Teacher of the Year 2018 Finalists and Semifinalists 


Teachers make a difference in the lives of children every day. To honor their commitment to excellence, we've compiled essays from the 2018 Connecticut Teacher of Year finalists and semifinalists. Teacher of the Year candidates are asked about the factors that influenced them to become teachers, and what they consider to be their greatest contributions and accomplishments in education. Here are their inspirational responses.

2018 Connecticut Teacher of the Year:
Name District Subject Area
Erin Berthold Wallingford Public Schools 1st Grade

Name District Subject Area
LeAnn Cassidy Regional School District 15 Social Studies
Martha Curran Madison Public Schools English
Courtney Ruggiero Westport Public Schools Social Studies

Name District Subject Area
Katie Amenta Berlin Public Schools English
Rebecca Aubrey Ashford Public Schools World Languages
Kevin Berean Regional District 5 Technology Education
Cheryl Gustafson Somers Public Schools World Language
Brian Kelly Newington Public Schools Music/Band
Kristen Keska East Hampton Public Schools Social Studies
Yolanda Lee-Gorishti Waterbury Public Schools Science
Jeanne Malgioglio Trumbull Public Schools English
Candace Patten Southington Public Schools Social Studies
Colleen Thompson Simsbury Public Schools Music
Vincent Urbanowski Stamford Public Schools Mathematics


LeAnn Cassidy

LeAnn Cassidy - TOY 2018 FinalistI did not choose education it chose me! From the time, I was a young child playing school in my parent’s basement, I think I instinctively knew that one day I would become an educator. It would take the “road less traveled” to get there, working in the business world as well as the theatre and dance world before I jumped on the education “Merry Go Round,” a ride I have now been on for close to thirty glorious years.

I always loved to learn, but I was a shy, musical bookworm with an old soul who was bullied relentlessly for being different, so I hated school. It was through some caring teachers that I found my place in the world. The myriad experiences I have had have made me the educator I am today. Never wanting my students to feel that they were not enough, where and who they are, I have tried over the years to create a space where students feel comfortable taking risks, and know that I have their backs. Head, hands, and heart- these three words form the basis for my teaching practices. Through this mutual respect, students are able to view themselves as valued members of a school community, and parents see me as an advocate for their children. Where social growth is just as vital as academic growth, these go hand in hand.

My work in the classroom is strengthened by: helping to develop the current evaluation and professional development models; leading curriculum development for social studies; helping to establish safe school policies; facilitating new teacher induction; serving as lead teacher, master mentor, and instructional teacher leader; and serving as both a Common Core Coach and TEAM Coordinating Committee member, reviewer, and mentor. Additionally, I have served as advisor for Student Government, Leaders Club, Yearbook, and as the PTO Representative. This work allows me to support the practices of all teachers so that they may meet the needs of all students.

My most important role though is to provide a model and a means for helping students achieve at their highest levels, never underestimating the value of each individual. This is my greatest contribution – my life in education has been driven by the phrase, “imagine the possibilities…” Young people have the capacity to become anything! It is my role to help them bring their dreams to fruition because they are marvels! That being said – my greatest accomplishments happen daily, one student at a time! I get to work with the future thinkers and doers of our world. Each student brings their awesome self to my door where it is my privilege to help them on their journey of self-discovery, as they become impassioned to seek out their own learning, their own dreams. My classroom is merely a step along the way. If they leave my room questioning the world around them and want to make it a better place through informed action, I have done my job well.

Martha Curran

Martha Curran - TOY 2018 Finalist“Martha, you’re an excellent teacher, but you’re teaching the wrong students.” When I heard these words in the winter of 1999, they struck a chord. Until then, I had loved my job in sales training, my most recent position in a business career of 15 years. I had moved into sales training from marketing because I had a passion for teaching others while motivating them to levels of enthusiasm that matched mine, but I was looking for more. I just didn’t know what it was. When a salesperson said this to me, it was a blinding glimpse of the obvious: I was meant to be a teacher of children not a trainer of adults. It started a journey of self-reflection that led me to one of the best decisions of my life.

