Sparking Curiosity and a Love of Teaching: Q&A with Teacher of the Year Cory Hafer

*Photos by Jennifer Corbett and Cory Hafer.


Is there a difference, chemically speaking, between happy tears and sad tears? 

For the students inside Cory Hafer’s classroom, such questions can launch an investigative journey and a love of learning. Hafer, a science and engineering teacher at Middletown High School, is Delaware’s 2024 Teacher of the Year. Over the course of five years at Middletown, Hafer has worked to cultivate an approach centered around curiosity and student agency–often giving them the keys and structure to lead their own learning. 

Rodel caught up with the University of Michigan product to learn more. 

. . .

Tell us a bit about your Teacher of the Year honor.

I was nominated by students at this point last February (our district puts out a survey to students, teachers, and the community). From there, our building held interviews and selected me as Building TOY. I then submitted an application for District TOY and went through interviews and formal observations and was selected in May as the District TOY. There was another round of applications for the State TOY process.

I met the other 19 candidates in our district, and thought, there’s no way district could happen, right? Then I got district and I was like, there’s no way state could happen. The whole thing has felt very surreal. It was totally off my radar. I kind of found myself thrown into this spotlight without being prepared for the spotlight.

It’s been weird, but I’m excited and I’m getting to the point now where I’m used to having a microphone and sharing what I’ve learned over 12 years of teaching with other people. I’m embracing it now. 

How have you been able to build a classroom culture that is welcoming and inclusive?

It’s been one of those things that has been intentional my whole career. You learn early that students are innately curious about the world. And part of my education at Columbia was talking about and learning: basically don’t kill the wonder in school and particularly in science. 

When you have kids asking you: is there a difference between happy tears and sad tears? Well, I don’t know. Let’s look that up. And it turns out they are actually chemically different. I want my classroom to be a space that’s interesting for students and I want to tap into that curiosity.

Then I realized as I got better at classroom management, even if I taught a really good lesson, maybe it didn’t work for everybody. How do I reach that kid who has his head down? You start to realize that nobody can learn if they’re not in the right mindset.


How important is cultivating a sense of curiosity with students? Especially when it comes to science?

With any learning, even when it comes to English and world history and math, there’s so much cool stuff there. 

If I just tell you a bunch of stuff, it’s not going to stick, but if you’re grappling with it, and you’re fitting what you learn now with what you had learned, you retain it better. And experiences that don’t quite fit force you to change your schema. I think that exploration and that nonlinear journey  are really important to follow in classes.

We’ve seen headlines over the last few years about teacher shortages and burnout. How are you seeing that play out?

I know my classroom space and I know I can talk about my experience and what works for me. But I am passionate about education. I love what I do. I invest a lot of time in it. And burnout’s a real thing. How do I manage it? How do I keep it sustainable? Because it’s easy to get sucked into it and just want to do more.

Part of one strategy that’s worked for me and would be good to remind young teachers: You don’t have to be perfect. It is totally fine to make mistakes. You’re going to fail miserably sometimes.

And as long as you’re reflecting on that and trying to avoid it in the future, you can’t look back. That’s probably the number one thing, don’t try to be perfect.

And then also, don’t be afraid to say no. Like, when you, if you get to the point where you’re like, I am so stressed and I’m having a mental breakdown, well, that’s not going to be good for anyone. So you have to find ways to dial back planning or say no to the things that aren’t absolutely essential to be there for students the next day.

As a profession, potentially building in counseling or like mental health days where that’s actually encouraged could be a healthy option.

Our administration at Middletown in particular is just so supportive. So knowing that you have those people in your corner is huge. 


Being Teacher of the Year comes with a lot of opportunities to speak and engage with lawmakers and state leaders. What messages will you try to get across in those situations?

My first big speech that I’m actually really excited about is going to be to the Educators Rising State Conference that’ll be at University of Delaware on February 21-22.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that. And one of the things there is I want to highlight is why teaching is so rewarding. 

I’ve been reflecting a lot about how  if we didn’t have teachers and public education, our world would be a pretty terrible place. And so it’s kind of cool to think about how many people show up every day to make sure that kids learn so that our future can be bright. It’s wild.

I’ve also been shifting grading a lot and I’ve been doing project-based learning for the last five years.

