in Bethesda. “How we educate girls with confidence in a supportive community has always been beautiful to me.”
Sheldon has taught kindergarten, first and second grades, and has been chair of the English/language arts department for the lower school. She likes keeping her curriculum fresh, and last year developed a project-based unit around family cultures that incorporated standards on social studies, geography and human relationships. This past spring, students and their parents filled her classroom with clothing and decorations that reflected their heritage, tied to India, Korea and Greece, among other places. For instance, one parent brought in Spanish tapas; another hosted an English afternoon tea.
“It’s hands-on, and it’s feeding all modalities of learning,” Sheldon says of the new unit, which spanned two months. “They get to read. They get to touch. They get to research, interview—and they get to eat really well.”
Melissa Netram’s daughter Serena had Sheldon in both kindergarten and second grade—both with Sheldon’s daughter Lauren. Now a sixth grader, Serena still talks about studying butterflies in kindergarten and taking a field trip to Brookside Gardens. “She gives them this love of learning,” Netram says of Sheldon. “She is able to constantly look at every child as if they were one of her own.”
Arter 30 years of teaching at Cold Spring Elementary School in Potomac, Karen McPhaul was set to retire. Then a former student who was a senior at Bullis School stopped by to tell her about a job opening for a seventh grade science teacher at the nearby private school.
“He said, ‘Mrs. McPhaul, you still have some magic in you. Go on and try that interview,’ ” recalls McPhaul, who was also nudged by a colleague to apply before getting the job at Bullis in 2018. “That opened a new chapter.”
McPhaul taught all subjects in upper elementary school, but says she was long intrigued by science and liked the challenge of making seventh grade a happy place for her students.
Profiles of scientists from diverse backgrounds hang around her classroom alongside mini-posters students made of themselves with their aspirations. Lillian Lee, an eighth grader at Bullis, says McPhaul’s class made her want to become a scientist. “From her believing in her students, to pushing us, to all the crazy, action-packed labs, it’s very exciting and entertaining,” Lillian says.
McPhaul says she embraces the John Keats quote that “nothing is real until it is experienced” and tries to make science come alive with hands-on activities and games. In her forensics unit, McPhaul turns her classroom into a simulated crime scene and then does biology labs. Sometimes kids pretend they are a certain cell organelle and have “speed dating” conversations with “cell pickup lines” to learn about each other. In March, she was the academic lead on a trip to the Florida Keys with 70 students to study marine biology.
When Sarah Cohen became a Montgomery County Public Schools teacher herself, she says she truly appreciated the research and time that McPhaul put into preparing her lessons. Cohen had McPhaul in fifth grade and interned in her classroom while at Thomas Wootton High School. She studied education in college and now, at age 41, is a school counselor at Rock Creek Forest Elementary School in Chevy Chase. “She always guided my life,” Cohen says of McPhaul, whom she considers a friend and peer.
McPhaul, 57, who lives in Bethesda, says that last year, another teacher overheard one of her students about to enter her classroom saying, “I’ve been waiting for this class all day!” That kind of feedback keeps her going, McPhaul says. “We’re trying get to that place where they wonder. They ask the why questions, and they’re excited. That drives everything that I’ve tried to do as teacher—to have them step into the classroom wondering and step out of the classroom still wondering.”
Westland Middle School
Alicia Fuentes-Gargallo bikes from her home in the Westbrook neighborhood of Bethesda to work at nearby Westland Middle School, where she has taught Spanish for 22 years. The 49-year-old, who grew up in Barcelona, Spain, says the school community is like family—indeed, her three sons attended Westland, though they never had Mom as their teacher.
Fuentes-Gargallo says she’s in the “talent search business” both inside the classroom and away from it, trying to bring out the best in her students and demonstrate her genuine interest.
“There is a strong connection once they know that you will always help them, that you will hold their hand, and you’re not going to give up,” says Fuentes-Gargallo, who goes to many of her students’ concerts, soccer games and social events well into high school. “I tell them, ‘Once you have me as a teacher, I’m sorry—you have me for the rest of your life.’ ”
During lunch, Fuentes-Gargallo’s classroom is a haven from the cafeteria for a handful of students—mostly Hispanic girls—who like to be together to speak Spanish, do homework and share the latest news with their teacher.
“They bring me joy. They bring me all this new music, new stories and new games that I didn’t know about,” Fuentes-Gargallo says. “So I’m grateful to them. It’s not that I give and I don’t receive.”
Teaching Spanish from introductory to eighth-grade Spanish immersion classes, she has high expectations and often has students practice speaking the language in small groups. Fuentes-Gargallo has been known to climb a stepladder in the middle of class to get a bird’s-eye view of the conversation circles.
“It’s always about getting kids talking, and it is the greatest challenge for a world language teacher with 30-plus kids,” says Westland Principal Alison Serino. “They are nervous and hesitant, but she gets them to talk and take risks.”
Going into Spanish II in seventh grade, Zion Shelton was less than confident about her language skills but says Fuentes-Gargallo deepened her understanding and made her feel comfortable asking questions. “She just makes class fun and shows us songs from her culture that she incorporates into assignments,” says Zion, a freshman now at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. “She explains Spanish better than any other teacher I’ve ever had.”
Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School
Jennifer Solove had planned to become a lawyer but first put off law school to teach high school in South Central Los Angeles. Then she joined the Peace Corps, where she taught English in Tonga.
“At that point I thought, Maybe I don’t have to be in a profession that is going to make a lot of money—maybe this is actually enough. If I could live with no running water and still enjoy teaching…my life would be fine,” Solove says.