Within the month, I had quit my job and enrolled in Connecticut’s Alternate Route to Certification. At first, I thought I wanted to teach little ones, but when my student teaching unexpectedly put me into eighth grade, I fell in love and never looked back. There is something unique about this age group where children are turning into adults, yet they are still children. I love encouraging them to think critically, helping them find their inner voices, and then giving them a vehicle to be heard.

For eight years, I taught 8th grade language arts, working under the tutelage of a well-respected program coordinator. When he passed away, I was asked to take his place as leader for the 5th-8th grade team. Though slightly daunted, I accepted the challenge, serving as department head while doing my 6th year work. I took over the reins as program coordinator in the fall of 2010 and found the best of both worlds. I get to teach students (still the best part of my day), and I also get to work with teachers, helping them find the best in themselves while investigating new strategies for teaching and learning.

This brings me to one of my greatest contributions in education, which is the ability to reach hundreds of children beyond my class roster. As program coordinator, I am fortunate to see great work in 13 Language Arts classrooms, so I share what I see. This celebrates good teaching, unites the staff, and ultimately improves the learning experience for students as they transition through the grades. Additionally, I open my doors to others. Recently, I received a note from a World Language teacher who once observed my class. “Since I observed you teaching five years ago, your level of energy and creativity, and your delivery and teacher persona, are things that have stayed with me and which I have tried to emulate. You had that big an impact on me.”

Whether I’m presenting at a faculty meeting, inviting others to my room to see a Socratic Seminar, orsharing a one-point rubric, I love teaching others and motivating them to levels of enthusiasm that match mine -- just as I did 18 years ago.

Courtney Ruggiero

Courtney Ruggiero - TOY 2018 FinalistI think there are two major factors that contributed to me becoming a teacher: passion for my subject area and a desire to connect with students in a meaningful way. Even as a young child I was always fascinated by history. In fact, for my 10th birthday I asked my mom if I could have my party at the Statue of Liberty. Unfortunately for her, she agreed and took ten 10 year olds on the Staten Island Ferry to climb the Statue and visit the museum afterwards. This stands out as one of my greatest memories as a child. When I got to seventh grade I was introduced to someone who showed me that my passion could turn into a career. My 7th grade social studies teacher, Mr. Ciancio, shared my love of history and demonstrated how a passionate teacher could inspire their students to enjoy a subject. His focus in teaching was to show us the impact historical events have on our modern lives. This shifted the way I thought about history. He also showed me that the skills taught within a subject are even more important than the content. He taught me that being a teacher is about more than academics. He was a person I could go to when I needed support and guidance. In fact, he continued to be a mentor to me well beyond middle school. I went to him when I couldn’t decide which college to go to and went back again when I was applying to grad school. Talking to someone other than my parents or friends gave me an objective sounding board, whose opinion I trusted. Having a teacher like that was one of the most valuable relationships I had when I was younger. I wanted to be a teacher like that. I pursued this by getting my BA in history and minor in education at Bates College and then getting my MAT at Brown University. I have been teaching 8th grade social studies ever since.

I think the most important contribution I have made in the field of education relates to value of civics I impart to my students every year. As a social studies teacher I have the opportunity to teach middle school students how wonderful and fragile the idea of democracy is. They get to see the flaws in the system, but every year I help them walk away knowing that they have the power and the responsibility to do something. I show them how valued the right to vote is in our country and why they should not take it for granted. I also show them the importance of being involved and educated in order to make well thought out decisions regarding their vote. This may not be a grandiose accomplishment, but I think the most important accomplishments in education are those that help inspire the future generation to be the best citizens they can be.


