Mud pies, skies and butterflies

Math Science Innovation Center in Eastern Henrico celebrates 50 years of wonder

Even the most relaxed parents may blanch on occasion at the thought of letting their kids delve deeply into buckets of mud or handle insects and spiny sea creatures. Throw in the mention of exploring a spider room, and some might barely suppress shudders.

But at the MathScience innovation center (MSIC) in Eastern Henrico County, flies and mud pies are all part of the game – and the learning.

Henrico’s Top Teachers – Vonita Giddings

Vonita Giddings has been teaching in one capacity or another since educating her dolls as a child. Her students these days are a bit more receptive to her instruction, however.

Giddings, a biology teacher at Henrico High School since 2006, also taught previously at Virginia State University for six years and at Fairfield Middle School for three years. Her love of biology has been a lifetime affair.

“I think it’s an innate interest,” she said. “I was the one who was trying to figure out how to save the little bird or bring little animals home. I see biology in everything, in everything. It can be there when I’m just hanging out with my kids, watching a cartoon – just about anything.”

Henrico’s Top Teachers – Alexandra Mendez-Zfass

While some might point to the challenging situations many Highland Springs E.S. students face at home as reasons why they may struggle to succeed academically, fourth-grade teacher Alex Mendez-Zfass seeks points of common ground in order to ensure that they do. And she calls upon her own at-times curious academic struggles as a reminder that there’s more to every student than meets the eye.

Though she achieved mostly high grades overall at the Collegiate School, they came with much difficulty, many test re-takes and despite poor writing grades that resulted in frequent meetings with teachers.

“My fourth-grade teacher was very instrumental in building up my confidence and making me realize that my brain was special the way it was wired. That gave me the confidence to work through it.”

Henrico’s Top Teachers – Erica Kagan

Erica Kagan always loved school and working with children. As an undergrad at VCU, she traveled to a number of Spanish-speaking countries, and her love for the Spanish language and culture was solidified.

It’s no surprise, then, that she’s living her dream each day as a Spanish teacher at Tuckahoe Middle School.

“Spanish is such a fun class to teach,” she said. “[The students] really enjoy it. It’s not just sitting and taking notes – we show videos, we do dances, we use online programs, we do projects that are relative to their lives.”

Henrico’s Top Teachers – Beverly Brown

Inspiration can come at any time, and in any form. For Beverly Brown, it came in a fourth-grade classroom.

Her teacher that year rewarded the class by reading another chapter from Little House on the Prarie aloud each time students behaved well.

“That made me excited,” Brown recalled. “I went through school with a love of history – reading and history. I wanted to instill that in children.”

Henrico’s Top Teachers – Beth Tubb

Beth Tubb has taught at the elementary, middle and high-school levels, but kindergarten is where she found her greatest passion.

Tubb most recently spent seven years at Ashe Elementary, including the last two as a kindergarten teacher.

“I really loved teaching kids to read,” she said. “In kindergarten, when you see that lightbulb go off in their heads – I never got tired of that. I feel like knowledge is power, and kindergarten is the most important year of all the years. Without reading, what else are you going to be able to accomplish?”

Henrico’s Top Teachers – Audra Yerian

Audra Yerian never thought she’d end up teaching, but once she started, there was little doubt about which direction her career in education would head. She’s spent all nine years of it teaching kindergarten in Henrico – first at Jackson Davis Elementary, and for the past two years at Sandston Elementary.

“I absolutely love teaching reading,” Yerian said, explaining why she can’t imagine teaching any other grade level. “I feel like that is my passion. I feel strongly about ensuring that kids leave my room at the age of five or six being able to put a book in their hands and say ‘I can read.’ It’s an incredible thing to be able to empower kids to do.”

Yerian finds satisfaction and a sense of achievement in helping students who possess widely varying academic skill sets in September reach the same end point by June.

Henrico’s Top Teachers – Michael Jiancristoforo

As a student athlete (swimmer and soccer player) growing up in Pennsylvania, Michael Jiancristoforo was inspired and motivated by a number of coaches and teachers.

At home, he was influenced by family members who were educators as well, and who helped develop his deep appreciation of the impact teachers can have on students’ lives.

Not surprisingly, those positive experiences with school and sports inspired a desire to have a similar impact on others – and motivated Jiancristoforo to become a teacher and coach himself.

Henrico’s Top Teachers – Jonathan Gosney

Jonathan Gosney did not begin his career as a teacher, but it seems likely that the desire may have been quietly simmering inside him, all along.

Following his graduation from college, he initially went into the IT industry and worked first as a quality assurance analyst and then as a programming analyst for a local software company. After three or four years, he was ready for a change to something “more personally rewarding,” he said.

As a student at Varina High School, where he now teaches, he had a number of teachers who ultimately influenced his decision to turn to teaching.

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Eastern Henrico FISH will hold a benefit concert at 5 p.m. at Oak Hall Baptist Church, 1877 Old Hanover Rd. in Sandston. The concert is in honor of our veterans. Full text

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Henrico's Top Teachers

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