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What motivates these three teachers, considered among the best in Philly

The Lindback foundation, which recognizes strong teaching at area colleges and within Philadelphia’s public schools, has given millions of dollars since 2008 to top teachers.

Teachers (L-R) Lattonia Robichaw, Kearny Elementary; Meredith Seung Mee Buse, Vare-Washington Elementary; and Kristin Luebbert, the U School, are three of 60 winners of the 2022 Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.
Teachers (L-R) Lattonia Robichaw, Kearny Elementary; Meredith Seung Mee Buse, Vare-Washington Elementary; and Kristin Luebbert, the U School, are three of 60 winners of the 2022 Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.Read moreTOM GRALISH, TYGER WILLIAMS, JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographers

There is much Meredith Seung Mee Buse can’t control for her students: poverty, violence, family circumstances.

But every day in Room 104, there are smart, hardworking kids and the teacher who loves them — the magic evident in a recent class full of first graders engrossed in reading books that challenged and delighted them.

“Inside my classroom, I can embrace joy and all of the potential that my kids have,” said Buse, a first-grade teacher at Vare-Washington Elementary in South Philadelphia.

Buse’s skills and enthusiasm for teaching is representative of the sort of transformative work going on around the Philadelphia School District, and why she and 59 others will be honored Tuesday as winners of the 2022 Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.

Since 2008, the foundation that sponsors the award — which recognizes strong teaching at area colleges and within Philadelphia’s public schools — has given millions of dollars to those chosen by a panel of Lindback and district representatives. Here are three of this year’s winners.

» READ MORE: See the full list of teachers who won Lindback Awards this year

‘My kids are inspirational’

Many of Buse’s students came to first grade never having set foot in a classroom. Some didn’t know how to hold a pencil. Nine months later, nearly every one is headed to second grade right on track.

“Wildcats, I am so excited — I have seen you all starting to be the boss of your own reading,” Buse said to her first graders on Friday, watching them choose books and read independently.

Buse’s default demeanor is positive, but ask her about her students, and she bubbles over. Three years into a pandemic, in a city beset by gun violence, “institutions haven’t been there for people — and it’s creating this underlying sense of insecurity that teachers are dealing with every day.” And still, children rise.

“My kids are inspirational — they come in every day ready for me. I keep increasing the rigor and they’re ready for it, they want it,” she said.

Buse starts every year meeting her student’s families. She wants to know: Who lives in your house? What do you do for fun? What was your educational experience like? What’s your child like? It sets the tone — she is listening. (At the height of COVID-19, Buse did more, personally connecting families to needed services and privately fund-raising $2,000 for those in need.)

Relationships to students and their families matter, Buse said, and she has learned much from both.

“I’ve been so privileged this year to have students who are multilingual, with roots in many different countries. That’s been really neat for me — thinking about my kids immigrating to the United States, being in a totally different setting, new language, new smells, new sounds,” said Buse. That’s helped her come to terms with her own racial identity in a new way — Buse grew up in New Mexico, but was adopted from Korea.

Fifteen years in, Buse — who taught in Camden, Chicago, and at a Philadelphia charter school before coming to the district seven years ago — said she fears the difficulties of teaching through the pandemic could force significant numbers of educators out of the classroom. But there’s also a chance to expand supports and diversify teacher pipelines.

Either way, Buse plans to stay. And to continue to up her game.

“It’s a profession, it’s a craft,” she said of teaching. “I’ve honed my craft over 15 years now and I’ve gotten way better, which is also cool.”

‘It will change your views of the world’

Kristin Luebbert’s students, ninth graders at the U School in North Philadelphia, are currently reading Pride by Ibi Zoboi, a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, set in Brooklyn. The lightbulb moments and meaningful conversations keep coming, even this far into a tough, pandemic-touched year.

“To see the kids get a really hard text, to react to it with their own experience, the gentrification in the book, but also the interpersonal stuff — ‘Oh, this girl’s a hater, why doesn’t she like Darcy?’ — it’s my favorite part of the job,” said Luebbert. Conversations about the two main characters lead to organic, honest discussions about dating and consent, tough topics to tackle but important and memorable.

In the application nominating Luebbert for the Lindback, colleagues noted that in her classes, “students are both motivated and challenged by work that is designed to help them explore their new high school learning environment, and begin to ask deeper questions and critical inquiries.”

Luebbert didn’t mean to become a teacher, but “it’s in the genes, I couldn’t escape it,” she said. (Her mother, aunts, and both grandmothers were all teachers.) After stints teaching in Catholic schools, Luebbert became a district teacher in 2001.

She started out in the primary grades, but had her sights set on an assignment most regard as the most challenging: middle school. Luebbert taught at Bache-Martin in Fairmount for years, and now teaches ninth-grade humanities at the U School. “In high school, nobody wants to teach ninth grade, but I love it,” she said.

Luebbert serves as a mentor for new teachers and stands out for her advocacy.

“If you’re really present for your students and present in your school community, it will change your views of the world,” said Luebbert. “Seeing the way that people reacted to my students who I loved, it woke me up to the fact that in this country, white supremacy has always been a thing. It changed my perspective from ‘I’m not a prejudiced person’ to a way more actively antiracist person.”

And the genetic call of teaching? It’s still strong. Both of her children are Philadelphia teachers: Clare at Franklin Learning Center and Maddie at Kensington Health Sciences Academy.

‘There’s no room for failure in my classroom’

Lattonia Robichaw’s motto is “There’s no room for failure in my classroom,” and she means it.

Her students — third through fifth graders at Kearny Elementary in Northern Liberties — have emotional and behavioral needs, and may have left another school because of problems. No matter.

“I tell them, ‘Listen, I love all kids. The things you’ve experienced in your old school, that’s going to stay there. We’re not going to put you out.’ ”

Even as a young child, Robichaw was a teacher, organizing games of school with friends, encouraging her peers to read. As a teenager working in a day-care, she volunteered to care for and teach a boy with a feeding tube, a student others were hesitant to take on. They bonded, and Robichaw shone. That role cemented her professional path.

Robichaw has spent more than 30 years in education, in early childhood and behavioral health settings, and, for the past seven years, in the district at Kearny. Relentlessly cheerful, she “comes in on 100,” Robichaw says, “because that’s how I feel. I tell them, ‘Y’all will see me every day, the Lord willing. I love this job, I love y’all, and I love coming here.’ ”

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges. The pandemic has been an enormous one, from the early technological bumps to the difficulty of not being in the same room with her students, children for whom routine and face-to-face contact is hugely important. Robichaw knocked on doors and delivered books to every one of her students.

“The toughest thing is to build relationships among the children,” said Robichaw. “They’re used to so much discord and chaos in their lives.”

But inside Robichaw’s classroom, things hum, even on a warm spring day after a field trip when spirits were high.

Families have Robichaw’s cell phone number, and she’ll text a family member about students’ good or funny moments at school, not just when there’s trouble. Students know she thinks about them even when they’re not together — one recently confessed weekends were tough for him.

Robichaw didn’t hesitate: If you’re having a hard time, call me, even on my day off.

“I want to be an advocate for children who can’t speak for themselves,” Robichaw said, “and I’m going to show them the way they can do things that fits their learning.”