Teacher’s fifth grade students interview her to get the scoop

Published in the June 6 – 19, 2018 issue of Morgan Hill Life

Photo by Yuliana Romero, fifth grader
Barrett Elementary School fifth grade teacher Debra Chappell reads “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” to her class. She was named the MHUSD 2018 Teacher of the Year.

Debra Chappell of Barrett Elementary School is the 2018 Morgan Hill Unified School District’s Teacher of the Year. Recently, Morgan Hill Life publisher Marty Cheek visited her fifth grade class in Room 14 and helped Chappell’s students interview their teacher about her career in education.

How do you feel to be elected Teacher of the Year? (asked by Sabrina)

I was shocked. It was funny because I did not think it was going to be me at all. First, I didn’t think it was going to be me at Barrett. But then when I went to the district (award announcement), I saw the list of names, and they were all awesome. I work with them, I love these people. And I was picking who I was going to vote for on the list, and it wasn’t me. And, Mrs. (Jen) Myers kept saying, “Why are you selling yourself short? You have a chance just like all the rest of the people.” And then they said, “Will the rep who represents Teacher of the Year please come up?” I thought they said, “Will all the reps please come up?” So, (her rep) walked up, and I’m wondering what’s taking other people so long to come up. And then, I just picked up my paper that I had in my hand, and covered my face, because I started crying. I never in a million years thought it was going to be me. So, how did I feel? I was overwhelmed. I was shocked. I’m so shy.

Photo by Yuliana Romero, fifth grader
Barrett Elementary School fifth grade teacher Debra Chappell reads “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” to her class. She was named the MHUSD 2018 Teacher of the Year.

Why do you think you won the award this year? (asked by Sabrina)

I do a lot of community service with children. So, it was not just my work here with kids. It’s my work across Santa Clara County. I’d run SAT workshops, casting workshops, where I have people calling me up from Gilroy to Fremont, trying to get their kids in programs. I’ve worked at homeless shelters. I’ve gone in and done mother-baby cards at homeless shelters. I’ve done backpacks for kids who couldn’t get backpacks. With my sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., we push for community service. I’m constantly, every weekend almost, out there doing something. So, (at the awards announcement) when they started reading off all the stuff that (the nominees) had done, I could see the difference. Not to mention, I do after-school tutoring. So, I’m always here. My door’s always open for my own students.

Why did you want to become a teacher in the first place? (asked by Landon)

When I was a very young child, I always said I wanted to be a nurse or a teacher. So, my mom bought me a Suzy Smart* and I would teach my younger sisters. Then I would ‘doctor’ on everyone. So, I just had to try to figure out which one I really wanted to do. Then later in life I decided I could do both. Why limit myself?

(*Chappell explains that Suzy Smart was a kid-sized doll that had her own desk. “The doll could sit at the desk or you could take the doll out, so you could sit at the desk,” Chappell recalls. “And you’d pull a string and she’d say, ‘My name is Suzy Smart.’ I would sit at her desk and teach my younger sisters.”)

Where did you find your inspiration to become a teacher? (asked by Landon)

Hmm, that’s difficult. There were a lot of great teachers that my kids had that I enjoyed, and I always worked in the classrooms. But I had a really good teacher when I was in elementary school. In fact, all of them were. But one was Mrs. Landon, who taught fourth through sixth grade. And my other teacher, Mr. Scott, also taught fourth through sixth grade. She was a math guru. And then I had a scientist who was a teacher in elementary school. And those two teachers, as you can tell, shaped me because you know my two favorite subjects are math and science.

What do you like best about your students? (asked by Anikin)

What I love is when they want to learn, even if it’s a struggle to learn. But if they want to learn, want to make even one thing better, that’s what I love. I love the hunger for knowledge.

If you were never a teacher, what would you be? (asked by Kai)

A nurse. I never thought I’d stop being a nurse. I think my initial plan was I was going to be a nurse, and then I was going to go back to school, so I could teach nursing. But as I started volunteering in my kids’ classrooms, I got the fever for working with kids. And then decided that I wanted to work with my own class. That’s how I transitioned to be a teacher as opposed to a teacher of nurses.

Why did you decide to go from third grade to fifth grade? (asked by Anikin)

I didn’t. It wasn’t my choice. Another teacher was going to go. And I knew I had a kid that I had taught in third grade that was going to go to sixth grade. And he was not always the easiest child to deal with, and my fear was that she might end up as a new sixth grade teacher with some of these kids who were a little bit of a struggle. So, I took the job instead. It was a hard year, because I did get (that child). But I think I asked for him because he was my baby. So that’s how. Then I went to sixth, and then somebody had to go to fifth, and then that ended up being me, too.

Why do you like math? (asked by Anikin)

Because math has an answer. There are different ways of getting there, different ways of solving it, but it does have an answer. It can have different answers. But it has an answer. It’s not arbitrary. It is not subjective. It is absolute. And it’s fun.

Do you enjoy being our teacher? (asked by Anikin)


Yes, I do. I think teaching is a lot of fun. You guys make me laugh, too.

What is it about teaching that makes is so much fun for you? (asked by Anikin)

I get to play at math pretty much every day. When I came to work as a teacher, away from nursing, I said, “Now I’m going to go play in my hobby, which is teaching.” So, this is fun to me.

At this point, Chappell’s class of wiggly fifth graders began to laugh and get a little restless. With a giggle, Chappell adds, “Most days.”


Donna Lane

Donna Lane

Donna Lane is a storyteller and San Jose native who earned her journalism degree at San Francisco State University. She lives in Gilroy with her family, who inspire her to celebrate life each day.
Donna Lane