Teachers Who Inspire
As a sequel to our popular article which tracked six area graduates, My Outer Banks Home is now showcasing some of the Dare County teachers who inspire students – both in the classroom and after graduation. What we discovered were too many wonderful educators to represent every name recommended to us. While the teachers below have won their share of awards, those were not the credentials we were seeking. We have selected teachers who connect with students on a personal level and leave a permanent impression. These are the teachers dedicated students seek. Here are six of the teachers students want to learn from.
Theatre Teacher – First Flight High School
On a typical day in “Ms. D’s class,” theatre teacher Monica DeFelice uses a hands-on approach with students, often posing questions or asking students to take over speaking to the class in order to foster a creative space where students and teacher are working together. Most of her students consider her a friend as well as a mentor and will say that it is her passion that kindled a love for theatre.
Former student Camden Blizzard, now majoring in stage management at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, admits to never considering theatre as a path before meeting DeFelice. Blizzard said, “You feel her love for what she is doing, and it makes you want to be better at what you are doing. It brings out things in you that you didn’t know were there. She has so much passion for everything, and you think, I want to find something that makes me that happy. If it was not for her, I would not have found it.”
In acknowledgment that every student learns differently, DeFelice incorporates a variety of teaching styles into her instruction. “Some students can look at something one time and they’ve got it forever,” she said. “Some have to see it; some have to hear it; some have to do it. That’s why I like theatre. It lets us experiment with ways for every different learner so they all can grasp it before we move on.”
Students in DeFelice’s classes commonly accept stage roles or places in the crew for school productions. The time spent preparing for a show after school, three hours each day Monday through Friday, results in close friendships among the cast and DeFelice.
“The longer that I have been doing this, the more I appreciate it and my students,” DeFelice said. “I know that I have an important job and I take it seriously, but I also encourage having fun while we’re learning. You’ve got this one life, so make the most out of it.”
Freshman Dakota Tholen, who will be playing Beast in the upcoming musical Beauty and the Beast, is one of many students who lauds DeFelice. “She is truly amazing,” he said. “I am so lucky that I have gotten to learn from her and have her inspire me and completely change the course of my life, perhaps, because she made me decide what I want to do with my life.”
Carpentry Teacher – Cape Hatteras Secondary School
Teaching real life skills is the root of shop teacher Elvin Hooper’s philosophy. He first taught carpentry at Cape Hatteras Secondary School from 1977 to 1987, then worked as a building inspector for many years before returning to CHSS to teach shop five years ago. His goal is to prepare students for the real world, whether they are attending college or not. Students in Hooper’s class construct everything from picnic tables to lawn furniture, from decoys to a functioning 10×12 shed.
“Hopefully when they leave us, they can go right to work with a contractor,” he said. “That’s the idea. I want them to be able to be on their own.”
Self-published author of Chicamacomico: How It Was Back Then, Hooper is also a wordsmith and believes that if students can relate to a story and understand the value in what they are doing, understanding will come more easily. He tends to spend 50 percent of class time in the classroom and 50 percent in the shop.
“I show them how to apply it with their hands,” he said. “If you subtract a fraction from the whole number, they want to go crawl under the desk. But if you explain how to apply that to something they can see and how it works, they seem to function better. Hands-on.”
Those who learned in Hooper’s classroom acknowledge that his teachings went beyond the subject. Former student Matthew Nuckles said, “He teaches you a lot more than carpentry. He’s a good, helpful person in our community and knowledgeable guy. You could come to him if you had problems with anything.”
Hooper gets the shop students involved in all building aspects of the school such as constructing stages and stage props for the theatre department. He teaches real life skills and then follows through with helping students figure out what they are going to do when they graduate or helping them find jobs in the summer. His curriculum even includes a unit on understanding roles in the environment as related to construction because of the rise in green building practices. Hooper truly enjoys the construction projects that prepare students for the real world and the projects that help his school. He said, “I make many, many piles of sawdust in my life.”
Media Coordinator – Cape Hatteras Elementary School
Sixth generation teacher and media coordinator at Cape Hatteras Elementary School, Shauna Leggat claims she “fell into teaching.” Her parents and grandparents were teachers, and so on for several generations before her, so she believes the career was waiting for her whether she pursued it or not. She associates much of the success in learning to being a competent reader and writer, two things she now gets to teach all day from her position in the school library.
Leggat said, “I believe teaching is a process that demands constant excitement, learning and readjusting, and one should never be afraid to tell the kids, ‘I don’t know…let’s look into that together!’ ”
Leggat began teaching English as a Second Language in Virginia immediately after graduating from college. She then instructed gifted language arts classes in Manteo, from 1995 to 2002 and is today in her tenth year of teaching at CHES. Throughout her career, Leggat has always searched for ways to engage children with relatable experiences. She is responsible for bringing many authors and artists to the Outer Banks, such as the Fablehaven series author Brandon Mull. She also started Fiction Diggers, an accelerated reading program that earned her the Outstanding Reading Program Award in Toronto at the International Reading Association’s convention. Leggat’s students have consistently become top readers in the state.
Leggat said, “I do believe that children don’t know what they can do until you point them in a direction and have fun getting there. They don’t know what their best is.” After making the transition from the classroom to the library, Leggat started a voluntary reading program in which students could take home a small book from the library each night. The program began with kindergarten, quickly expanded into the first grade, and is now taking over the second. Her goal is to get students into the library as often as possible. Leggat said, “When I first switched from the classroom to media [environment] my daughters said, ‘Mom, you have to be the kind of librarian that kids will sneak out of class to come hang out with.’ I really see library as teaching.”
“I think the minute I had my first child, it was a real eye opener that every child is somebody’s baby, and you’re passionate about what you want for your own child. Acknowledge that for every child out there. Every student you touch is somebody’s baby, and they are that important.”