Katie Amenta

Katie Amenta - TOY 2018 SemifinalistAs a child, I dreamed of being a meteorologist. That’s right, the now high school English teacher once imagined herself chasing storms, delivering the highly anticipated forecast, and studying the science behind weather patterns. Sure, this vision was formed after the epic 90’s film, Twister, hit theaters. Thriving off the suspense of coming so close to danger and saving lives all at once, what more could one want? But then, soon after, the novelty of the film faded, and so did my dream of becoming a meteorologist. Yet, one thing never seemed to change, the drive to help others and somehow make a lasting impression on the world.

It was then, in high school that the vision of my future began to shift. My passion for writing evolved after experiencing the most riveting junior high English teacher. I was introduced to literature from perspectives that would change me forever. My vision of the world around me shifted, and I began to understand that I, incredulously, was not the center of the universe. I remember this so vividly because it was not the literature one would expect, Fitzgerald or Twain, but rather, Achebe and Kafka, whose literary prose took me around the world without ever leaving my seat. I saw culture and embodied empathy for the first time. I witnessed the personal battles of overcoming adversity through the lens of characters and knew at a young age that this understanding of the world, literature, and the power of writing were speaking to me. So, with no inkling of pedagogy or core standards, I followed my intuition and became an English teacher.

As I enter my tenth year in education, our ever-evolving youth challenge me to bring them the most authentic experience each and every year. To date, my greatest contributions to education would be the constant revamping of curriculum. I’ve proposed, designed, and delivered seven different courses in my tenure. Certainly one could question why so many changes over such a short period of time? The answer is quite simple, as society changes and our youth evolves with mainstream media, we as educators must take control and determine how best to reach all of our students.

One course that demonstrates this accomplishment is my senior English course titled: American Voices and Modern Issues. I designed this course from the roots of all I believe in as an educator. Students are challenged to read, write, reflect, communicate, research, present, perform, and network all in one semester. More importantly, they’re challenged to evoke realities, debate trivial topics, question authority, and demonstrate their own voice. Each semester I recreate most lessons, purposefully, to promise the most engaging experience possible. I cross curriculum with colleagues from all areas of the school: Social Studies/Psychology, Mathematics, Science, P.E/Health, Culinary, the Student Resource Police Officer… the list goes on. My mission is to give students the most influential experience before they leave high school and demonstrate that meaningful learning encompasses all subjects, genres, and skills.

Rebecca Aubrey

Rebecca Aubrey - TOY 2018 SemifinalistMy path to becoming a teacher is non-traditional. As an undergraduate I lived in South America, and became interested in the region's culture and social issues. This led to graduate studies and a Teaching Assistantship in Latin American Studies and Writing. As an undergraduate instructor, I sought to develop students' critical thinking and cultural competency skills. I put a lot of time into meeting with students, responding to emails, and giving feedback. Watching students grow as global citizens and develop confidence as writers was incredibly rewarding. So, when I was told to "put teaching on the backburner” in order to focus on my research, I knew that the "publish or perish" culture of university teaching was not for me. I enrolled in the Alternate Route to Certification (ARC) Program so that I could teach in an environment where dedication to my students and passion for the content would be valued. I was offered an elementary teaching position under a Durational Shortage Area Permit (DSAP), and was immediately hooked. I truly love coming to school, have withdrawal during vacations, and still can't believe that I get paid for what I do each day.

Teaching fulfills my life values. At 5 years old, I announced that I was going to save the world. While living in South America as an undergraduate, I was struck by the prevalence of children living in the streets, and wrote a senior thesis about it. This eye-opening experience highlighted how vulnerable children are, and how every child deserves to have a safe haven, and an adult in their life who believes in them and pushes them to grow. This belief led me to become a licensed foster parent, eventually adopting an 11 year old girl. I became a teacher because it is another opportunity for creating safe havens, where children can find someone who believes in them and will empower them to be their best; it is an opportunity to work towards "saving" this most vulnerable piece of our world.

