It’s 9:15 a.m. on a Friday and 15 sophomores at Sussex Technical High School are in the middle of a serious lesson about racism, stereotypes and Sept. 11, when Delaware’s newly crowned teacher of the year suddenly changes gears.
“Just like people might look at teenagers and think they are a certain way because of how they dress, people might look at me and make assumptions about how I am just because I’m 30,” 44-year-old English teacher John Sell says with a grin. “Well, okay, I might have pants that are 30 years old. Seriously, I think the pants I’m wearing right now are about 30.”
After waiting for his students’ groans and chuckles to subside, Sell moves back into the lesson at hand.
Later, while his students answer a series of multiple choice questions on their classroom-issued iPads, Sell explained the importance of being genuine, and even a little silly at times.
“It sounds almost cliché, but you have to be honest and real and just be yourself,” he said of his approach. “I think students are savvy, and they can spot someone who’s not being honest, forthright and real. A long time ago, I just decided to be me, and who I am at heart is someone that likes to have fun.”
According to his peers, it’s that easy-going approach that allows Sell to connect with all of his students, regardless of their educational background.
“His presentation is unbelievable,” said Blanche Nickel, a share-approach teacher with 40 years of experience, who a classroom with Sell twice a week. “He makes sure all of his students get it by relating everything to them on a personal level. It’s an amazing thing to see.”
When it comes to inspiring students to perform, Sell credits his own background growing up in Leamersville, Pa., as one of five children born to parents with a single high school diploma between them.
Yet it was the value that his parents placed on education which Sell says prompted him to pursue a teaching career, even while continuing his own education, including the doctorate degree from Northcentral University that he’s currently working towards.
“I tell my students about where I’ve come from, a humble beginning with my own family, to where I am now,” he said. “Through education, I’ve reaped a lifetime of benefits and I try to showcase that to them.”
He also serves as a model to the faculty at Sussex Tech through his pioneering use of technology, principal John Demby said, referring to Sell’s use of online activities and tests in his daily instruction.
“He’s probably the first teacher here to do online assessments,” Demby said. “Without us asking him to do it, he has created a blended learning environment, meaning taking the online stuff and the on-land stuff to create one thing. He then is able to use that data from the online assessments to inform his instruction, which gives him more time to plan, so his focus is less on his teaching more on the learning.”
In addition to assisting in his instructional approach, Sell said his use of technology also gives him another way to connect with students.
“Just the fact that you pull out an iPad, it makes them pay attention and want to learn,” he said. “That alone can sometimes motivate them to pay attention to what you’re doing and find value in it.”
Perhaps that’s why Sell’s students said his recent recognition from the state department of education came as no surprise to them.
“He makes it all simple and easy for us,” sophomore Abbey Collier said. “He definitely pushes us, but he doesn’t make it impossible.”
Sophomore Jair Moore agreed.
“We’re learning, but at the same time we’re having fun,” he added.
Amber Augustus said it’s that sense of fun she remembers best about being Sell’s student at Caesar Rodney High School, where he taught for 11 years.
“I know that in my career, I’ve tried to model the relationships that teachers like Mr. Sell have with their students,” said Augustus, a math, science and social studies instructor in the Smyrna School District, who preceded Sell as the Delaware Teacher of the Year. “Those bonds are so special, because it’s those relationships that end up having as much, if not more, impact than material.”