284 teachers & other staff nominated for AAPS Excellence in Virtual Instruction awards

Parents, students, fellow staff honor “engaging, inclusive, approachable, empathetic, positive leaders”

By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor

AAPS students, staff and parents were generous with their praise when nominating 284 teachers and other staff for Google’s Excellence in Virtual Instruction awards.

“We were blown away by the number of nominations we received for this award,” said Nancy Shore, the district’s Strategic Partnership and Volunteer Coordinator. “Not only did we receive nominations for a staff person in every AAPS building, but we were also delighted to see a variety of AAPS staff nominated.  From specials teachers to TAs to subject-specific teachers–it truly takes a village to support AAPS students especially during this challenging time.”

Sponsored by Google, the AAPS Excellence in Virtual Instruction Award recognizes exceptional educators in the AAPS Community during this different and challenging year. Because it would have been so difficult to choose three winners from the nominations, three AAPS staff members were selected at random from the 284 nominees to receive a $500 grant to use to enhance their instruction.

The Excellence in Virtual Instruction winners are:

  • Shelley Brower, First Grade Teacher, Carpenter Elementary
  • Kristi Crowell, Orchestra Teacher, Forsythe Middle School
  • Jessie Hieber, ELA Teacher, Pioneer High School

Any AAPS staff, student, parent, or community member could nominate any AAPS staff person for this award, and they were asked to give specific examples of the way the nominee is engaging, inclusive, approachable, empathetic, a leader, and has a positive attitude.

Recognizing the challenges involved in virtual instruction, their praise was effusive, and included:

“Kevin Conte creatively reimagined the chat as a tool for engagement during math instruction. He would have the students work through a math problem and type their answer into the chat without submitting. Then, he would have all the students BLAST their answers simultaneously and everyone would watch with excitement as the answers appeared on the screen.”

“I was skeptical when I first learned that all AAPS would be virtual this year. I didn’t think it would be possible to engage a group of 5-year olds in virtual education. But Ms. Dimas has not only managed to engage this class everyday, but they are learning things as well. She has adapted her curriculum to a virtual format that, maybe isn’t the same as in-person learning, but still achieves the same goals.”

“Mr. Lorenz puts students in random breakout rooms for a few minutes so that people can talk to friends as they would in a classroom.”

“As a parent, I appreciate that Mr. Morrissey sets the standard of participation at a high level in his class. In addition, Mr. Morrissey’s transparency with students about how teachers are meeting outside of class and sharing best practices and strategies is refreshing.”

“Ms. Bullinger assigns interesting and open discussions that allow us students to express ourselves and our opinions while also learning from what others have to say.”

The majority of nominations (65 percent) came from AAPS parents, and about 20 percent were from students. The nominations represented every school K-12 school in the district.

Click here for the names of all the educators nominated.

Sue Sanch, who teaches visual arts at Tappan Middle School, was nominated by parent Ty Kinasz, who wrote:

Sue Sanch is a 6-8 visual arts instructor at Tappan Middle School.

There is no other teacher that deserves the award more than she does. She reminds me why we send our children to Ann Arbor Public Schools. When you say every child every day, she does that.  … Mrs. Sanch is full of grace and is willing to help students out any time of the day even if that means helping them at 7 in the evening.”

Sanch, who calls her nomination “honoring and validating,” says this year has been like none other in her tenure.  

“Teaching through a pandemic has been like no other challenge in my 38-year experience,” she says.  “It included health concerns, suffering the loss of loved ones, tackling almost overwhelming amounts of new learning, curriculum redesign, and platform delivery. I thought about my students and their families daily, missing them and wondering how they might be doing.  Focusing on them was highly motivating.”

She says she highly respects the amazing, energetic work that AAPS teachers, as a group, demonstrate every year.

“We care deeply about our students and community,” says Sanch, “and we are dedicated to providing the best total student learning experiences possible.”

Excellence in Virtual Instruction winners say it’s been a tough year, but they rose to the challenge

Shelley Brower teaches first grade at Carpenter Elementary.

Shelley Brower

Parent Kim Ulrich nominated Carpenter first grade teacher Shelley Brower, noting:

Mrs. Brower has helped her first graders learn about one another and build bonds even though they are far apart.

Mrs. Brower helps students learn that their differences can bring them together. She helps them share about their own diverse backgrounds. My favorite is that they learn how other cultures greet people and when a student asks if they can learn a specific cultures greeting she will research it and share.

She is always encouraging the parents to contact her with questions and or concerns and will make time to meet with the parents. She has been available to me and I have heard her set up meetings with other parents.

Before holiday break the first grade team at Carpenter put together an all first grade zoom meet-up and Mrs. Brower helped get volunteers to help with break out rooms for this event so that students could mix with other classes and do activities. It was a lot of fun as I have missed volunteering in the classroom this year!

