Meet These Inspiring Teachers from the Delaware Valley
Innovative educators from the Delaware Valley’s private schools
The Write Stuff
Meet Mrs. Piernik, Sts. Cyril and Philomena Catholic School, Lansdowne, Pennsylvania
As a little girl, Brittany Piernik had trouble reading. But a very special teacher changed her life—and inspired her future chapter in life.
“I still remember her—Mrs. Hawley was a reading specialist who guided me so much that I said, ‘I’m going to be an English teacher, so that I can work with kids who have trouble reading and writing too,’” Piernik says.
Today, as a middle school English and language arts teacher, Piernik strives to help every student develop a love of reading.
“Some kids like fantasy, fables or history. A lot of kids are into Harry Potter. There’s science fiction, graphic novels, thrillers and horror. Just talking with them, you gauge what their interests are,” says Piernik, whose students include sixth through eighth graders.
Principal Brigid McClelland calls Piernik “a calming presence” in the classroom who builds trust with her students.
“Students come to confide in her—she’s like a mother figure to them,” McClelland says. “She seeks out ways to make them feel confident through writing.”
The fact that Piernik has established a reputation as a teacher of excellence during three years of teaching is even more remarkable considering that’s also almost the span of the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps it’s because she relates so well to her students, although many label the middle school years an “awkward” phase of life.
“I remember when I was in middle school, I was super awkward,” Piernik says with a laugh. “You just have to know how to talk to them. They’re little people trying to grow up to be big people. The kids come from all different backgrounds, so I try to give them all extra love.”
A Creative Classroom
Meet Mrs. Staples, Sts. Cyril and Philomena Catholic School, Lansdowne, Pennsylvania
When kids express creativity through art, it sparks confidence. That’s the big picture, says Becky Staples, Sts. Cyril and Philomena’s art teacher.
“Art isn’t about mastery for me—it’s about exploration,” Staples says. “When kids are working and putting in that effort to complete a project, it builds confidence—which is like a building block for other things.”
A longtime preschool teacher-turned working artist, Staples was motivated to become an art teacher while raising her family because it combined her love of kids and her love of art. That career shift is similar to the change of pace she now provides to her students.
“As a specials teacher, I think we’re a break from the norm—it’s a break from screen time. Art teachers have the opportunity to pull kids out of the screen and into the here and now to make something,” says Staples. “And that joy they express motivates me.”
At Sts. Cyril and Philomena, Staples teaches all students—kindergarten through eighth graders.
“The projects she can pull out of the students are amazing,” says Principal Brigid McClelland. “Her class is this warm, welcoming climate. I never hear a student saying, ‘I can’t do art.’ She figures out ways to help all students, as a positive force in our school.”
Staples says that teaching art virtually through the pandemic made her feel “like Bob Ross.” But she looked at the situation as “a welcome challenge because it motivated me to come up with lessons—and sometimes limits produce a lot of creativity.”
Ultimately, she hopes her art lessons translate into life lessons.
“The confidence students achieve from doing something they’ve never done before—I encourage them to take those risks in other classrooms,” says Staples. “That confidence transcends, and I think that helps all of us in life.”
Full STEAM Ahead
Meet Mr. Harris, The Shipley School, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
Two things drive STEAM teacher John Harris.
“I’m not (a fan) of how we play it, academically in America,” says Harris. “Personally, I was not someone who played the game of regurgitation well in school—whereas, put me in a design or shop class, and I could spend hours creating or designing things. Education can take many different forms, and with STEAM, I like to provide something different.”
Harris, a Shipley School teacher of 15 years, draws upon another 15 years of experience as a mechanical engineer. A father of six daughters, Harris says that being a teacher has made him a better parent by “taking off the corporate edge.”
His STEAM classes combine elements of science, technology, engineering, the arts and math under the classroom mantra to “dream, create and inspire.”
Harris guides seventh graders through independent projects where they can build anything they want. But first, they must draw up proposals and explain their projects’ learning component.
“It stretches their talents, but they can truly follow their passion,” Harris says.
Inspiration goes both ways in his classroom—as much as Harris inspires his students, he readily admits they inspire his ongoing learning. For example, he’s currently working with a student creating a stop-motion video involving Matchbox cars.
“It’s such an eye-opening experience. If you just get out of the way of these young minds, the things they can do are amazing,” says Harris. “They’re the reason I’m up late at night doing research, and they’re the reason I pop out of bed to get to work and set up everything for them in the morning.”
A Moving Experience
Meet Mrs. Champagne, Tatnall School, Wilmington, Delaware
Linda Champagne believes she has “the best job in the world.” She teaches developmental gym and music to Tatnall School’s youngest students—in PK3, PK4 and kindergarten.
What are the common denominators between her two classes? Movement and emotion. “Children are movers. It’s a natural way for them to learn,” says Champagne. “Movement also builds more brain cells, so it’s a win-win.”
During a recent gym class, students threw and caught balls. With balls atop a big parachute cloth, they listened for “up” and “down” cues to make the colorful balls soar and drop. That fun factor brought emotion into the lesson.
“When you attach an emotion to learning, it sticks to the brain,” Champagne says.
Music class engages both sides of her young students’ brains: One side keeps a steady beat, and the other follows notes or pictures—a form of pre-reading. Like gym, music integrates both movement and emotion.
“You feel good when you’re singing, moving and dancing,” says Champagne.
But her contributions extend beyond classroom walls. Champagne has coached girls’ middle school field hockey for 15 of her total 25 years at Tatnall.
Not even a pandemic could throw a wrench into her tried-and-true teaching techniques. A kindergarten tradition—the spring play—almost came to a screeching halt. But Champagne adapted the musical fairy tale “Peter and the Wolf” so that the show could go on. Amid pandemic protocols, there were no speaking parts.
“Not only did the children learn about instruments of the orchestra, but they got to be the characters, move like the characters and act out the story with their bodies,” Champagne says. “Then I came to find out, listening to a podcast, that to build empathy in children, you should have them act like an animal, and I said, ‘Look at all the boxes this exercise checked.’”
But she’s quick to share the spotlight.
“I owe so much to Tatnall,” Champagne says. “Tatnall gives each of their faculty an opportunity to create and to establish that sense of wonder in a child.”