Pitt Magazine

Meet 5 award-winning alumni educators who are transforming classrooms


These five graduates from Pitt’s School of Education are now award-winning K-12 educators. In their own unique and heartfelt ways, they are reshaping the classroom to maximize each student’s potential. Their work is shaping the future, which ultimately benefits us all. (Photography by Tom Altany, except as noted.)

Charles "Chuck" Herring

Michelle Switala

Brianna Ross

Tim Wagner

Lauren Wheeler

Charles “Chuck” Herring (EDUC ’97G, ’17G)

Herring strikes a poses in a school hallwayDirector of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, South Fayette Township School District

Winner of the 2021 Innovative School Leader Award from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association

“I believe in experiential learning. I’m not going to give them the answers — I’m going to give them the opportunity to find it themselves.”

Although it’s not St. Patrick’s Day, a high school student is wearing her “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” T-shirt. Another is wrapped in a sari, a traditional garment worn by women in Southeast Asia. And sporting a dashiki — a reference to Prince T’Challa’s attire in the film “Black Panther” — is Chuck Herring, the district’s diversity and inclusion administrator. He playfully greets students with his arms crossed against his chest in a Wakanda Forever salute.

It’s all part of Culture Day at South Fayette High School in suburban Pittsburgh. More than 1,000 students are dressed in outfits from their heritage.

For Herring, donning the African-centered look represents the kind of innovation he brings to the school campus. The Pitt alumnus began teaching in the mid-1990s at Turner Elementary School in Wilkinsburg, his hometown. When he started, the district faced low rates of student achievement. So, to identify with his students, he often dressed in clothes by the hip-hop apparel company FUBU. And get their attention, he developed Grammar Man, a hip-hop hero who taught language and other lessons.

The fun and influence of Grammar Man helped stem the low-achievement tide and propelled Herring into a multifaceted education career. Over the years, he’s worked as a kindergarten teacher, educator to gifted students, public speaker and education administrator—always nurturing students to maximize their potential by making them feel that they belong, whether they’re Irish, Hindu, African American or from any other culture.

His days are now filled with keeping his office door open, sitting with students during lunch, and building student groups like Social Handprints Overcoming Unjust Treatment (SHOUT), which, as the kids know, is very much in the spirit of the Wakandan people.

Switala sits at a desk

Michelle Switala (EDUC ’13G)

Math and physics teacher, Pine-Richland School District

Named 2010 Pennsylvania Department of Education Teacher of the Year

“I want to be on the cutting edge of math education. Kids are valuable, and they deserve my intellectual best.”

Michelle Switala didn’t dream about becoming a teacher when she was growing up in Pittsburgh. Instead, when she enrolled at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, she was drawn to physics. Lessons in space, time and energy came easy to her; she imagined having a career working with “cool stuff like lasers.”

Then came a semester where the physics major mentored physics lab students as part of a work-study program. To her surprise, she enjoyed teaching. It felt rewarding to help others understand a subject she loved. After graduating, she pursued a master’s degree in physics at the University of Arizona, but she also further explored her newfound interest and earned a teaching certificate as well.

In 1995, with diplomas in hand, she returned to her hometown to begin a new job. Nearly three decades later, she is still at Pine-Richland High School, where she teaches math and physics to a range of students, from advanced placement to those with special needs.

Reaching them all was nurtured by skills she further developed through her PhD in mathematics education studies at Pitt, which she began in 2006.

She believes each child is a puzzle, one she tries to help solve with techniques like having her students collaborate on equations and using interactive online lessons, all while fostering relationship building.

Now chair of Pine-Richland’s math department, Switala believes teachers have a role beyond their own classrooms. That’s why she helps provide supplies to schools that lack resources and volunteers with TRY Special Needs, an organization offering social and recreational activities for adults with disabilities. Many of her current and former students volunteer by her side.

“I think teachers have a responsibility to teach all kinds of students,” she says. “That's the work that we do. I just see all kids as worthy.”

Brianna Ross sits in her office

Brianna Ross (EDUC ’14, ’15G)

Assistant principal and former teacher of social studies and history at Deer Park Middle Magnet School

Named 2022 Maryland State Department of Education Teacher of the Year

“It’s important to me that we love them first and teach them second. I don't think they're going to learn well from people who they don't feel they can trust and care for them.”

Growing up outside of Philadelphia, Brianna Ross was often one of only a few Black students in her classrooms. Throughout school, she just had three African American teachers. One of them, Ms. Caruthers, stood regal and proud to Ross, schooling her and her kindergarten classmates on the preamble to the U.S. Constitution and teaching them “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known to many as the Black national anthem.

Ms. Caruthers filled the young girl with self-respect and an enduring social consciousness. Ross hoped one day to be like her. Today, in many ways, she is.

