Six Chesterfield County educators receive 2021 R.E.B. Awards for Teaching Excellence

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Chasing the northern lights. Researching Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” Exploring canals.

Investigating manufacturing marvels. Learning how Scotland educates deaf students. Studying concert bands in Hawaii.

These adventures in learning await six Chesterfield County teachers who were named 2021 R.E.B. Awards for Teaching Excellence winners and will receive almost $85,000 in professional development grants from the Community Foundation for a greater Richmond and the R.E.B. Foundation. The program recognizes excellence in public education by awarding cash grants to outstanding public school teachers from Chesterfield, Richmond, Henrico and Hanover and the Department of Juvenile Justice in those localities. Across the region, a total of 17 teachers were selected as 2021 honorees.

Since its inception in 1988, the program has awarded about $4.4 million to more than 985 teachers. “The R.E.B. awards make a big difference each year. While rewarding our extraordinary teachers

for their exceptional work, the grants also create even more remarkable learning environments in our classrooms,” said Dr. Merv Daugherty, superintendent of Chesterfield County Public Schools. “We are so appreciative of the parents, colleagues and community partners who nominated our teachers because they saw their dedication and passion for engaging and immersing their students in learning.”

These Chesterfield County teachers won 2021 R.E.B. Awards for Teaching Excellence:

Amanda Berneche of Clover Hill High won $13,200 to study photography in remote locations while chasing the northern lights in Iceland.

Amanda Berneche has taught in the same art classroom for 13 years. She calls it Photowonderland

— a safe place for imagination, creativity and just a bit of mischief. As Berneche says, “What may appear as chaos is carefully crafted, project-based lessons that not only teach meaningful skills but also challenge students to think and create beyond their perceived limits. No wrong answers, no mistakes, just growth from each project to the next.” Her students create, critique, write and discuss their own artwork, which encourages growth. But the skills they learn can also lead to growth in other areas. She knows her teaching goes beyond her walls when she hears things like, “I got an A on my science fair presentation because I used design techniques I learned in photo class.” Her students are doing more than just creating artwork: They are learning to think differently.

Her nominator observed that Berneche makes sure every child has the information and materials they need to learn and grow to their full potential. She empowers her students to be free thinkers who are not afraid to take creative risks but also fosters a sense of community by encouraging students to work as a team. Her nominator states, “Ms. Berneche is something this world needs more of right now. She is a shining example of what teaching should be.”

Brianna Gatch of Clover Hill High won $13,900 to study Japanese pedagogical techniques and observe their influences on concert bands in Hawaii.

Brianna Gatch knew she had a future career in music when her music classes outnumbered her academic classes in high school. She looks back fondly and hopes that her students will too.

She sets classroom expectations and a structure that allows students to make music together in a safe space, where every student feels comfortable speaking up and engaging with the content. Students demonstrate different style interpretations in music literature and rehearsals are highly collaborative as students are encouraged to provide feedback. During virtual school, Gatch continued to adapt to keep students engaged, breaking larger classes into smaller groups so they could create their own band and compose original music. She offered individual tutoring, kept parents updated and shared student accomplishments on social media to maintain a family-like atmosphere.

Gatch has created a space where student voice and choice are prevalent and individual buy-in to the learning process is much greater. One parent nominator described how her child had improved, grown confident and created his favorite memories of high school thanks to Gatch’s constant efforts and communication, calling her “a ‘once in a child’s education’ kind of teacher.”

Helene Grossman of Gates Elementary won $14,800 to study how Scotland educates deaf and hard of hearing students.

Goosebumps. That’s the feeling Helene Grossman gets each school year as she anticipates meeting her students and the many new possibilities they will encounter together. Grossman teaches students in the deaf and hard of hearing program. Imagine learning to read when you can’t hear sounds.

Grossman uses visual phonics to help her students learn what sounds are like so they can learn to read and spell. Going the extra mile, she is recognized for introducing American Sign Language across the school to ensure her students always feel included. As she points out, “Deaf and hard of hearing students often feel isolated from their peers, even if they are seated right next to them. This is because their classmates, and the adults as well, are unable to communicate with them directly.”

Grossman created a program to place deaf and hard of hearing students into general education classrooms and expose hearing students to sign language. The results have been magical. As one peer noted, “She has done her best to not only teach the hearing children signs, but to use the extra modality to help early learners with reading. During pair activities, hearing students can be seen signing to their deaf partner. No interpreter needed. Seeing the seamless connection between deaf and hearing students in action is rewarding beyond words.”

Paul Lathrop of Chesterfield Career and Technical Center @ Hull won $13,800 to explore the history and current marvels of engineering and manufacturing across the United States.

Paul Lathrop goes above and beyond to create a mechatronics and robotics program that is challenging and pragmatic but also fun and exciting. Students use hands-on projects and activities to reinforce the material as they learn real-world applications such as hydraulics, mechanics, electronics and fluid power. Lathrop helps students earn internships, secure scholarships and find jobs.

He stands out as an amazing teacher because he works individually with each student to meet them where they are and tailors his teaching style to help them master the material. He spends countless hours applying for grants to augment the program’s resources.

The only requirement needed to be successful in his program is to be interested and motivated. His nominator observed that Lathrop is able to build rapport that turns into a mentor-mentee relationship. Students continue to reach out to him even after they complete his program to seek his guidance with college and career questions. Among his colleagues, Lathrop has become the teacher everyone comes to for advice or simply to trade ideas.

Helmut Thielsch Jr. of Bird High won $15,000 to explore the design and construction of significant transportation canals and gain a deeper understanding of the cultural and economic impact of these engineering accomplishments.

Helmut Thielsch has been described as a rare teacher with an obvious passion for developing the next generation of engineers. A career switcher, he brings real-world experience into the curriculum, finding innovative and hands-on ways for students to learn engineering concepts within the confines of a high school classroom. He has established a dynamic atmosphere where students learn by seeing, hearing, researching and — most importantly — doing. Thielsch designs complex projects that have clear criteria while encouraging student voice, choice and collaboration. Through his Senior Engineering Seminar, he gives students a glimpse into university-level engineering coursework. While his classes are described as challenging, his students are motivated to master the material.

His entire approach to teaching is unique. For instance, he does not give tests; his students prepare instead for assessments. He announces an upcoming assessment as a “celebration of knowledge” and even supplies party hats for seniors to wear that day. This helps inspire and motivate students to reach heights they didn’t think possible.

Dorrie Turner of James River High won $14,200 to visit Greece and Italy to research Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” discovering how it came to represent a complex moment of change between old and new worlds.

According to a former colleague, “To work with and watch Dorrie Turner teach is a privilege. Just a simple conversation with her is effective professional development.” Turner is intentional about using evidence-based practices to teach her students and strives to stay up to date on the most effective approaches to improve her teaching, blending in new practices seamlessly with techniques that already work for her. She is always willing to share her techniques with her department and professional learning community.

With a warm presence and a good sense of humor, Turner centers her classroom around high engagement, confidence building and helping students realize their potential. She meets students where they are. Students who may be behind or struggling can depend on her for extra help during study hall, office hours or even an alternative assignment to help them show what they know. Turner believes her job as an English teacher isn’t just teaching reading and writing. It’s also about giving her students the skills to identify problems, ask questions and develop solutions.

In addition to the six teachers named as R.E.B. winners, four Chesterfield County Public Schools teachers were recognized as finalists and received a $1,000 unrestricted cash grant in recognition of their achievements in the classroom:

  • Jade Miller of Carver Middle
  • Todd Gasparello of Carver Middle
  • Ashley Buck of Bon Air Elementary
  • Jim Young of James River High