Fifth Grade Teacher – Kitty Hawk Elementary School
Now in his tenth year at Kitty Hawk Elementary School, fifth grade teacher Adam Sakers has learned that getting to know his students individually is his most effective tool for teaching. He said, “Even if you have the best lesson plans and the most knowledge of the subject you are teaching, if you don’t connect with your students on a personal level, they are less likely to be involved in classroom learning and oftentimes even ‘put up a wall’ towards the teacher.”
Greer Farr, a current student in Sakers’ class, says her teacher motivates her to do well in school, and she hopes her friends will be able to have him as a teacher. “When we’re learning about something, he makes it really fun,” she said. “He jokes, and when he’s reading he makes funny voices. There’s a lot of things I like about him.”
Sakers has even been known to nickname his students and has picked up one for himself: The Sakenator.
In addition to making an effort to bond with students, Sakers introduces lessons that engage children with the use of technology, different websites, and tools that keep them involved in order to encourage different learning styles. He also prefers students to work with each other and help each other to succeed.
“Growing up, I was a kid that was full of energy, so sitting in a chair all day working by myself was not for me,” Sakers said. “I enjoy teaching in a way that lets students work together in learning teams and think creatively.”
He said, “If you want students to be engaged in your classroom, you have to let them know they are truly valued. Then they will respond in a positive way, want to learn, and want to show you what they have learned.”
Media Advisor – First Flight High School
From the newsroom to the video production office, the talents of First Flight High School’s journalism students range far and wide, but there is one bond they all share that can be expressed in a phrase they all know: Once a Sawyer kid, always a Sawyer kid.
Media advisor Robin Sawyer has been with FFHS since the school opened in 2004 and was well known for her journalistic presence at Manteo High School prior to the transition. She oversees the production of Nighthawk NewsMagazine, NighthawkNews.org, Shorelines yearbook, and The Nighthawk Report, a daily news show aired to all classrooms and produced in tandem with digital media teacher Ken Binkley. Among many honors awarded to Sawyer over the years, she was named the Dow Jones News Fund National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year in 2001.
When asking students and school officials which teachers truly form a bond with their students, Sawyer’s name is among the first acknowledged. This is a teacher who students stay in touch with even after they leave the halls of FFHS.
Jose Valle, former co-editor of Nighthawk NewsMagazine and current freshman at Durham Technical Community College, connects with Sawyer nearly every time he returns to the Outer Banks. He said, “I learned so much from her; I can’t even put it into words. She loves [what she does], and I can pretty much thank her for making me love it as much as I do too. She helped me find a place where it really felt like I belonged.” Today, Valle is a staff member of The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s campus newspaper.
Sawyer believes her teachings stay with students because the skills she is imparting can be used throughout life no matter what a student’s career path or goals. “When it all comes down to it, communications are at the root of all successful careers,” she said. “If you can be a successful communicator, you can go anywhere and do anything you want to do in your life.”
When a student enters her classroom, Sawyer knows they will form a relationship that will last much longer than a single semester. She said, “For many years, people would say, I can’t believe you have an only child. I raise 40 a year, are you kidding? I truly look at my students as my children.” (cont’d on page 30)
Math Teacher – Manteo High School
Students across the county have developed a lifelong appreciation for math and have left classrooms or tutoring sessions with a new understanding of mathematics thanks to Frank Vrablic. His name is well-known not only at Manteo High School, where he has taught everything from the foundations of math through basic calculus since 1986, but also at First Flight High School where his instruction is broadcast via Dare County’s Information Highway.
Vrablic attributes his success in the classroom to teaching respect. He tells students there are no bad questions and enforces that everyone respond in a positive way to questions asked. “The ultimate learning atmosphere is when mutual respect is developed between you and me, the teacher and student,” he said. “Once you realize that you can make a mistake or I could make a mistake and we respect each other, we are going to both learn from each other.”
One of Vrablic’s most rewarding teaching strategies is having students work together and become inspired by each other. He says some of his students who are struggling will see the work the older students are doing and become motivated. Another strategy of his is to compare test scores between the students and their older siblings for a little friendly competition, and yes, he has kept every test over the last 20 years.
Unique to Vrablic’s position is a relationship with students in the classroom and on the field as he coaches the MHS soccer team. He said, “The balance between seeing them in the classroom, pushing them and working hard, then seeing them on the field or in the hallway, you develop a relationship with them. When you play, you play, and when you work, you work.”
Former student Tom Blanchard, who now owns a technology consulting company, reminisces about doing math homework on the athletic bus on the way to soccer games. When the students had a question, they simply walked to the front of the bus to speak with Vrablic.
“He had high expectations for us in both the classroom and on the soccer field,” Blanchard said. “He required that we worked hard in both. In turn, we were motivated to meet his expectations. It’s amazing how he could do that.” Vrablic enjoys teaching all levels of math and working with all levels of students, particularly when they give back to him.
“A lot of times when the teacher is having a bad day, kids can really inspire you,” he said. “Kids have a way of putting things in good perspective.”
First Flight High School publications are known for their creative, professional content and design under the guidance of media advisor Robin Sawyer. This summer, for the second year in a row, FFHS journalism students brought home a record number of awards from the North Carolina Scholastic Media Association Summer Institute. Thirteen students and Sawyer traveled to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to participate in four days of training provided by journalism faculty, guest speakers, and professional journalists. In total, three FFHS publications: Nighthawk NewsMagazine, NighthawkNews.org, and Shorelines yearbook received 54 publication, section, and individual awards as well as two awards for accomplishments during the Institute. Among these were three Tar Heel Awards, the highest honor given to student publications in North Carolina. FFHS journalism students plan to attend the Institute again in the summer of 2015 to further excel in all aspects of writing and design.