My greatest contributions have been in the area of differentiation and interdisciplinary, project-based learning. Differentiation is more than just meeting IEP requirements. To me, differentiation is about understanding that we are not teaching to a classroom, where we need to tweak things for just a couple of students. Instead, we are teaching unique individuals who walk through our doors with different interests, fears, skills, and needs. This philosophy creates a foundation for an environment where students feel safe to challenge themselves, show off their skills, and learn new ones. I set clear standards-based learning goals, but allow flexibility in what students learn, how they learn, and how they show their learning. I have shared my philosophy and strategies at multiple professional conferences. Within my school, I am a teacher-leader on positive behavior management, project-based learning, interdisciplinary planning, and 21st Century skills. The clearest example of this is the Social Literacy Program that I led the 6th grade team in developing this past year, and will recreate with the 5th grade team in 2017-2018.

Kevin Berean

Kevin Berean - TOY 2018 SemifinalistAs I reflect on what factors influenced me to become a teacher and what I consider to be my greatest accomplishments to date in education, I think back to my first parent open house. At the end of my presentation I announced that I wanted the best for every one of my students, as if they were my own children. I didn’t plan on announcing that, that’s just how I felt (and still feel each day) and it just came out. Several parents stayed back after the presentation ended and thanked me for the open house, but one waited until everyone else departed to approach me. She thanked me for the presentation and shared with me that her son has had a difficult time in school since fourth grade, causing her to worry about his transition to middle school. She went on to say that her son loves my class and that it’s the one thing he looks forward to each day.

I’ll never forget that moment. Prior to becoming a teacher, I spent over ten years working for various companies and organizations in roles ranging from Litigation Prevention and Corporate Strategic Initiatives to a senior human resources professional; and while I had many wonderful moments in my prior career where I felt I made a difference, nothing came close to the joy I felt knowing I had helped that student. Since my first open house years ago, like most teachers, I have been blessed with countless moments where the impact I have had as a teacher is transparent. While I still cherish those moments, I have learned that the impact teachers can have on students extends far beyond any particular moment in time, and far beyond the obvious. The difference a teacher can make in a student’s life might not come to fruition until much later, so I try each day to plant and water seeds of excellence, character, leadership and love of learning. Most people cite one teacher as “the one” that made a difference in his or her life, but I believe that it’s the cumulative effort of many that helps to positively influence and shape a student. Successful teaching does not happen in isolation, it’s the result of a team of educators, parents and community members working together. My success as a teacher is no different. It’s the result of the advice and lessons I’ve learned from my colleagues, and the support provided to me by the administrators in my district, the parents and the community. My greatest accomplishments in education are those moments, whether small or large, when I was part of that cumulative effort that helped positively influence and shape a young person’s life for the better.

Cheryl Gustafson

Cheryl Gustafson - TOY 2018 SemifinalistAlthough I didn’t take a direct route to teaching, I have always known that the classroom is where I belong. Having been raised by a teacher, and having been a student in her classroom, I grew up with an appreciation for the long hours that teachers devote to their craft, and the impact they have on their students’ lives. I knew deep down that I would teach one day, but I first wanted to satisfy my desire to learn languages and travel. With this in mind, I set off for college in Washington, DC where I found opportunities to do both, immersing myself amongst people of many different cultures and walks of life.

Following college, I found my first job with a non-profit in Washington and I found opportunities to travel and work with people who were making an impact on both an international and domestic level. Despite working in such an exciting environment, I did not feel that I was making the meaningful difference that I had always yearned to. When circumstances presented themselves, I seized the opportunity to make a career change and I returned to school to become a teacher.

In the classroom, I found the sense of purpose that I had always been looking for. I strive to make my teaching relevant to students’ lives and I encourage them to take an active role in our school community. I am most proud of the doors to the world that I have opened for my students. Through travel with my class, my students have opportunities to practice their language skills and experience new cultures first hand. We also have utilized technology to forge connections with French-speaking people in Benin, West Africa. Students have validated the importance of these learning experiences on many occasions: they have beamed with pride after holding a conversation in French with a native speaker, they have emailed me to thank me for taking them to Québec and expressed that the trip was the highlight of their high school career. One student even shared that she intends to pursue a career in international relations as a result of our classroom connection to the Peace Corps. By providing students with authentic learning experiences, I have helped them gain an appreciation for other cultures and languages that will open doors of opportunity and enrich their life experiences.