The calm and passion that Mrs. Brower shows through all of this is amazing. This is the second child of mine she has taught and it is amazing to see that she brings the same caliber of quality education to this online platform as she did in person! She is ALWAYS encouraging the children to enjoy learning!

Shelley Brower is a 4th generation born-and-raised Ann Arborite. She attended  Haisley, Forsythe, and Pioneer before going on to earn her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Eastern Michigan University. She’s worked for AAPS since 1990, and for the past 27 years, she’s taught first, second and third grades at Carpenter Elementary. For the past 20 years, she’s taught first grade.

She and her husband Mike,  along with their dog Cody,  live in Ann Arbor. Her stepson, Michael, along with his wife Melissa, and their children, Kennedy, 7, and Mason, 5 are stationed at Scott Air Force Base in southern Illinois. Brower says she was inspired to go into teaching by her third grade teacher, Mrs. Vaughn.

How did you meet the challenges of virtual teaching?
I can honestly say that in my 30-plus years of teaching, I have never been so challenged with what the school year was going to look like and feel like being virtual. I tease my younger colleagues about what I learned in college, grad school, and student teaching and told them, “They never prepared me for anything like this!” However, people who know me know that I will accept any challenge and do my best to meet the challenge head-on. 

One of my mottos is, “I play to win,…and I always win” (or at least I hope to think that) and virtual teaching was not going to beat me either. This past summer, I started attending professional development (PD) sessions that were offered and watched YouTube videos to give me some background knowledge. I also leaned on my colleagues as we talked through and even practiced on Zoom, to give me a feel for the adventure that lay ahead of me. When the school year started, I was fortunate to have some “repeat families” where I had their older sibling in years past, for comfort and guidance.

What do you most want people to know about the work of AAPS teachers this past year?
I can’t say enough about the incredible and amazing work that teachers have been involved with since the start of summer. The variety of numerous PD sessions that have been offered has been well organized, full of knowledge and resources. The presenters have been helpful, patient, and resourceful as well.

Shelley Brower is assisted by her sleepy dog Cody.

How are your students?
I can’t brag and say enough about my amazing students and their families! They are thoughtful, caring, kind, helpful, intelligent, enthusiastic…I feel lucky and blessed every time I log into Zoom to see them. They make me laugh, smile, and amaze me with fun facts, creative ideas, and mostly just being themselves…kids!

Is there any aspect of virtual teaching that worked so well you will take it back to the building with you?
I have enjoyed working and learning with the first grade teachers across the district, in our grade-level meetings and content areas. It is so important for teachers to be able to reflect and brainstorm with other colleagues, not only at their building but across the district. The lessons that have been created will be very helpful and resourceful when we return to face-to-face instruction. I’m the first to admit that I am not the most tech-savvy teacher there is. However, this year I have learned and done more with technology than I could ever have imagined.

What are your thoughts about returning to the classroom?
I appreciate all of the hard work, information, and decisions that have been made so far about whether to remain virtual or to return face to face. I strongly believe that the district will make the best decision keeping everyone safe and deciding when the F2F instruction should happen.

Is there anything you’d like to add?
I have to say I was humbled and surprised when I received the news last Friday. Often times your hard work goes unnoticed or unappreciated. The parent(s) who took the time out of their busy day to nominate me, I can’t thank enough! However, I feel that all of the teachers should be winners as we have blazed down a path that we have never been on before with our heads held high. I accept this award on behalf of all of my colleagues.


Kristi Crowell

Ellie Woodward was one of two students who nominated Forsythe Orchestra teacher Kristi Crowell, noting:

Whenever we are hurt or in a bad mood she never will force us to play.

She always tells us we can come to her, she’s so nice and supportive and understanding about everything.

She always makes positive statements on how online school isn’t that bad and we will get through it together 

She is so nice and fun, her class is my favorite part of the day because she is so nice, funny, kind, and smart

This is Forsythe Middle School Orchestra teacher Kristi Crowell’s seventh year at AAPS, and her fourth year at Forsythe. She graduated from Central Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in music and a bachelor’s degree in music education, studying primarily with David Holland. She and her husband, Mitch, live in Farmington Hills with their dogs, Conan and Xena, and cat, Tofu.

How did you meet the challenges of virtual teaching?
Teaching online was never going to be an easy feat, especially with a hands-on subject like music. I am very thankful for the large and supportive music department who worked tirelessly to seek out new ways to provide students with a musical experience from home. For my students, I ask them consistently for their thoughts, opinions, stress levels, and comfort levels with what we are doing in class as well as in other classes. My goal is simple: give the students the tools they need to have a creative outlet and point of enjoyment. So much of what we do in class—agendas, organization, assignments, discussions, pacing—is due to their input.

