Danielle Capitan, Tappan Middle School German teacher

By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News

Danielle Capitan and her older brother grew up in Fraser about an hour from Ann Arbor. She attended the University of Michigan, where she graduated in 2014 with a secondary teaching certificate in German and Spanish, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Germanic Studies, Spanish, and Asian Languages and Cultures.

After student teaching at Tappan Middle School and teaching German in Cincinnati, Capitan was excited to accept a position at the school that had inspired her teaching career. She enjoys teaching German to sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students while also leading Tappan’s Gay-Straight Alliance Club.

Assistant Principal Stephan Hogan says Capitan embodies the mission of every student, every day.

“Danielle is an extraordinary educator who is always looking for ways to connect with her students,” he says. “Whether it be through games, stories, or just her presence, students consistently share how amazing Ms. Capitan is and how much of a difference she has made in their lives.”

Capitan lives in Ypsilanti with her husband, Dan, and two rescue cats.

What will you remember most about the school year 2020-21?

There is obviously so much to remember from the 2020-2021 school year; however, I remember most fondly the relationships I formed with colleagues and students as we all adapted and learned together. I was in a unique position in that I already knew my 7th and 8th grade students from previous years, so we were able to build on our existing class cultures and be supportive even while teaching and learning from our homes.

How is this year going so far?

I was relieved to be back in person to connect with my students in the classroom. The relationships I formed with colleagues last year have definitely supported me this year in the transition from virtual to in-person learning. There has been a lot of change, but seeing students get excited to learn and be together brings a smile to my face every day.

When you recall your first year of teaching, what memories stand out?

First-year teaching was definitely overwhelming. I lived an hour away at first, so I remember a lot of driving, arriving early, and staying late.

Why did you want to teach German?

I initially didn’t want to teach German. I just really enjoyed studying languages and I ended up taking German almost by accident. I had a few really awesome German instructors at the University of Michigan who had an inspiring way of teaching and learning languages that focused heavily on communication skills. That was what solidified my decision to go into teaching and I love what I do.

What advice would you give to a first-year teacher?

Seek out positive colleagues and be kind to yourself. It does get easier!

In your six years in AAPS, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about teaching? About learning?

The most important thing I learned was to build relationships with my students and provide them the space to bring their personal experiences and knowledge into the classroom. Having that atmosphere of shared learning and growing makes teaching the most worthwhile career for me.

Describe an average workday.

I’m always on the move! After prepping for my lessons, I teach all levels of middle school students. We start conversations, listen to crazy German songs, play games, work on projects, and do many other things to improve proficiency. After school, if I’m not working with students, I often spend time working with colleagues to improve the work we are doing for our students.

Why did you want to lead Tappan’s Gay-Straight Alliance Club?

I decided to lead Tappan’s Gay-Straight Alliance Club a few years ago because a group of wonderful students asked me to. At the time, I had many of them in my German class and I also had neon-pink hair. According to them, those credentials made a great candidate. However, I’m happy to continue leading the GSA at Tappan. We have a lot of students who are driven to make the world a kinder and more accepting place. They are an extremely inspiring group to work with. 

What’s the happiest part of your day?

The happiest part of my day is watching a student’s confidence grow.

What’s one of your hidden talents?

I really like to cook! That was one of my quarantine hobbies and it’s stuck with me ever since.

Describe your perfect meal. Who would be at the table, where would you be, and what would you be eating?

The best meal I had recently was with my family. For my dad’s birthday in the before times, we would often take him out to a Polish restaurant. But I decided to try my hand at having a Polish family meal together and it was not only tasty, but really heartwarming to make something his family used to make him. Making food that connects and brings people together is probably my perfect meal.

What song do you know all the lyrics to?

I’m very notorious for not knowing the lyrics to songs, but I have managed to learn the wacky German songs that students like.

Favorite websites: 100% Netflix.

Apps you can’t live without: All of the Google apps.

If you could know the definitive answer to any one question, what would that question be?

Is a hotdog a sandwich? I’ve seen this question make and break friendships.

What makes teaching at Tappan unique?

Tappan looks like a large middle school, but I have a lot of brilliant colleagues from whom I learn things every year.  

How do you keep students engaged?

I’m really big into gamification, fantasy novels, and Dungeons and Dragons. When I started teaching, I always wondered how I could gamify my classroom. I use a lot of those mechanics when designing my classes. We have a lot of fun! 

What do you wish everyone realized about the work of a teacher?

I’ve had off-hand comments made to me about how it must be nice to have summers off or that it must be nice to only work until 3 p.m. This would be true if we didn’t care about our work at all, but that just isn’t the case. Teaching is filled with professionals who genuinely want to do right by their students and deeply care for them. I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t work outside of school hours, volunteers at after-school events, or spends their own money on snacks, supplies, experiences, or professional training for the benefit of their students. We have a strong commitment to those we serve.

How do you spend your summers?

My family lives pretty far apart and my brother is in the military, so in the past, I would often take time to visit them. However, since COVID we haven’t been able to do that. My hope is next summer, I’ll be able to see my brother.

What’s most exciting about your professional life right now? Your personal life?

I am taking online classes and applying to grad school! It’ll be a very busy, but very rewarding couple of years.

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