Thirty wiggly kindergartners with wildly diverse learning needs and a challenging curriculum? No problem. At Anne Frank Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia, Gina Weightman manages to pull it all together with joy and good humor.
At the Workshop School in West Philadelphia, Brandon Miller uses his fierce intelligence and matching work ethic to guide young people to become thinkers and leaders inside the classroom and out.
And in West Mount Airy, Deanna Henderson’s sixth-grade classroom is the place to be — both for engaging lessons and out-of-class help from a teacher who prides herself on building strong relationships with students.
Weightman, Miller, and Henderson are the kind of teachers who leave a lasting impression, representative of the very best talent in city classrooms. They are among 60 strong teachers being recognized Tuesday by the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation with $3,500 awards.
The foundation honors outstanding teaching at area colleges and within Philadelphia’s public schools. Since 2008, it has dispensed millions to superlative School District teachers chosen by school officials and Lindback trustees.
As Gina Weightman taught a lesson on positional words and two- and three-dimensional shapes, one of her students stood from his seat and bolted for her. The enthusiastic boy couldn’t control himself: He just had to give his teacher a hug.
Weightman squeezed the boy’s shoulder and continued teaching, unruffled. She’s used to those kinds of responses in her students. A kindergarten teacher with 27 years experience in the city, Weightman loves her job with the kind of enthusiasm that is evident to anyone who steps inside her classroom at Anne Frank.
The job has changed dramatically since she became an educator, when kindergarten was still half-day and play was emphasized.
“Kindergarten is very academic, and the pressure is on to get them to a certain level,” said Weightman, who taught at Clymer Elementary in North Philadelphia before transferring to Anne Frank in 2007.
But she earns the highest praise from her principal, peers, parents, and pupils for making her class not just a place to help children progress — even those who can’t hold a pencil properly in September are reading fluently by June — but also a joyful place.
“I just love my students — they’re curious,” said Weightman, who teaches at a school with 1,300 students, an 87 percent poverty rate, and a large population of students for whom English is a second language. “And they’re always eager to learn.”
A parent in Weightman’s class shared his son’s assessment of her for the Lindback trustees’ consideration. “I like being in Mrs. Weightman’s room,” the student said, “because it has Mrs. Weightman in it.”
Brandon Miller had an epiphany when, as a college student, he read Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro, a 1933 book that argued blacks were being intentionally and systemically underserved in schools. He dropped plans to become a lawyer, committing instead to teaching in an urban area.
More than a decade and three degrees later — he holds a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education — Miller teaches English at the Workshop School, a project-based high school.
It was a shift to switch from Germantown High School, where Miller taught until it closed in 2013, to the Workshop School, where lessons happen not around traditional classes and textbooks but around solving real-world problems. But Miller has embraced it over the last five years, elevating the way the school prepares students for college opportunities.
“Every year, it’s, ‘What do the students need? How do we make that happen?’” said Miller, who this year noticed a lack of knowledge about politics and geography among seniors and designed a project to engage them in learning about the ongoing conflict in Venezuela.
Philadelphia students often come to school with significant emotional as well as academic needs, and Miller does his best to meet those, too. For most Workshop students — the vast majority of whom are black — he’s the first African American male teacher they have encountered, and he takes that seriously. He wears a necktie to work every day because that’s the image he wants his students to see.
“I want people to see a man of color doing well,” he said.
It’s paid off. John Yallah, a Workshop senior, said that Miller motivates him to come to school, try hard, think about his future.
“I don’t really have a dad in my life, and I always say, ‘My dad never shows up,’” said Yallah. “And Dr. Miller is different. He always shows up.”
Deanna Henderson’s teaching philosophy is simple.
“Students don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” said Henderson, a sixth-grade English and social studies teacher at Henry Houston Elementary in West Mount Airy.
For the seven years she’s been in the classroom, Henderson has won over her students by demonstrating how much she cares for them, then leveraging that buy-in to get them to achieve academically. Thanks to her, students often are found reading a novel, or incorporating dance or singing into lessons as a way to really connect with the material Henderson is presenting.
She’s rarely alone in her classroom, and that’s fine by Henderson.
“Just seeing the kids’ reactions when they improve, going from basic to proficient on a test, or improving a reading level, that’s the best," she said.
Henderson grew up in rural South Jersey, but felt called to teach in Philadelphia, she said, because that’s where she would be of the most use. Henderson struggled in her first year of teaching, but persevered.
“If you can teach in Philadelphia, you can teach anywhere,” said Henderson, whose own daughter is a second grader at Houston.
Bubbly but firm, she prides herself on having high expectations for students, but being fair. And she’s always there for extra support and to lend an ear, even if she has to give up her own time to do so.