We’re trying to answer a question in a lab rather than do a cookie cutter lab. You want to know why pineapple won’t let gelatin set. Well, let’s develop an experiment to figure that out. And five different groups get five different answers. And then we kind of debate what’s going on.

With projects like that, it becomes really hard to grade. Maybe your experiment failed, but it was a cool process and experiment. So are we grading on the concept, the final product, the process? I think project based learning is where we need to go in all disciplines because it’s more learner-centered and engaging. 

So that’s an area I think I want to develop over the next year. And honestly, probably the rest of my career is, how in the world do we assess so that students can learn? And then how do we scale it? 

I wrapped up this week with the semester. I did grading conferences with all my students. It was very time intensive, but it was amazing. For the first time in 12 years, I have not had a single student say, how do I get this 91 to a 94? They were like, yep, 91. I agree with that. 

There’s no grade bickering and it’s awesome. I feel energized about that. Especially knowing that students are talking about their learning and setting future goals, even at the end of the course. 

Now you’ve been part of the Middletown Community for five years. What makes it such a great fit for you? 

The interesting thing at four of the districts I’ve been in: students are students. They have similar learning needs, diverse interests, and are curious. 

Families seem to be pretty engaged in our school. A big thing that sets Middletown apart is it has the strongest sense of culture that I’ve seen in a school. My wife kind of makes fun of me for having so much Middletown gear, you know, because I have like five or six sweatshirts and all these t-shirts.

And I think stuff like that, as silly as it seems, helps build community. You know, we’ll have a Cavs Friday or like on Tuesday, we wear our unified Special Olympics shirts. So it feels like a very cohesive family, even across schools in the district.


And that’s a big determining factor for teachers sticking around, right? Having strong leadership in place that the teachers feel confident in and who have their backs? 

Definitely. And there are two other things that do jump out. One is professional development opportunities, which have just been unreal compared to what I was used to in other districts.

There is a lot more encouragement, like, join this book study and we’ll pay for your book. There are lots of opportunities like that. And, then there’s really good funding to support teachers, which has resulted in supporting 1:1 technology, strong music programs, work-based learning opportunities, etc.

And fingers crossed on the Appoquinimink referendum passing on April 23rd because that will present challenges for the district if it does not. I think it is important for the community to understand how vital education is to our local community and overall to the world. Our district has experienced huge growth that is projected to continue. To support a growing population and ensure equitable pay for educators, it will be necessary to invest. 


How have you helped bolster work-based learning opportunities at Middletown?

Work-based learning and career pathways have been really powerful at Middletown. In my engineering pathway, a lot of our students go on to be engineers, but a lot of them realize, hey, I don’t actually love engineering. I actually think I want construction instead, or a trade. It gives a relevance to our learning in a way that makes a huge difference. 

The CTE coordinators have been phenomenal at helping connect us with industry partners. It’s to the point now where if I’m looking for a professional to come in and do a guest speaking event, or to mentor a group, that list of people is like 60-plus long. 

And I would love to expand it because I think that’s where we can get those real-world opportunities, not just learning about stuff in the textbook, but solving a problem that exists. 

“This is going to really support teachers.” Talking Affinity Groups with Local Teacher Alena Warner-Chisolm

Alena Warner-Chisolm, a 14-year veteran of Delaware schools (with stops in Christina, Red Clay, and Lake Forest districts) is an English language arts teacher at Stanton Middle School—and one of the first participants in the district’s affinity group for teachers of color.

The groups—which Rodel helped catalyze in Red Clay and Colonial districts—are not unlike professional support groups. Current classroom teachers, who facilitate conversations with their peers to learn, share, and grow in their practice, lead them. In recognition of their leadership, these teachers receive additional pay from their districts for the extra time spent preparing and leading these groups.

By giving educators of color space to come together and support one another, the aim is to improve school-wide culture and, eventually, boost teacher retention.

Rodel caught up with Warner-Chisolm to learn more about what’s happening at Red Clay’s affinity group.

. . .

Do you remember how you first heard about this affinity group that was forming with your district?

