It’s been one week since Lea Wainwright was named the 2014 Delaware Teacher of the Year.
But the Appoquinimink High School French teacher says she’s still trying to wrap her mind around the honor.
“Senator Chris Coons called to congratulate me this morning and for a couple of seconds after they told me he was on the phone, I couldn’t figure out why he would be calling,” the mother of three confided Tuesday. “A part of me is still waiting for everyone to figure out that I’m just this little girl who grew up on a dairy farm in Middletown.”
It was while living on that farm – located just west of where the Del. Route 1 on-ramp is today – that the youngest of four children born to Philemon and Catherine Sheats encountered her first example of what it means to be a great educator.
Wainwright’s first-grade teacher, Phyllis G. Schabinger, was the last Appoquinimink School District teacher to win the Delaware Teacher of the Year honor back in 1971.
Wainwright later attended The Broadmeadow School, a former private school located next to what is now Meredith Middle. After graduation, she spent two years at the Mary Washington College in Virginia before coming home to finish her French studies at the University of Delaware.
It was then that Wainwright had her first brush with the teaching profession.
“Broadmeadow asked me if I would be interested in coming back to teach French for $9,000 a year, which was more than it sounds today, but not much,” she said. “Honestly, it made me a little scared that I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills if I became a teacher, so I decided to pursue a major in international relations instead.”
It was only while on maternity leave from her marketing career that Wainwright later rediscovered her love of teaching when a struggling student came to her for some tutoring.
“The light bulb just went off and I realized this is what I wanted to do,” she said. “The next day, I enrolled in classes at the University of Delaware to get my teaching certificate.”
Today, Wainwright says, she couldn’t be happier to have found her true calling.
“It sounds so cliché, but I just love working with children and young adults,” she said. “They’re in my class to learn French, but my real goal is to help them become better people and better prepared for their future by getting them to think about those big ideas that will impact not just Middletown or Delaware, but the globe.”
Page 2 of 2 - According to Appoquinimink High Principal Gayle Rutter,
Wainwright also extends that philosophy outside of her classroom, where she serves as both a volunteer girls lacrosse coach and the district’s lead mentor for new teachers at both high schools. Wainwright also recently founded a French club and a French Honor Society at the school
“She’s the model of what you would want to see in a teacher,” Rutter said. “For us, her winning Delaware Teacher of the Year is just a confirmation of what we’ve always known, which is that teaching is a way of life for her and it’s something she takes very seriously and puts her heart into every day.”
While Wainwright might take her role as a teacher seriously, her classroom demeanor is anything but stern.
During a recent French III class, for instance, she led students in a song about future infinitives, treated them to some French hip-hop and maintained a constant playful banter for a full 90 minutes.
“I think we learn more in her class because she’s so fun and interactive and that just makes paying attention so much easier,” said junior Kesley Fitzpatrick. “Like once, we had a French lesson about camping and she did all these funny voices, including a talking flamingo. You can just tell she’s a good person who is committed to teaching, but also likes to make us laugh.”
Classmate Daiquan Pritchett said Wainwright’s sense of humor doesn’t mean she’s an easy teacher.
“She really pushes you to do better on tests and quizzes,” he said. “Like, this one time I got a D and she made me bring my parents in for a meeting. It helped me focus on doing better, and now I probably have my best grade in this class.”
Wainwright said she never would have achieved such professional heights without the support of her students, their parents, her fellow teachers and the Appoquinimink School District.
“I don’t teach in a vacuum, and the community here is just like one big family,” she said. “I’m really lucky to be working in a district like this, and a small state like Delaware, where I could find the ideal situation for promoting international education and mentoring new teachers.”