Spotlighting Exceptional Teachers Around Northeast Ohio

Spotlighting Exceptional Teachers Around Northeast Ohio

May is National Teacher Appreciation Month and to celebrate, we asked a few Northeast Ohio schools to help us recognize teachers who are going above and beyond for their students. Get to know these outstanding educators and learn a little about the special things they’re doing in the classroom. 

Jon Diligente, Robotics Teacher, Monticello Middle School, Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District 

 Tell us about your robotics class. What do students typically do and how does it work with earning college credits? 

“The robotics program is one of a kind. It is currently being offered to our eighth grade students at Monticello Middle School. In this unique course, students have the opportunity to design and build a robot, learn programming and coding, and at the same time, earn up to four college credits through Cuyahoga Community College. 

This course allows students to have fun in a safe and innovative environment. They learn to collaborate together as a team to problem solve. The students utilize and enhance their math skills in the program, for the coding process. They earn their first two college credits in the first semester. At this time, they learn how to code the robot to use motors and make  their vehicles move forward and backward.

 They are taught how to use encoders to make their robots turn to a specific degree. Students program the use of sonic sensors and bumpers to make the robot do specific commands. They use sensors to make the robot stop at a specific distance. In the second semester, the students earn their last two credits. They use claws for the robots to pick up items. They learn how to program the robots, to use line followers to follow specific colors on the floor to travel a specific or designated path.” 

What has the feedback been like from students? 

 “The biggest factor they thrive upon is that the learning is centered around them.  The course is mostly student led versus teacher directed.  Lastly, they are excited to be leaving middle school with four credits towards college.”

What is your hope/goal from offering this new class?

“My biggest hope is that  more students will want to participate in the program and that the interest in engineering/robotics continues to grow.  My goal is to offer this course to other grades levels, which will allow me to bring in additional programming opportunities to our school, such as drone building. With more interest, we will eventually be able to participate in competitions. People can follow me on twitter @jdiligente to see the exciting things happening in my classroom.”

Erica Pirc, seventh grade intervention specialist at Julie Billiart School in Lyndhurst

 Tell us about your teaching role at Julie Billiart. What are some of the things you do on a daily basis? 

“As a seventh-grade intervention specialist, my role includes teaching all academic subjects, as well as fostering a safe space for students to learn and practice the unwritten social curriculums of everyday life. I am as much of a social skills coach as I am an educator.”

 Have you done anything unique or tried anything different in the classroom that really seems to connect with your students?

“When you walk into my classroom, you will always see a visual, written schedule for each class. This allows my partner teacher and I to provide non-verbal prompts to the students to help increase their independence and enhance their executive functioning skills. The structure of my classes includes ebbs and flows. We then have a short, direct, and interactive lesson where I may show a three-minute video, teach the lesson, and then allow them time to practice with a peer. To check for understanding, we will often play a game, such as Kahoot or Quizizz. They end the class with some time to independently play on a self-paced, gamified educational platform.”

What do you love most about your job?

“My favorite part of my job is summer break, just kidding. The best part of working at Julie Billiart is the administrative and colleague support. I know that if there is an issue, I can rely on my admin team and partner teacher to brainstorm a solution. My favorite part of teaching in general is connecting with the kids who need the most support. I have a unique ability to reach some of our more emotionally dysregulated students.”

 What kind of feedback do you receive from your students? 

“Students appreciate that I allow them to have time to be social and engage in fun activities.  Occasionally we will scrap our plans and go for a nature walk if the weather is nice, have a mini “film festival” watching a documentary, and/or break out the board games.  I like to introduce them to different games so they may be able to connect with someone else outside of Julie Billiart in a low-pressure, but social manner.”

 Anything else you’d like to add? 

“Be kind to your kids’ teachers. It is not an easy job by any means, but it’s an extremely important one. When parents and teachers can work together as a team, both trusting in each other’s expertise, the outcome can be beautiful.”

Kathleen Davidson, Intervention Specialist, Cuyahoga Falls High School 

 Tell us about your role as an intervention specialist. What are some of the things you do on a daily basis? 

“I have been an Intervention Specialist for 19 years, I teach students with severe needs to moderate needs. My classes range from using the Ohio Extended standards with a therapy-based curriculum to everyday life skills such as cooking, shopping, making and following a budget. Still other classes follow the Ohio Learning Standards where we are learning the general education curriculum just at a different pace. I am also the department chair for the special education department here at Cuyahoga Falls. This allows for daily communication and collaboration on how to best meet all of our students’ needs not just in my classroom but in the entire building.”

 What are some unique strategies you’ve done to connect with students? 

“Anything hands on; the biggest event we do is a Thanksgiving Feast. The students must create a budget, use grocery ads to make their shopping list and then we go to the grocery store as a class to purchase the items they need to prepare the entire feast. They always enjoy using the kitchen for lessons as well as going out into the community.

Finally, I communicate a strong belief in my students’ character and abilities through an unwavering set of high but realistic expectations that also serve as a challenge for them to believe in themselves.”

What do you love most about your job? 

“After 19 years my passion for the work is still strong. I’m still being challenged and still learning new things. I love the reciprocal nature of my relationship with my students; I learn as much from them as I hope they are learning from me and get as much from them as I try to give to them.”

What kind of feedback do you receive from your students (or parents of students)? 

“I consider the parents of my students part of the wonderful team of people I work with each day to support our learners. I work very closely with many if not most of my parents and they have expressed their appreciation for the strong effort I make towards keeping the lines of communication open.”

Anything else you’d like to add? 

 “This isn’t a job even the best intervention specialist would be able to do on their own. I’m surrounded by a team of, not only three other extremely talented teachers but a number of support staff as well, all of whom work together to make my job look easy. Though we all have different roles, all of us share in the love we have for our students and our desire to contribute to the success of each one of them.” 

Kellie Burger and Amy Kidner, fifth grade teachers, Lake Elementary at Mentor Public Schools

 Tell us about your open concept classroom. How does it work? 

“Our open concept classroom doesn’t have the traditional classroom walls separating our fifth grade rooms. Using this structure, we are able to combine our two fifth grade classes into one class so that we can co-teach together all day.“

 What inspired this teaching style? 

“We were inspired to have an open space and co-teach because we both love to collaborate while lesson planning and teaching. This teaching style also allows us to differentiate our instruction more, so we can meet the needs of our students. We both also value making connections with our students, so it is helpful to have another teacher make these connections while in the same classroom. This has given us the opportunity to observe and learn from each other, which has helped us enhance our teaching practices. Continuing to grow individually as teachers has always been important to us.”

 What type of feedback do you get from the students? 

“Here are some of the things the kids said about the open concept classroom and co-teaching:

“I like it. It feels more open.” 

“I like it. Feels less claustrophobic in the big open space.” 

“I think it’s good because I have friends in both classes.”

“I like that it is more open and I have more friends in the class.”

“I like having more people to work with.”

“I like having two teachers because when working on stuff we have two people we can ask for help.”’

 Any tips or advice for other teachers? 

“A tip that we could give to other teachers is to make sure you have constant communication with your co-teacher about planning, student’s needs, parents, data and more. In addition, we think it is important to work with someone who shares the same teaching style and philosophy as you. Lastly, you will want to build relationships with all of the students in your room to ensure a comfortable learning environment for all.”

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