The first time I heard about the Red Clay affinity groups was through a flyer emailed by Dr. Bond, Kim Lopez, and Mark Baxter to interested teachers.  My initial interest is due to two factors that I experienced before coming to Red Clay. The first factor is my teaching background. Throughout my entire career, I worked with very dynamic students and I noticed that there was a pattern of high turnover rate, high stress, and low morale climates.  So, to combat those feelings I would socially de-stress through sharing stories, affirming my purpose, and providing and receiving practical support from my colleagues. Those social times brought me joy and moral support and kept me invested in my career.

The second factor is my role as an educator. As an educator you have so many roles; which can be mentally and physically time-consuming, which leads to more stress. So, I started being intentional about creating social activities where we can build camaraderie through emotional, mental, and educational support. I noticed was that our social groups really helped with teacher retention, lowering stress, and higher morale.

And so, when I first saw affinity groups here at Red Clay, I immediately recognized the importance of creating an intentional space for educators to bond and support each other, especially with both the pre-Covid and post-Covid challenges that educators face daily.  

How can something like this affinity group—where you’re creating a space for teachers of color—make a larger impact?

A lot of times as a teacher, I feel like I’m on my island. I often think I’m the only one that has to juggle the mental health of my students, my mental health, and serious social issues because of the gaps of service in the community.  Teaching is a job of service, so I’m constantly trying to figure out, how do I teach the whole child? And if I’m doing that in a silo, it’s extremely draining.

This is why affinity groups are so necessary because educators come together in a specific time, space, and format to be heard and supported to create equitable policies.

What does it mean to be a teacher of color and have this space where you can come together with fellow teachers of color, and what does that do to the culture at a school?

Well for me, teachers of color are on a spectrum of differences even though we may or may not “present” as teachers of color. For example, I have a duality of presenting as an African American but being raised within Trinidadian culture. So, I wasn’t taught both in school or at home about the historical systematic implications of race but I’ve experienced it throughout my life. So, to be a teacher of color, is to be part of a large community that is very diverse and not a monolith of experiences or background but, who share many commonalities.

In terms of having the affinity spaces, one of the first a-ha moments I had when we were brainstorming for affinity groups was when created our mission statement: to create a safe space for educators to feel heard, connected, supported to be their authentic selves to enhance their personal and professional responsibilities. That spoke to what I was trying to do years before I came to Red Clay: create a space where I can be myself and not feel like I have to tiptoe around issues of race and inequity of opportunity for both educators and students.  Ultimately, when my students and I show up authentically it creates a culture of bonding, equitable policies, and environments that allow all to thrive.  

In converse, I noticed disparities from questioning the status quo like Who has the privilege in my school? Who has the opportunities in my school? Who are in my honors program? My AP programs? Who is being heard and influencing administrators’ decision-making? In inequitable environments, I didn’t stay at those schools long, but in the schools that prioritized equity in practice, I flourished.

Take us inside what the initial affinity group meetings have been like.

Participants seem most excited to speak their truth.  At first, we get to know each other through social conversations and an overview of our interests, this is the welcoming time.

Afterward, we create mutually- agreed norms to allow all voices to participate meaningfully. Then, we use a data-based structure from an anonymous survey to discuss the why behind the responses which leads to reflection, discussion, and sharing. Finally, we have a closing that utilizes the courageous conversations compass to reflect further on each participant.

By our second meeting, it was refreshing to know that the participants could speak their truth and feel heard. As an educator of color, I am either fighting for equity or leaving for somewhere I’m accepted. And now I don’t feel like I’m alone.

In addition, during the meeting, the participants and facilitators shared resources to provide opportunities that were not known before, which was great as well.

How will the affinity group evolve over time?

I definitely know that we want this to be sustainable. We want to create policy changes through an equity lens of our strategic plan that supports the retention and the enticement of educators of color and educators that are allies in supporting our diverse students.

We will continue to partner with leaders of equity to provide training for affinity leaders so that our work is done with fidelity. In addition, we are currently in our recruitment phase for both more affinity participants and leaders.

 What is the basic structure of an affinity group meeting?

The structure comes from the Center for Black Educator Development and the courageous conversations frameworks. The CBED provided facilitators with multiple days of training to design the structure of our groups and the courageous conversations training provided us with the tools to facilitate discussions within our groups.  

How can educators get engaged with the affinity group today?

So right now, with the pilot year, the participants are set in stone. However, we are currently in recruitment for facilitators to begin the training and also new participants! We are all excited to see the group expand as many who have participated this year are interested in facilitating their groups for the upcoming school year. 