After studying education at Pitt, Ross is now an assistant principal in an urban community near Baltimore and has a high-impact career. Her sixth and eighth grade students are culturally diverse, and Ross fills her office—as she did her classroom — with posters of an array of cultural icons to help all feel a sense of belonging.

She says teaching history is about self-awareness and social justice. “It’s about teaching humanity and learning from history how to make good decisions.”

Her effect is apparent every morning at 7:50 as she stands at the school door, welcoming students. Many of them run to her for a hug or a fist bump. Ross also makes it a point to know the students’ families and caregivers. At the beginning of every school year, she tells them that for seven hours a day, their children belong to her, a responsibility she never takes for granted.

“To do education well is revolutionary,” she says. “Learning is such a beautiful process. It’s incredible to watch teachers teach and inspire kids. And I like watching kids have these lightbulb moments. It's just beautiful.”

Wagner stands in a school hallway as students walk to classTim Wagner (EDUC ’09G, ’13G)

Principal, Upper St. Clair High School

Named 2023 PA Principal of the Year by the Pennsylvania Principals Association

"A good teacher sees the individual they're teaching; they reach for what motivates or interests that child. They teach with both head and heart.”

An intimidated seventh grader enters Ms. Szymanski’s classroom, worried about pre-algebra and the teacher’s demanding reputation. But, as weeks pass and Tim Wagner keeps up with the math, he settles in and starts soaking up the classroom’s atmosphere. He notices that, along with posters on prime numbers and the Pythagorean theorem, there are photographs of Ms. Szymanski on vacations around the world, including at Egyptian pyramids and Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Intrigued, Wagner wants to know more, and Ms. Szymanski welcomes the conversation. Those chats were eye opening to Wagner, who had shown interest in being an educator since he was a young child. Years later, the Pitt alumnus says his career as an elementary school educator and now high school principal is still impacted by those chats. More than just pre-algebra, Ms. Szymanski taught him that educating the whole student can happen when the student learns from the whole teacher.

That’s one of the reasons Wagner has created and supported curriculum, programming and teaching materials that facilitate students and teachers having earnest, open relationships. He also leads by example, often sitting in the library, where students gather, so he’s available to talk. And when he walks the halls, he reminds students whose eyes are glued to their phones to look up and greet their classmates and teachers with a smile and hello. He also stays after final bell for what he calls his “second shift” — attending games, monitoring clubs and managing other activities.

His influential leadership all boils down to an understanding first learned back in seventh grade and honed at Pitt: that students thrive during and after school when they feel safe, included, heard and understood.

Lauren Wheeler holds a basketball from a rack beside her
Photo by Israel Gonzalez/InFocus GBR

Lauren Wheeler (EDUC ’22G)

Health and physical education teacher with the Department of Defense Education Activities, Netzaberg Middle School in Germany

Former ninth through 12th grade physical education teacher, Thomas Edison High School in Minneapolis

Named a 2021 finalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year by Education Minnesota

“Exercising is a way of helping your brain do better in every aspect of your life. By instilling that into young people early, I’m hoping it will keep them healthy for life.”

Season after season, little Lauren Wheeler hardly rests. The North Minneapolis native spends her childhood competing in dance, soccer, basketball and track. She even becomes an all-state sprinter.

She loves athletics, but her true passion is physical fitness, which is strengthened when she became the physical education teacher’s assistant during her senior year of high school.

In that role, she’s shocked to find many classmates don’t share her commitment to fitness. It shifts her career aspirations. She no longer wants to be a physical therapist. Teaching is her new mission, along with promoting healthy behavior and attitudes. 

Following through on those missions, Wheeler earned a degree in health and physical education at St. Cloud State University, a master’s in public health at West Virginia University; and a doctorate in education with a focus on health and physical activity at Pitt’s School of Education.

That training helped her land a job as a health and physical education teacher for ninth through 12th graders in Minneapolis Public Schools. While there, she made it clear to her students that they’re not “just” in gym class — they’re learning healthy attitudes toward nutrition, social engagement and academics. It’s especially important knowledge, she says, for students in underserved communities with higher rates of obesity and diabetes.

To engage her students, she uses “edutainment” — videos, special guests, noted athletes and fun exercises. And, to make sure learning is taking place, her students — to their astonishment — must pass tests.

When the pandemic hit, Wheeler, undeterred, developed a virtual workout for her students, hosted by the Minnesota National Guard. CBS News even profiled her “bootcamp.”

In 2023, she left Minnesota to teach middle school physical education abroad at a U.S. military base in Grafenwöhr, Germany. Yet no matter where she teaches, she says her outlook on health is more than just demanding pushups; it’s about instilling in her students what she hopes will be a lifelong passion for healthy behavior.