LA PLATA, Md. – Eight Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) teachers were recently named the 2023 Outstanding Teacher honorees by Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative (SMECO). The annual awards program recognizes teachers for outstanding achievements in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
The CCPS teachers honored for mathematics were Taenika Penny of Theodore G. Davis Middle School, Ashley Sparks of Robert D. Stethem Educational Center and Diane Sumler of Mt. Hope/Nanjemomy Elementary School.
The teachers honored for science were Karena Bennett of Maurice J. McDonough High School, Erin Lewis of Matthew Henson Middle School and Sarah Ochoa of Mary H. Matula Elementary School.
Honored for STEM were Lynda Wyatt of John Hanson Middle School and Carol-Ann Smith of Thomas Stone High School.
Teachers were nominated by staff, students, principals, educators, community members or administrators. Entries were evaluated by a panel of judges. Outstanding teachers are chosen for their inspiration to students and their ability to motivate them to become innovators.
“Our gifted honorees understand that their job is about more than teaching mathematics, science and technology. It’s about teaching things like character, imagination and resilience,” Scott White, chairman of the SMECO board of directors, said during the May 3 ceremony. “They display a commitment to classroom excellence and are helping to ensure that Southern Maryland schools prepare the next generation of leaders and innovators. They teach skills that are important not only to employers and the economy, but also important to our future.”
Outstanding Mathematics Teacher honorees
During her six years with CCPS, Penny has taught students in elementary and middle school. At Davis, she teaches accelerated math to sixth-grade students. She enjoys watching her students gain skills academically while growing emotionally each year. “It is truly amazing how my students’ academic confidence improves by not only believing in themselves but also through how their peers push them to be the best version of themselves,” Penny said. She strives to the type of teacher who inspired her. “Throughout my own childhood, my growth in the classroom was a reflection of my teachers pouring into me, especially within the domain of mathematics,” Penny said. Teaching math isn’t just about getting the right answer, it’s explaining the “why” and “how.” Thinking about her peers who struggling in math, Penny tries to make math for everyone, “… making learning accessible, equitable, engaging and achievable for all my students while also building their love, curiosity, and confidence inside and outside of the classroom,” she said of what inspires her.
Sparks has been teaching with CCPS for six years and teaches math to high school sophomores and juniors who attend Stethem. “The thing I enjoy most as an educator is that moment when something finally clicks for a student,” she said. “You see that joy on their face that they understand.” Sparks likens math to a giant game of patterns, and she gets a kick out of processing. “My brain likes puzzles and thinking through problems,” she said.
She finds motivation in several places, but counts her coworkers with helping lighten the load, even on less than great days. “I’m very lucky … my coworkers are always there to support and pick me up if I’m having a bad day,” Sparks said. Without them I’m not sure I could get through the school year.”
As a third-grade teacher, Sumler teaches her students a variety of subjects, but math might be her favorite. “To be flexible and have various strategies as a mathematician and to share ideas collaboratively increases students’ abilities to work with others, grow in their understanding and problem solve,” Sumler said. Teaching with CCPS since 2005, Sumler said her students are the best part of the job. “To be able to see how much students grow over a school year is amazing,” she said. While Sumler said she would like to teach math all day to each elementary grade level, she’s an elementary teacher at heart. She enjoys hearing what her students are thinking and watching them problem solve while growing into critical thinkers. “As they learn to reflect, self-assess and peer assess they seem to grow exponentially. Watching this process unfold is simply incredible,” Sumler said. “They are my motivation.”
Outstanding Science Teacher honorees
In college, Bennett, a biology teacher and science department chair at McDonough, studied biology with a concentration in zoology in hopes of becoming a zoo curator. “My teaching certificate came later,” she said. As it’s her 26th year with CCPS, teaching agrees with Bennett. She teaches students from freshmen through seniors and discusses how and why the human body works. “Real life application can make the information easier to understand and retain,” Bennett said. In her classroom, science is for everyone. “I want to help students learn to love and enjoy science as my biology and former science teachers did for me,” she said. “Many students don’t like science or think they are bad in science. I hope I can change that way of thinking.”
The middle school years can be a tumultuous few for students, but Lewis — an eighth-grade science teacher at Henson — aims to make it interesting. “The thing I enjoy the most about being an educator is getting students excited about learning. Most come to my room with this idea that science is boring,” she said. “I always say, ‘I am going to change your minds by the end of the year.’ Inevitably, at the end of the year, students tell me they can now see what is exciting about it.” Lewis taught for a decade in Arizona before moving to Maryland where she has been with CCPS for six years. She teaches science in hopes of inspiring students to appreciate the subject while seeing that it has an interest area for just about anyone. “So many of the jobs now and in the future require some sort of STEM education, so it is imperative that we catch students young and show them what a good fit it could be for them,” Lewis said. She knows she has them hooked when they tell her they “went down the rabbit hole,” learning more about what they are studying in class on their own time. “They come back and share that with me,” Lewis said. “It really keeps me going to know that I had some small part in that.”
At Matula, Ochoa teaches students in second through fifth grades. In those numbers, there are children who will grow up to use science in their everyday lives and are building a foundation in Ochoa’s classroom. “[I’m] encouraging the next generation of people to act as a scientist, engineer, problem solver and advocate for the future of our planet,” Ochoa said. She has been teaching with CCPS for five years, originally as a fifth-grade teacher. “I fell into the role of Matula’s dedicated science teacher and never looked back,” Ochoa said.
Outstanding STEM Teacher honorees
Smith worked in the STEM industry before becoming a teacher. Wanting to see the industry better reflect the consumers it was servicing; Smith went into teaching computer science. “I wanted to help add more diversity to the industry,” she said. At Thomas Stone, Smith teaches students in ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th grades, and has been with CCPS for 16 years. While high school students are familiar with technology, teaching them to be comfortable and proficient with it falls on teachers like Smith.
“When students get excited because they ‘got it’ or ‘This isn’t as hard as I thought it would be,’ … that means they’re learning,” she said.
Wyatt has been teaching 27 years with the last three teaching STEM with CCPS. She enjoys teaching middle school students concepts that are out of the mainstream. “I enjoy planting the seeds of knowledge and creating opportunities for learning that are outside the box,” she said. Wyatt encourages students to consider careers in the STEM field, knowing that their options are vast. “Knowing that I have the possibility to affect the future,” is Wyatt’s motivation as a teacher. “Such as seeing my students to grow up to become aerospace engineers, scientists, doctors, pharmacists,” she said. “The sky is truly the limit.”
Thank you SMECO for honoring these teachers and supporting the MathCounts regional competition!
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