And it sounds like really positive feedback from participants so far?

Absolutely. At the end of each session, we do a check-in with participants using the Courageous Compass in terms of their beliefs and feelings about the session. And a lot of people are sharing, I believe that this is going to really support teachers.

Meet the Local Students Helping Delaware “Reimagine Middle Grades”

Click here to explore the full “Am I High School Ready?” poster. 

ARiyah Nocks, a junior at Sussex Technical High School and Yelitza Ortiz-Uscanga, a senior at Sussex Central High School—are studying art and design in school. Last fall, the pair collaborated on a special project—designing a poster for the burgeoning “Reimagining Middle Grades” project.

The pair helped design a profile of a high school-ready student—an important message for future middle grades students as they work to identify their strengths and interests heading into ninth grade.

Rodel caught up with ARiyah and Yelitza and talked about their experiences working collaboratively with a steering committee of adults on a work-based learning project, thinking back to middle school, and where they’ll go from here.


Rodel: Tell us what you do in the career pathway that you’re involved in?

Nocks: In class, we do a lot of bookwork and lessons to learn about just all types of design. It’s not really based on one certain thing. And then, if we’re able to, our teacher tries to help us get certain opportunities. So with this one, she felt like I was able to work on making a poster for the middle grades project. It gave us more experience actually working with an organization and just seeing what they expect from a designer.

What struck you in terms of inspiration when you got the project? What was the main message you were trying to get across?

I thought about the message they wanted me to show on it, and then I just thought of possible ideas. But probably the first week after I started the project, I had no idea. So I tried to work with my partner, trying to think of some way we could make a poster engaging for middle schoolers while also trying to give them important information.

So we decided to go for a childish but not childish look. Just like something to give them a fun look while they’re reading something that will most definitely benefit them later on.


How do you think it went?

I mean, I’ve learned a lot. I think I did pretty well actually for this to be my first big project like this. Actually, I loved it , which is why I might stick with this career path. As stressed as I was, I actually like this.

What are other skills that you learned during this process that you think could help transfer over to the workforce when you get to that point?

Honestly, I’ve learned how to more better collaborate with other people. We do teamwork stuff a lot in class, but it’s not often. Actually working with somebody from a whole different school, Rodel of course, and then people from the department education … it put into perspective for me how I have to just put my social anxiety aside and work together and talk to other people and not just wait till they come to me to talk because I’m not a person to actually talk first.


What has been the best part of your whole pathway experience?

Just seeing the finished product. I enjoyed actually sharing it with everybody. I did enjoy the feedback. I enjoyed this actually, getting the whole interview. I’ve gotten actually another interview too, through my teacher, with a local newspaper. I feel famous!

. . .

Rodel: Was this a difficult assignment to wrap your head around?

Ortiz-Uscanga: Oh my god, very. Because we didn’t want to make it too childish. I’m the oldest sibling of three, so it’s hard not to make things childish when I have siblings who I think of as babies. So it was just finding that balance between okay, we got to push them more into their teenage years. So keeping that balanced definitely, I think was the hardest part of everything.


How do you feel about letting kids in middle school explore more career pathways?

I think it’s an amazing idea. Because I’m going to be honest, when I was doing my college application stuff, and this is college stuff, I had no idea what I wanted to do or be for the longest time. Because as a kid you always get asked, “Oh, what do you want to do? What do you want to be?” And it was so hard answering that question. I don’t think until senior year I really knew what I wanted to do. All I knew was art and that’s it. And I feel like because in high school you have all these pathways, but in middle school you have nothing.

You can’t be just thrown into high school like that and be like, “Okay, you have all these choices now.” Because you’re going to middle school with everything being decided for you and limited classes and no kind of choice. And it’s like, “Well I don’t know what I want to do because I don’t know anything about anything. I don’t know anything about this.”

So I think definitely middle school is where it starts. You have to start there. Because I know high school is all about careers. Even though it’s just the beginning, but it does count.

Do you feel like this project helped crystallize what you do want to do career-wise?

It really did. Because I want to be an art therapist, so more definitely art because I am not leaving it. But also therapist because I’m really into psychology. That’s always the study of the mind and human behavior has always been so interesting to me. This is my first big opportunity and has been so fun and just amazing overall.