I am also proud of my accomplishments outside the classroom. As co-chair of our school’s NEASC Steering Committee, I leveraged the self-study and visitation to empower staff, students, and families to engage as change-agents in our school. Students took an active role in preparing the visitation events, and they showcased the highlights of our school. It was truly a crowning moment that unified our entire community.

As an educator, I am proud to have given light to so many students’ lives; advocating for their success, fueling their curiosity and igniting their dreams.

Brian Kelly

Brian Kelly - TOY 2018 SemifinalistMy high school band director, John Mills, was a huge influence on my career choice. He was a gentleman, a consummate musician, a strong role model, and a fine educator. He constantly challenged us to better ourselves in and out of the classroom. Mr. Mills was always able to draw the best out of us while at the same time, earning all of our respect. Perhaps, the greatest impact he had on me as an educator was his enthusiasm for music.

My 6th grade science teacher, Mr. Spitzer, noticed in the first few weeks of school that I was a shy and sad kid that was having a difficult time fitting in socially and academically. One day he had me stay after class and talked to me about it. From that moment on, Mr. Spitzer's science class was my favorite class. I raised my hand, completed my homework, and studied earnestly for all of his assessments. Why was I motivated to do well in his class? I was invested in his class because he took the time to make a connection with me. He didn't have to; however, he did because he cared. That made all the difference to me. Each year, I make it a point to make connections with every single one of my students; not just the popular kids nor the kids that require extra attention. Every single one of my student matters.

Another factor that influenced my career choice was my four summers as a volunteer counselor at Paul Newman’s “The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp”. This camp in Ashford, Connecticut, services children with cancer and serious blood diseases. This experience showed me what a powerful impact a positive and supportive teacher (mentor) can have on a child. More importantly, it taught me to never underestimate the ability of a child.

Sharing instructional strategies with my colleagues is one of my greatest contributions to education. I feel that this profession should be a collaborative effort. I am currently an officer of the CT Chapter of the American School Band Directors Association (ASBDA). ASBDA is a national organization that offers workshops to band directors to help them become more successful teachers. By maintaining high standards for ourselves, we strive to be the best teachers that we can and share our knowledge with colleagues across the country.

Throughout my career, enrollment in my courses has consistently increased. The popularity of my classes is directly linked to the fact that my students feel safe and valued. Also, I feel that my ability to motivate and instill confidence in my students is one of my greatest accomplishments. This is apparent to me when a student that initially said, “I can’t do it.” Eventually says enthusiastically, “I did it!”

An educator that I respect immensely shared this quote with me years ago, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The great teacher demonstrates. The superior teacher inspires." My goal is to inspire students whenever I step into my classroom.

Kristen Keska

Kristen Keska - TOY 2018 SemifinalistMy elementary school years were rough. I seemed to have every attribute that bullies liked to target. My teachers had to have known what I was going through because they became my support, my advocates, and most importantly, my role models. They inspired me to want to be a teacher. As a child, I took home the textbooks the school was going to throw away and played teacher with my neighborhood friends. In the classroom, I developed strong relationships with all my teachers. They built up my confidence and encouraged me to join clubs and teams, which in turn helped end the bullying that had caused so many tears. By high school, teachers were nurturing my leadership skills.

I earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the NEAG School of Education at the University of Connecticut and participated in activities that supported my future teaching career. In my sophomore year, I taught English to high school students in China for seven weeks. I graduated with two undergraduate degrees; one in Social Studies Education and one from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in both History and Political Science. To earn this additional degree, I spent my summers and winters enrolled in extra courses. One summer, I interned at the National Association for State Boards of Education and followed Congressional hearings on the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 2004. I also wrote articles on Florida’s new policy requiring students to pass a state test to graduate and the impact this legislation had on students.