The classroom won out over the courtroom, and Solove discovered that she really liked working with teenagers. “They crack me up. I love their zeal for life. I love that they’re just figuring things out. I even love their sadness and frustration,” says Solove, 39, who lives in Northwest Washington, D.C.
Solove earned her master’s degree in education at The George Washington University and started at Montgomery County Public Schools in 2011. She was at Winston Churchill High School and Walter Johnson High before taking a position teaching English at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 2020.
Last year, Solove became faculty adviser for The Tattler, the B-CC student magazine. She led a move to an online platform, with stories posted every two weeks in addition to a print magazine. The students adopted the slogan “Where truth leads, integrity follows” and pursued breaking news stories, covering topics including drug use, lockdowns and antisemitism on campus.
“She trusted us to write about what we wanted,” says Aaron Tiao, editor-in-chief at The Tattler and student government president at B-CC in 2022-2023, and now a freshman at Stanford University. “She was continually pushing us to dig deeper with sources and making sure that we were as professional as possible.”
Former B-CC PTSA President Lyric Winik says Solove knows how to mentor outstanding writers. Her door is always open at lunch and after school to help students—even those who are no longer in her class—edit homework or college essays, Winik says.
Solove has guided student journalists to produce stories in The Tattler that have informed the community and led to discussions about difficult issues. “[The Tattler] has shone a light on problems that need to be addressed at B-CC, and given a very complete look at them,” Winik says. “We hear a lot from the school system, parents and other people, but students are the consumers of school—and this represents their reporting, their perspective. It’s invaluable.”
Wheaton High School
About 20 students on the Wheaton High School robotics team stream into Rich Scott’s engineering classroom after school in late May. Small groups huddle around computers to write code, work on calculations at the whiteboard and use a band saw to cut aluminum parts for a robot, which they build from scratch every year.
“I want them to do as much as they can on their own,” Scott says as he walks around and watches older students helping younger ones. “You don’t really understand something until you are able to teach it.”
Scott has taught math and engineering at Wheaton since 2010, and this will be his 10th year as faculty sponsor for robotics—a club that is a competitive team, but that Scott describes as more of a lifestyle because of the commitment involved. The 57-year-old from Silver Spring volunteers to meet with students after school during the academic year, working until 6 p.m. and on Saturdays from 9 to 5 during the four-month build season leading up to competitions with other schools.
“Our students thrive in the environment that Rich has cultivated,” says Wheaton Principal Joshua Munsey. “His dedication to STEM education is unrivaled and is exemplified by his dedication to the amount of time he spends in both the classroom and on the robotics team.”
Scott holds students to high standards, says Daniel Echols, a 2023 Wheaton graduate who began attending the University of Pennsylvania this fall. “He knows everyone can do it,” Echols says of Scott working with students on projects in his capstone engineering class. “He helps people find their way.”
Teaching is a second career for Scott, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who spent 20 years in the service as a project manager. After leading his sons’ Cub Scout dens and being involved with youth groups at his church, Scott decided he wanted to work with kids and completed his teaching certification in 2008.
While most teachers prepare two or three lesson plans a day, fellow Wheaton teacher Thomas Siegrist says Scott makes 20 or 30 customized plans to cover all the small groups in his capstone classes. “He’s 100 percent invested in their learning,” Siegrist says of Scott. Even through the slightest interaction—perhaps a raised eyebrow—students know when Scott is pushing them to do more, he says.
“He can do it with a look,” Siegrist says. “You don’t want to disappoint Mr. Scott.”
Rosemary Hills Elementary School
Outside the doorway of Mandy Joholske’s classroom at Rosemary Hills Elementary School in Silver Spring, a poster greets first and second graders: Dear Students, 1. I believe in you. 2. I trust you. 3. You are listened to. 4. You are cared for. 5. You are important. 6. You will succeed. Love, Mrs. Joholske.
Inside, students move about and socialize a bit before starting the day’s lesson. Some sit with friends in a cozy corner to read books. Others write a Rhino Reward (named after the school mascot) about something special a classmate has done and then put it into an orange sand pail labeled “We are Bucket Fillers” to be read every Friday.
Joholske starts class with a call-and-response chant that the students repeat: “Look around. What do you see? I see the best in you and me.” Once she has the attention of the class on this May
morning, she dives in with an enthusiastic review of prefixes and suffixes.
“My biggest goal is to get them to enjoy learning,” says Joholske, 55, a resident of Silver Spring and teacher for 28 years, focused for the last three on reading instruction.
Throughout the room, vocabulary words are posted on the walls alongside stations with items to spark the students’ curiosity—coral, foreign money, X-rays, vintage rotary phones and things kids want to share. There is an aquarium with fish and one with geckos. Clipboards with paper and pencils are next to each spot for the kids to write what they observe. There’s even a spot next to the window so kids can write what they see of the work being done on the nearby Purple Line transit project.
Sarah Huxta says her daughter, Laura, who had Joholske for first grade last year, was so inspired to write at the fish and gecko stops that her observations sometimes spilled over to the back of the page. Her reading skills also blossomed, and she’d play pretend teacher at night, mimicking Joholske, Huxta says. “She’ll read a book aloud and stop to ask us, ‘How do think that character felt?’ It’s so precious.”
Colleagues in the building, including first grade teacher Samantha Pino, say Joholske provides “creative inspiration” for hands-on activities, crafts and ways to stay organized. In mentoring new teachers, Joholske says it takes a balance: “I’ve learned that you can be kind and caring and loving, but also be firm and have a routine.”
This story appears in the September/October issue of Bethesda Magazine.