How did you like navigating the professional business side of it and sort of dealing with the client, getting feedback?

It really helped that I had an amazing partner. I really liked working with ARiyah. She’s literally the best. We definitely did have moments where it’s like, “Okay,” because I know one person suggested a duller background or colors, like more earthy tones. And then me and her were both like, “Hmm, that’s not going to catch anyone’s attention. I’m Sorry, but no.” But we’re both really proud of what we came up with in the end. But we definitely had moments where it’s like, “I see where you’re coming from, but respectfully, I’m going to have to decline.”

Besides having challenges in getting the older people to get on your page, what were some other challenges that you faced during the project?

I guess really coming up with the final design because we had a Google doc and it was like a brainstorming doc where it was just all ideas. But really making it into one final product is… I guess that’s the crazy part. Because it really is just a process because you go from sketches, to thumbnails, to rough drafts. And then you think about color, and shapes, and fonts, and then symbols and stuff, and text, and that’s all really important. So it’s just a lot to take in, a lot to account for I would say.

Nowadays I sit in at the “Reimagining Middle Grades” meetings a lot and I just have a lot to say. Because I feel really close to this project overall because middle school, I strongly believe that’s where it starts.

Staff Turnover Disappeared at New Castle Elementary. Their Secret? Teacher Residencies.

In her first year as principal of New Castle Elementary School, TeRay Ross wasn’t the only newcomer.

In fact, on that first day in 2017, 12 of the 22 homeroom classes inside her cavernous school—a circa 1929 former high school nicknamed “the castle”—were helmed by teachers who were also new to the building. She later learned the school turned over another 17 teacher positions the year prior to her arrival. What was going on?

“For a number of reasons people were choosing to go other places for promotions, or just kind of general retirements,” she says today. “We have kids that have a lot of needs, and some people were determining that this was not the place for them.”

Whatever the reason—it wasn’t good. Kids, especially young ones with special needs—need a sense of comfort and consistency in their educational routine.

“A lot of what we do, especially at the elementary level, is built on relationships,” says Ross. “Kids have to believe that you care about them, that you love them, and are invested in them if we’re going to get the returns that we want.”

New staff also stretches a school’s administrative team. Teachers, like any new employees, need support in their first few weeks and months on the job. And it’s hard to support 12 new people that have different levels of needs in different areas (from learning the building layout to school policy to using the laminator). “And so even if all 12 were amazing, we were stretched to capacity trying to offer the level of support that they needed,” Ross says.

Something had to change.

The staffing challenges at New Castle Elementary were echoing national trends of turnover, burnout, and vacancies.

Ross, who had undergone postgraduate training at the Relay Graduate School of Education, began working with district leaders to take advantage of Relay’s “teacher residency” program—a kind of alternative route to becoming a full-time teacher. It differs from the traditional, undergraduate approach of a teacher preparation program (though often it is embedded within these types of programs).

From our blog:

Typically, an aspiring teacher looking to enter a residency program must apply and be accepted. Once they are accepted, a resident then works as an apprentice for one year in a classroom with an expert teacher while simultaneously engaging in coursework at an affiliated college or university. Some residents receive a stipend and a scholarship during their apprenticeship year in exchange for their commitment to teach in the same district for a few years beyond the year of apprenticeship.

Principal Ross and her team took on their first resident the following school year.

“After that one, every year after that we’ve had three or four added on. They have all but one completed the program with us and they’ve all wanted to stay at New Castle,” says Ross. “That’s great. I’m so proud to say last year when all of my other principal friends were freaking out about finding teachers, I was fully staffed at May.”

. . .

New Castle Elementary School principal TeRay Ross

Before becoming a hub for teacher residencies, New Castle and its district needed to make sure the foundation was built to last. Teachers-in-training can’t work for free, so stipends for the initial waves of residents were paid for by yearly, competitive Department of Education grants.

So beginning in the fall of 2021, Colonial School District and Relay began an intensive design process focused on creating a more sustainable residency program that would not require additional state grant dollars to run. Over the course of six months they identified their biggest areas of need, created plans for recruiting and supporting new residents, and rethought their funding and unit allocations to identify untapped dollars to cover resident stipends.

Rodel helped to fund US PREP, a national technical assistance provider, who brought the hub concept to Delaware and led the design and facilitation between Relay and Colonial.

