For 2019 Connecticut Teacher of the Year (TOY) Sheena Graham, making personal connections with the young people in her classroom is all in a day’s work—and one of the things that has endeared her to generations of students. Those meaningful, enduring connections are among the common threads that bind this year’s TOY finalists together. While they all came to teaching in different ways, with unique points of inspiration, each shares a strong penchant for building positive relationships with students, showing children that they matter not only as learners but as human beings.
At a December 5 ceremony at The Bushnell Center for Performing Arts honoring Graham and more than 100 district-level teachers of the year—including 11 state semifinalists and three finalists—teachers from Bridgeport to Mansfield received high accolades for delivering on the promise of an outstanding education for all students, but also, on a more personal level, caring about their students as individuals.
2013 Connecticut TOY Blaise Messinger, the evening’s emcee, thanked teachers for creating classrooms that send a clear message: “This is a place of inclusion, of learning, of safety. This is a place of hope.” Like many of the evening’s speakers who credited their own teachers with making a major impact on their lives, the Cromwell teacher noted, “I can draw a straight line from one certain teacher to where I stand now, on this stage.” Addressing the honorees in the crowd, he said, “You are that teacher for someone. You are that teacher who will be remembered.”
“I am so proud to be here on a night that honors our Connecticut teachers, not only those who have distinguished themselves as teachers of the year, but all the many thousands across the state who work hard every day to build bridges, make meaningful connections, and educate the whole child,” said CEA President Jeff Leake.
TOY Finalist Ryley Zawodniak, a fifth-grade teacher at Mansfield Middle School, has made that her mission throughout her career.
“As a language arts teacher,” she says, “I have a window into students’ lives—their triumphs and struggles—as they write about what’s most important to them. I see that as a gift as well as a responsibility. Yes, I am responsible for covering content, but first and foremost, I am responsible for knowing each of my students and forging a connection with them—not only to discover new avenues to motivate and challenge them but also to help them feel safe, heard, and understood.”
Zawodniak points to a defining moment in her days as a student that shaped the teacher she is today. “I didn’t know it then,” she said, “but it would later push me to make meaningful contributions in education.” She recalls the December day in 1985 when classmate Louis Cartier came to her New Hampshire high school with a shotgun. “This was pre-Columbine, pre-cellphones, pre-intruder drills. My experience as a student that day, which ended in Louis being shot and killed by a police officer, resonated with me over the years, after I became a teacher.” She remembers Cartier as a bullied student who had dropped out of school and ultimately reached a breaking point.
“Consequently, one contribution I make in education is to see students first as people. Their social and emotional needs are of the utmost importance to me, and I seek to support all learners. Louis Cartier taught me that lesson.”
Parents have commended Zawodniak for “tapping into each child in a unique and personal way,” and students say she makes them feel “like one big family, where every voice is heard.”
Like Zawodniak, fellow finalist Jennifer Freese, a science teacher at Martin Kellogg Middle School in Newington and a CEA member since 2006, is a firm believer in the importance of supporting students’ social-emotional well-being to help them cope with conflict and stress.
“My students keep me going every single day,” she says.
Freese, who is legendary at her school for her compassion and sense of humor, says students describe her style as Mrs. Freese’s Four Fs: firm, fair, friendly, and funny. When they come into her classroom tired and dragging their feet, she greets them with exclamations of, “Good morning, my little rays of sunshine!” Though they might shoot her a weary look, she says, “Many of them have told me how much they look forward to coming to my class every day, because even if they’re having a bad day, I will make them laugh and feel better.”
Where real learning happens
Sixteen-year veteran Jessica Harris, a finalist who teaches grade K-2 at Moses Beach School in Wallingford, also learned the importance of connecting with students from a teacher who reached out to her years ago.
“As a seventh-grader trying to figure out friendships and struggling with an impending move out of state,” she remembers, a certain teacher—Ms. Hurleman—“made a connection with me—not a surface-level connection but a true connection that made me feel comfortable enough to take risks, show my creativity, and assume leadership roles. When a child’s emotional state is supported, when the child feels valued and cared for, academics can flourish. It is sometimes in those short conversations or moments with students that we learn more about them than any assessment or written performance task will ever tell us.”
Reflecting on that theme, a State Board of Education student ambassador at the TOY ceremony remarked, “Teachers are some of the kindest, friendliest human beings I have ever met. My teachers are my superheroes. You save lives—you saved my life.” The high school student, whose father has been incarcerated all her life and whose mother passed away when she was only a freshman, said, “My teachers covered me in the warm embrace my parents wished they could give me. My teachers will always be my family.”
Graham, Zawodniak, Harris, and Freese, as well as 2019 TOY semifinalists and district-level teachers of the year will be honored at numerous events over the coming year and will receive professional development and leadership opportunities that will further enrich their impact on students and colleagues.