Teachers We Love

They somehow continued to engage and inspire our children, even when classrooms were closed.

Photo by Skip Brown

Kathleen Otal

School counselor
McLean High School

Years teaching: 25

Otal began her career as a first-grade teacher in Texas. Named 2020 Secondary Counselor of the Year by the Virginia School Counselor Association, she co-founded a Parent University to help parents support their teens in the college admissions process. Last year she was also co-leader of McLean High School’s equity team.

The pandemic brought a lot of equity issues to the forefront. Students with fewer resources didn’t have as much support at home. They struggled with technology. Some didn’t have space to do work. It was harder for them to keep up academically.

We cut out a lot of the assignments. We tried to lower the stress by not having the full curriculum. This fall we’ll have the full curriculum again and that’s going to be a hard transition. I really hope parents and students and teachers will give everyone grace.

Kids don’t just play anymore. They’re either in front of a screen, or they’re going from activity to activity to activity. They don’t have a chance to be bored. When you’re bored, that’s when you learn self-regulation skills. If you’re upset, angry, sad—you learn how to regulate and come to terms with it.

Today’s parents may be a little more stressed about their children getting into the right college. But more parents are opening up their minds to the idea that there are a lot of good schools out there, which is really great.

I think parents are having a hard time figuring out how to deal with social media and kids being on their phones 24/7. For kids, socializing now is not as much face to face. A lot of it is done on that device. As long as they are happy with their social life, we need to try to understand it.

The long-range goal is for your child to be happy, healthy, well-adjusted. Have a job where they’re self-sufficient and functioning in society. Able to maintain a relationship and have friends. Your goal is really to have them become a healthy adult.

If you want your child to be successful, give them jobs around the house and make them responsible for that. Give them free time to discover what they like to do. Because if you’re just putting your child in all these different activities, you’re deciding what’s right for them and they don’t have a chance to think about what makes them happy.

There’s a misconception that every student is really smart and taking tons of AP classes. That’s actually not true. Most students are taking one AP class. They always feel like they need to do more. They compare themselves to others a little too much.

Nothing is more important than your relationship with your child. If they get bad grades for a few years, don’t ruin your relationship by trying to force them to get good grades. Just have them get bad grades and keep your relationship intact.

Getting into an Ivy League school means sacrificing a lot of your high school experience. You’re only studying and doing high-level activities. That has to come from the child. Those kids who go to Ivy League schools—it’s because they wanted it and their parents didn’t force them into it. You’re going to be successful with your child if you accept them for who they are and allow them to be that person.

–interview by Lisa Lednicer



Photo by Skip Brown

Wilfredo Padilla Meléndez

Science teacher
Claremont Immersion School

Years teaching: 17

Padilla Meléndez grew up in Puerto Rico and initially planned to be a veterinarian. Now a teacher in a bilingual school, he was named Canvas Educator of the Year (Elementary) in 2019.

I love science and math. In high school [in Puerto Rico], my teachers in those subjects inspired me to continue. I was so proud of myself, being successful. I wanted to be like them.

I always like to be challenged. Algebra involves figuring out how or why. The same with science. You want to know why. How are you going to get the answer?

I’ve been in a bilingual setting for my whole career. I want to show my kids, my Latino population, that I know how they feel because English is my second language.

I want my students to feel like real scientists—to understand how what they learn in the classroom is something they can use in the real world. For instance, we did a unit where we were talking about plants. Two weeks after we finished the experiment, I received this email from the parent like, “Oh my God, thank you for the lesson. Because you did that experiment with the beans in school, now she wants to grow more.” I felt so happy because the student applied what she learned in her household.

Getting resources in Spanish—that’s a real challenge for bilingual education. Sometimes we need to create them ourselves because the available resources do not fit. Things get lost in translation. It’s not easy to create my own lessons. I need to do my research, to do what’s appropriate for my kids. Some of the Spanish textbooks we have are too high-level [for elementary-age kids]. So I need to accommodate my lessons into the Spanish that they can understand.

I’m kind of sweet with the kids; however, I’m strict. I respect them, I love working with them, they respect me.

Even on a sad day, you go to school and they make you smile.

I’m doing a little bit, one step, to get them closer to their success. I want to do my part as their teacher. I can see the progress. We can work as a team, the parents and the school, to make this world better.

–interview by Eliza Tebo Berkon



Photo by Skip Brown

Karyn Ewart

Founder and Head of School
The Sycamore School

Years in education: 20+

A lifelong Arlingtonian and licensed clinical psychologist, Ewart founded The Sycamore School in 2015. Centering on a competency-based learning philosophy with individualized instruction, the independent secondary school emphasizes social-emotional growth and civic engagement alongside academics.

I call the NoVA area the Bermuda Triangle of stress because you have high-achieving parents, high-achieving schools, high-achieving kids. We’ve set these expectations that you can make straight A’s, and be captain of your soccer team, and do all these extracurriculars, and do this community service—and that it’s all doable and expected. So you see all these kids trying to do it. And then you see the eating disorders; you see the anxiety, the drug use, self-medication. We’ve got this going on, but we’re not talking about it.

I wanted to create a school where: A) learning can be challenging without being stressful; and B) we’re calling out the elephant in the room. We’re normalizing that all kiddos need help with socio-emotional learning just like with academic learning. And we’re gonna give them the support they need, not when they’re in crisis but before.

I found myself bored in the setting that I was in, and several different people were saying, “Well, why don’t you open your own school?” At first I was like, “You’re crazy. That’s a lot of work.” Then I started thinking about it, and I thought, Once in your life, you have to just take that deep dive and try something a little risky and crazy and see what happens. It’s probably one of the defining moments of my life.

Our school has a mastery-based learning philosophy. It’s the idea that learning can be self-paced. We as humans don’t all learn things at the same rate. There are some things we learn and we get really quickly, and there are other things that we need to spend more time with. Each person is different.

We work a lot on empathy and perspective-taking and considering different points of view. One of the things I often say is, “We need to make room for other voices.”

I want students to be strong self-advocates. I want them to think for themselves.

I’m hoping they’re kind, they’re engaged in their community, they’re doing something they love and that they’re able to be independent, productive adults.

–interview by Eliza Tebo Berkon

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Categories: Education