I am a student for life. As a professional, I value the opportunities that grants and institutions offer to nurture my growth as an educator and as a personal lover of history and politics. I have participated in national conferences organized by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the Foundation for Teaching Economics, and C-SPAN Classroom. The Goethe-Institute enabled me to travel to Germany in 2008 to explore businesses, schools, and many areas of cultural and historical significance. Locally, I have participated in multiple Teaching American History Programs, social studies and county consortiums, and professional development in human rights. The knowledge and experiences I have collected are shared with my colleagues and students.

Currently, I have taken a leap in my own professional and personal growth by enrolling in the Adams State University’s Masters in Humanities with a focus in American History. The courses I have taken have invigorated my political and historical passions and enriched my approach to student lessons. I have shared with my students my own learning strategies for success in a college course. Students have read portions of my essays to improve their own historical research and writing skills. It is through my own desire to learn that I am able to spark the imagination and curiosity of those I teach. My lessons are representative of not only the information and facts I have studied, but of the teachers who continue to inspire me.

Yolanda Lee-Gorishti

Yolanda Lee Gorishti - TOY 2018 SemifinalistI had always wanted to be an Archaeologist, a subfield of Anthropology, and once my youngest son graduated high school, I was able to fulfil this dream at Southern Connecticut State University. I was offered the opportunity to be part of a pilot program during summer 2001 and spend time studying and learning first-hand in the field with Paleoanthropologists in Tanzania. This was a life changing experience that allowed me to visit so many important archaeological sites where our human species evolved and examine the artifacts and fossils that I had studied about in textbooks. Seeing where fossils and artifacts were recovered from the archaeological record and how they were dated reinforced the importance of also undertaking an Earth Science degree, concentrating in geology. My professors at SCSU encouraged and facilitated research in both Anthropology and Geology that I presented at professional conferences.

I began the PhD program in Anthropology at UCONN and immediately started as a teaching assistant in August 2003; and found I have a love of teaching. In January 2004, with the encouragement of my former professors, I began teaching Earth Science courses at Southern Connecticut State University. I completed my Masters in Anthropology and my PhD coursework in 2006. I was preparing for my PhD exams and I had my dissertation project ready to start but due to a family member’s illness, I was unable to continue. As I was deciding what I should do until I go back to complete my PhD, I remembered how much I enjoyed interacting with and preparing Waterbury students for college when I taught a course in Anthropology to students at Connecticut College Awareness and Preparation (ConnCAP) at Naugatuck Valley Community College between 2001 and 2006. After a year of teaching Crosby High School students, I realized that teaching inner-city students was personally rewarding.

I completed the Connecticut Alternate Route to Certification (ARC) Program in 2009 and immediately set out to find programs that will give my students the opportunity to experience, like I had, science outside of the classroom through hands-on learning opportunities and research possibilities. With the Envirothon Club; I provide Crosby students with the opportunity to travel outside of Waterbury and explore different college campuses, the Tolland County Agriculture Center, and the Sessions Woods Wildlife Center. Students interact with expert scientists in the field of soils, forestry, wildlife, aquatics, and other special topics in Saturday workshops. I always take them for pizza afterwards so that my students can socialize and discuss the events of the day. I have had multiple students present research at The Connecticut Conference on Natural Resources. This includes community research projects conducted by my students attending UCONN’s Natural Resources Conservation Ambassador Program and also my students conducting hands-on research with Project Periphyton on the Long Island Sound and climate change.

One of my greatest accomplishments at Crosby has been facilitating opportunities for my students to conduct real scientific research and have them present their data at professional conferences, preparing them for college.

