WILMINGTON — Back in the fall of 2019, Ashley Kelly stood in front of a classroom full of freshmen at St. Elizabeth High School and talked to them about math.
“I was brand new. I was nervous as can be. I could barely put words together. It was the very first class I ever taught,” Kelly recalled recently.
When she began her second year at the school, Kelly told one of the sophomores, Dominic Mazzzarelli, about how nervous she had been. He told her he couldn’t tell. Now a senior, Mazzarelli nominated Kelly for The Dialog’s Teacher Feature for her outstanding work in the classroom.
“Ms. Kelly is by far my favorite teacher at St. Elizabeth,” Mazzarelli wrote in his nomination. “Every interaction she has with students she either teaches or doesn’t is very special. She is always helping students as much as she can and never fails to make a student happy.”
For Kelly, who left corporate America to get into education, those words leave an impression.
“It’s why I do what I do,” she said. “That’s the kind of thing you keep in mind when the days get long and hard. Not every day is easy, but a moment like that is why we’re here.”
The ability to help shape young lives is what brought Kelly to St. Elizabeth. After graduating from the University of Delaware with a degree in mathematics, she moved to New York and went to work as an analyst for a major retailer. Kelly said the work was fulfilling, “but then one day I woke up and I was like, ‘This is not what I want to do. I’m not helping anybody. I’m not solving the world’s problems. I want to be a teacher.’”
Kelly, 31, started looking for a job in this area, and she saw that St. Elizabeth had an opening for a calculus teacher. She teaches calc, along with just about every math discipline one can name. She teaches geometry to all of the school’s sophomores, and then sees many of them again when they are seniors in one of the honors or advanced-placement classes.
She describes her teaching style as hands-on, with a fondness for projects that help make the subject matter more interesting and relatable. Her geometry classes might play miniature golf to help them understand angles. In statistics, the students take part in a March Madness competition, with everyone’s brackets hung around the room as a way to study probability. A huge sports fan, Kelly also educates about probability through a basketball shooting competition. She also has used Lucky Charms cereal as a teaching tool.
“I try with my seniors to really get them up and moving because I know for some of them it (statistics) is not their ideal math course. How can we bring fun into math? Too often, it’s a subject that people are scared of, or say they’re not good at, and they kind of shut down,” she said.
Kelly said she owes her love of math to a teacher at Avon Grove High School in Chester County, Pa. She was a student in an AP calculus, and the teacher noticed she was not scheduled to take the AP exam. She told him she was going to be a journalist and was done with math. His reaction has stuck with her ever since.
“He just shook his head and said, ‘What a waste of a mathematical mind.’ He inspires me every year in what I can do in AP calc,” she said.
At St. Elizabeth, her talents are not limited to the classroom. Kelly is the moderator of the National Honor Society, the Math League and Science Olympiad. She is part of the administrative tech team, and she also leads the sophomore class retreat. Last year, she got to scratch the writing itch by working on the literary magazine.
“I love that a small school like St. E helps you do all that,” she said. “The students get to see you in a different light.”
Kelly also keeps busy at home, taking care of a 3-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter. Her son, Duke, recently started playing soccer, so she is busy attending practices. She likes to hike with her labradoodle, and she attends concerts when she can. In high school, she played the piccolo and flute in the band and would like to take up the flute again at some point. She plays some piano from time to time.
Kelly is a fan of the New Orleans Saints football team, so Mondays at St. Elizabeth usually start with a discussion of how everyone’s favorite teams did. The students are sure to needle her if the Saints lose. She enjoys building that rapport with her students.
“If you can connect with the students, they’ll connect to what they’re learning so much better,” she said.