What do you most want people to know about the work of AAPS teachers this past year?
It’s a completely different beast. Teaching online this past year leaves us with a lot of cameras turned off, near completely cutting us off from the thing we love most about our jobs – the students. Teachers teach because we love the students and want to give them a safe space to learn and grow. Without them, the days are more draining than usual. The tech challenges have also been a particularly difficult hurdle, both for students and staff, though one that we are overcoming together. I always ensure my colleagues know they can call me or text me if there is ever anything I can do to help, and I certainly am learning more alongside them. At the end of the day, it is like being a first-year teacher again—new challenges, so much unknown ahead, and a sense of determination to do what needs to be done.

How are your students?  
I have a survey every week that my students reply to which gives me a small look into their stress level, mental health, comfort with material, and needs. One of my goals is to match the pacing of class with their desires. If one week they tell me I am going too slow, I add just a bit more the next week. One of the biggest things I look at in that weekly survey is their stress levels and what they feel they are struggling with to ensure I do whatever I can to make class both educational and enjoyable. On a day-to-day basis, I like spending time with all of my classes just talking and having that much-needed social time. We talk about movies, jokes, random bits of history, video games, pets, and so much more. I adore my classes, and I hope everyone in my classes is also getting enjoyment out of them. 

Is there any aspect of virtual teaching that worked so well you will take it back to the building with you?
Though I consider myself to be quite a techy person, I typically am pretty light on tech in the classroom normally. Compared to some of my colleagues, I would even wager that I use less technology even now. However, one thing that I have particularly enjoyed doing that the students also seem to like is the use of backing tracks, specifically with a program called Upbeat Music. This allows the students to practice and record themselves with tracks that I make. When we play music at home, we miss the group component, which was always my favorite part of music when I was a student and even now into adulthood. Upbeat with backing tracks allows us to have that group sound and feel at home. 

Kristi Crowell’s at-home work station

What are your thoughts about returning to the classroom?
There are so many unknowns and things that I will never pretend to be an expert on. At the end of the day, I miss my students greatly. If I can have the opportunity to see them and teach them in person without risking the health or safety of anyone—students, families, community, colleagues, or myself—I am percent in, no matter what it looks like. 

Is there anything you’d like to add?
I would like to reiterate again how thankful I am for the music department, especially my TLN and the string department. The support and lack of judgment have been absolutely tremendous. I would also like to mention how thankful I am for my colleagues in my building. So many of them have been a lifesaver in the seemingly smallest of ways. Conedera for always giving me a laugh, Walsh for being a brilliant friend and confidant, Chmura for being my fellow nerd and puzzle solver, Hollis for being a bright light for myself and our students, and so many more. Those connections have really made this year so much better.


Jessie Hieber teaches English Language Arts at Pioneer High School.

Jessie Hieber

In nominating Pioneer High School ELA teacher Jessie Hieber, parent Andrea Kaplan wrote:

She taught different methods to reach the students. She has found different versions of texts to teach the students. She has created assignments that involve multiple modalities of learning including writing and PowerPoint presentations.

She has picked literature and allowed the students to choose literature that is culturally responsive. Additionally, the books that the students have read and include topics that are also important today. 

She has always returned emails in less than 24 hours. She has developed a relationship with my child- which is challenging virtually. She makes videos in response to his work, so she could individually assist him with his weaknesses in writing.

She is amazing- she made ELA my son’s favorite subject.

This is Jessie Hieber’s fourth year teaching in the Pioneer High School English Department. After attending Pioneer High School herself, she studied at the University of Michigan and then earned a master’s degree in education from Eastern Michigan University.

How did you meet the challenges of virtual teaching?
Virtual teaching has been a whirlwind! This mode is very challenging, but I have just taken it one week at a time. Collaborating with many of my awesome colleagues in the Pioneer English Department has been a real joy this school year! 

What do you most want people to know about the work of AAPS teachers this past year?
AAPS teachers have been working passionately this year to recreate a curriculum that is engaging to students and to foster relationships with kids that are suddenly very distant from us. For me, the best parts of this profession are not easily adapted to remote learning and I believe AAPS teachers have done an excellent job of addressing that disconnect.

How are your students?
My students are coping and surviving. They are learning new things and challenging themselves academically in positive ways.

Pioneer ELA teacher Jessie Hieber at her virtual teaching station.

Is there any aspect of virtual teaching that worked so well you will take it back to the building with you?
Each of my students now has access to a school Chromebook, and in an English Language Arts class, which will benefit our ability to engage with the writing process or access an online text any day of the week.

What are your thoughts about returning to the classroom?
I am eager to see my students!

Is there anything you’d like to add? My AAPS colleagues are exceptional educators and so it was an honor just to be nominated for this award!

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