Jeanne Malgioglio

Jeanne Malgioglio - TOY 2018 SemifinalistTwenty-eight years ago, I sat at the table with a piece of paper and the essay, “Why I want to become a teacher.” After countless hours of getting interrogated by my mother, I had no answer. How do I explain something that has always been a part of me? How do find the words to explain my passion? After much prodding, I was able to write that college essay. As I now reflect on my teaching career, I still wonder if my words were adequate. What was it that ignited that passion? Was it the third grade teacher with the grandmotherly touch? Or was it the eighth grade teacher who shared her passion of Camelot with us? Was it the cross country coach who stood in as a father for ours whom we missed? Or how about the funny high school homeroom teacher who could make even the most awkward freshman smile?

A combination of these plus other teachers fueled my desire to become a teacher. Each teacher took the time to get to know me as a student and make a connection. They made me enjoy coming to school because their classes were engaging. They were approachable, and I felt comfortable in their classes. This is the same atmosphere I try to create. Throughout my teaching career, I have taught many different levels, from pre-K through grade 8, and this has helped me gain a greater understanding of how children develop. This knowledge has become an asset to my lesson planning since I know what the students need to master before the next grade. Knowing where students have been and where they need to go enables me to collaborate with my colleagues to create engaging lessons and units that support students and help them grow.

Today’s students are so different than when I began my teaching career. In wrapping themselves around the latest social media app, they have lost their sense of self. I strive to teach beyond the basics to show the students that there is a world out there behind their screens, and that world needs their help. Through my classes and the KARE community service club, I provide real, hands-on experiences that promote empathy and compassion, and these lessons benefit the entire school and beyond. In my classes, the students have researched charities, written to Senator Chris Murphy about their hopes and dreams for the world, and thanked veterans. Through the service club, I involve the entire school community in projects that help the less fortunate in our community and the world. As Dr. Seuss said, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.”

In today’s society of selfies and tweets, our ultimate job as teachers is to make the world a better place, one child at a time. Perhaps there lies my greatest contribution to my school and community… inspiring students to go out and change the world.

Candace Patten

Candace Patten - TOY 2018 SemifinalistIn middle school, I was diagnosed with a learning disability. At that time, there was a negative stigma attached to the disability…one that focused on the “dis” and not the “ability.” I was told by some family members that I should think of a different path for my life, other than teacher, because of my disability. I fought the stigma and developed strategies for myself to overcome my disability and thrive in school. Actually, school become my haven, the safe place I went to escape the many stresses occurring in my family. I was able to find a place where people supported, encouraged, and helped me become the positive and caring person I am today.

There was one teacher who took extra time to help me. Due to her caring nature, I understood how one person could impact a child’s life. She believed in me and helped me build the necessary skills to excel. Without her and my father, I would not be where I am today. I decided to become a teacher so I, too, could motivate, inspire, and encourage EVERY student, regardless of their learning style. I want students to know that whatever they set their minds to they can accomplish. Their disability, learning style, and/or family situations will NOT define them; they can create any future they want. I understand that some things at home might be tough, and the only kind word spoken to a child may be mine. Becoming a teacher would help me develop a classroom that will always be supportive and will always recognize each child’s talents.

Another factor that encouraged me to become a teacher was my mother. She dropped out of high school because she also had a learning disability. She gave up. But she gave up because when she was in school, the teachers, adults, and society did not recognize and help students with disabilities. Due to the lack of support and understanding of her disability, she saw herself as a failure. When I was deciding on what field I wanted to teach, I chose secondary education because I wanted to be the adult who would never allow a student to believe they are a failure, regardless of their age. If a student cannot read in high school, I would learn the necessary skills to help them succeed. My mother came across many high school teachers who would put her down. It is my mission that no one student feels like my mother when they walk through the halls of their high school. That is not the failure of the student; it is the failure of the teacher.

My greatest contribution to education is my passion. My willingness to put my heart into my work every day motivates students and colleagues in the process. I am willing to share my lessons, collaborate with peers, implement new strategies I've read about, then teach others once I have perfected it. Teaching brings joy to my life.

Colleen Thompson

I have always known that I wanted to be a teacher. My mother spent a lot of time with us when we were young, engaging us in learning activities at home, and I followed in her footsteps by “playing school” with my siblings and their friends. My love for music developed as a child while singing in the church choir and taking piano lessons. I was greatly influenced by my high school choir director at Greensburg Central Catholic High School who saw potential in me as a future music educator. He encouraged me to sing solos and lead rehearsals, and helped me to develop advanced musicianship skills. This lead me to earn a scholarship to the conservatory at Baldwin Wallace College, and eventually graduate Summa Cum Laude with a degree in Music Education.

I taught middle school choir in several programs before becoming the choral director at Henry James Memorial School in Simsbury. The music program in the district was well-supported, and the school was filled with enthusiastic, talented students who wanted to perform at a high level. I tapped into this potential and the choir program grew from about 200 students to over 350 within a few years. I was dedicated to teaching students of all ability levels how to read and perform music. My choirs began performing so successfully that we were invited to perform at state, regional and national conferences. I created a program that appealed to a diverse range of students. Whether they were confident musicians seeking out solos, shy singers who wanted to stay out of the spotlight, or students who struggled academically or behaviorally, they all had a place in the choir. I gained a reputation for seeking out students who were under-represented in choir - particularly boys and students of color - and inviting them to join the choir. For many students, choir was the only class in which they were successful. I set clear expectations for their performance and behavior during rehearsals and at concerts, and let them know that their success was important to me. I promised them that if they worked hard, they would get better, the choir would sound good, and they would be proud of themselves. I have heard from many former students and their parents that their experience in middle school choir set them on the right path for future success in school and beyond, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to influence them in this way.

For the past decade, I have been sharing my teaching strategies with students and educators beyond Simsbury. I have led or conducted at least 28 professional development sessions and concerts throughout the country, usually focused on adolescent choirs. I hope to inspire and engage the next generation of music educators to positively influence as many students as possible by sharing in the human experience of making music together.

Vincent Urbanowski

Vincent Urbanowski - TOY 2018 SemifinalistTeachers made me a teacher.

And my father was the first.

He was a voracious reader of history and poetry, an artist, and a non-stop seeker of challenges. As a little kid, I watched him teach himself architecture, carpentry, masonry, wiring, auto mechanics, cooking and even practical law. He designed and personally built an addition to our house and a freestanding garage. He managed permits & budgets and learned to buy from “trade-only” building supply businesses. He managed investments and did his own taxes. And… much more. But here’s the point – he was my first and most excellent teacher. He taught by modeling and instructing. He visualized, filled his mind, and put his hands to work. Nothing was too hard. “Vin,” he explained, “If you can read a book, you can do anything.”

I met other inspiring teachers and mentors along the way, and I cherish the memory of each: Miss Meagher who taught me joy in my first grade classroom; Jeannie Watson who woke my intellect through literature in middle school; Lowell Lacey who inspired me with a musical life; Peter Batchelder, master luthier who taught me perseverance; Steve Trygg who encouraged me to fail upward in business; and so many others.

In college, I majored in music as a pianist & organist. But my passion for learning would not be constrained. I switched schools and majors – from literature, to politics, and finally to engineering, getting an Associate’s from NSTC (now NCC) which led to a job at Norden Systems building Cold War weaponry. While there, I finished my bachelor’s degree in engineering at night school – with about 250 undergrad credits that had accumulated over the years of intellectual adventure. After that, I had a good run in advertising. I started as a technical copywriter at a Swedish advertising agency, moved on to writing TV commercials at Young & Rubicam, and finally to a position as Chief Creative Officer at a Silicon Valley digital media firm.

Success up to that point was pretty much the accidental result of my love of learning. But for ongoing success in business, you have to put away the intrinsic joy of the work and take up the grimmer satisfaction of politics. Which is not in my nature.

On reflection, I realized that my best moments were with my teachers: happy images of sunlight in my elementary school; bolts of insight in high school; passionate discussions in college; gentle corrections in the workshop. I realized there is nothing more fundamental to who I am than teaching and learning.