For Ross, it’s been a happy marriage. And that’s good news for the 413 kindergarten through fifth graders at her school—many of whom come from low-income families in the surrounding neighborhoods of New Castle.

As we wrote last year: Teacher residency programs look to address a multitude of problems that exist in the teaching profession. States across the country face teacher shortages, high turnover rates, and many struggle to recruit and retrain teachers of color. This can negatively impact students.

Local districts primarily recruit from local universities – most prominently from University of Delaware, Delaware State University, and Wilmington University. Since 2010, however, enrollment in traditional teacher preparation programs has decreased, making the applicant pool smaller each year.

Meanwhile, teacher residency programs “create a vehicle to recruit teachers for high-needs fields and locations; offer candidates strong content and clinical preparation specifically for the kinds of schools in which they will teach. The approach facilitates early career mentoring that keeps teachers in the profession while providing financial incentives that will keep teachers in the districts that have invested in them.”

Some consider residency models the gold standard for teacher prep models, as they often lead to “higher retention of teachers in the field, greater demographic diversity among teachers prepared through residency programs, and the potential to increase student achievement.”

Says Ross of her current crop of residents: “Next year when they need a job, they want to be with us, this is now their school, they know how things work, they know the kids, they know the people. And so this is where they want to be. And we’re already starting to have those conversations of, ‘I don’t know what openings I’ll have next year. So let me start to think about where else you might be successful.’”

Part of why residencies work is their immersive nature. Unlike traditional student teachers, residents are also inside the classroom from the very beginning to the very end. “So they participate in all of the professional development. They get to set up classrooms, welcome kids. They get invited to all the happy hours. They go through the teacher’s entire schedule all year long. So they are building these relationships and gaining knowledge to a depth where student teachers just don’t.”

And through their ongoing coursework at Relay, residents can learn and tweak their techniques while they learn.

Teacher resident Dian Williams

“The residency is kind like having training wheels,” says Tameka Wingo, a former resident and today a resident advisor, who hosts a new resident in her classroom. “When you’re just being thrown into a classroom, you’re baptized by fire, whereas you feel more supported with the residency program. You’re more likely to try different things and then ask for help a little bit more because you have help there with you and it puts you at ease. It gives you that pathway to being able to master your craft.”

All those tiers of support and communication can lead to a better overall school culture. Kindergarten teacher Tracy McKinney, who hosts a Relay resident, has seen it firsthand.

“The teachers that are here want to be here and they work so well together,” she says. “My first year here, it was not that way. There were some people that were just burned out, didn’t care. Didn’t want to be here. But ultimately, everyone I can say that I know and interact with, they are here for the kids. And that’s a really nice thing.”

. . .

The oldest of 14 siblings, Taneia Coleman always had a knack for taking care of others. But she wasn’t sure it’s what she wanted to do for a career until she landed a job at a childcare center to help cover college tuition. “I was like, Oh my god. This is really for me,” she says.

Teacher resident Taneia Coleman

Coleman eventually found a position as a paraprofessional at nearby Carrie Downie Elementary School, where she worked for four years. When it came to figuring out a pathway toward a full-time teaching gig, she considered other alternate routes to certification, but was ultimately drawn to the paid stipend and support that teacher residents receive.

Since she isn’t the typical resident and no stranger to a kindergarten classroom, she’s instead relishing the opportunity to dig deeper into approaches like Responsive Classroom, a student-centered and evidence-based approach to teaching and discipline employed at New Castle Elementary. That—and the strong school culture.

“My first few days here, I was in culture shock because I’m like, this is too good to be true,” she says. “Everybody here is just so helpful.”

Dian Williams, a resident who shares Tameka Wingo’s classroom, knows what that support feels like.

“When it all falls, Ms. Ross and Ms. Wingo knows the program inside and out,” he says. “They know what comes with the program. They know that you have real life outside of the program, and those components play a major factor in how well you’ll do in the program and in the school.”

Williams understands he is a rarity—a Black male elementary school teacher, and he doesn’t take the duty lightly to show Black students the opportunities they have in education.

“From the first day of school when they’ve noticed me standing there and they see that I was in the classroom. Some of these boys that weren’t too studious last year, I see them, when I talk to them, they say, Oh, Mr. Will, we learned about this today in my class.”

Further reading: