SDE: 2016 Connecticut Teacher of the Year Finalists and Semifinalists

2016 Connecticut Teacher of the Year 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 2016 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.

2016 Connecticut Teacher of the Year
Jahana Hayes Waterbury History

Daniel Clement Somers Business
Dylan Connor Stratford Latin
Shaun Mitchell Bridgeport ELA/Theatre

David Coss Hamden AP Government
Tiffany Deitelbaum Naugatuck ELA
Adrienne Dunn Weston Grade 5
Kimberly Herzog Westport ELA
Evelyn Hudyma New Britain Social studies
Brian Jehning Region 15 Science
Mark Mishriky Bolton Social studies
Jodi Okenquist Granby Social studies
Robert Riley Plainfield Tech ed
Andrea Sias Bloomfield Science
Laurie Sweet Region 6 Art
Chinma Uche CREC Math


Daniel Clement, Somers

“Dan is a dynamo with seemingly endless energy. He invests fully in his students and every one of them would testify to the fact that he cares about them as well as his work. Dan is exactly the type of professional schools should look for.”

—Chad Ellis, previous administrator

As a young student, Dan Clement experienced adversities including vision impairment, difficulty reading, and Tourette’s syndrome. Dan was influenced to enter teaching because of the profound impact of his teachers, helping him overcome adversity and succeed. With an innate passion for Business, he sold products at a local flea market by fourth grade and opened a computer consulting company at age 18.

{Teacher Dan Clement with students}

Through Dan Clement, at left wearing tie, students learn that education can be liberating.

Dan graduated Magna Cum Laude from Western New England College and was awarded their Outstanding Student of General Business recognition. He holds a Baccalaureate and Master’s degree in Business Administration.

Dan’s energy and passion has led to his Business courses exceeding capacity year-after-year. As the SHS Yearbook Team advisor, a program once enduring recruitment challenges, now receives over 40 student applications per year. Team members take tremendous pride in the program’s transformation, which has earned regional and national recognition. Dan’s instructional style embraces teaching as a performing art. Once emulating a Chef, Dan made pizza dough from scratch for students and then challenged them to create training programs for volunteers he invited, where the volunteers were responsible for making the dough. Dan is a go-to person for students seeking advice to overcome adversity and he has phenomenally adapted to those requiring less and more rigorous differentiation. He has created self-paced courses, for those of all abilities, as well as independent study courses for those requiring further challenge. Through Dan, students learn education can be liberating.

By demonstrating leadership, Dan forms relationships with colleagues, compounding their effectiveness. Through co-establishing a school store, his team transformed a $500 grant into a venture producing up to $5K yearly, creating an annual senior scholarship, teacher grants for innovative lessons, and supporting worthy causes to enhance school climate. Dan cofound the BusTech Collaboration Project, where students in different departments create and introduce products on the actual market. Dan has a talent for bringing people together and consistently gets results that benefit students. Dan’s dedication to the profession reaches across districts where he has mentored teachers seeking to improve their skills or struggling in their initial year. He always takes on significant roles, whether chairing a committee or helping colleagues with technology.

Dan’s impact on the business world is prevalent. He continues teaching adult education Excel courses he has designed and authored the text for, enabling unemployed inPiduals to gain skills for job opportunities and entrepreneurs to gain skills for expanding their ventures. Dan also designs presentations for the internationally recognized Klein Group Instrument, a tool utilized to enhance leadership and participation in teams. Over the past nine years Dan has taught Business in Vernon, Enfield, and Somers, CT, earning Vernon’s Profiles in Professionalism award and Somers Public Schools’ 2016 Teacher of the Year recognition.

Back to top

Dylan Connor, Stratford

My father was a 9th grade English teacher in Westport public schools for the first 7 years of my life. I remember him taking me to school events, where I felt the exhilarating energy swirling around the big teenagers. In second grade, I was in Mrs. Bernardi's class. She was the first teacher that made me feel truly loved. That year, we got a class pet (a parakeet) that we named Peeper through intense democratic process. We actually taught the bird how to talk, and I got to take it home over a school vacation. Mrs. Bernardi was extending her love and trust to me outside the walls of the school. My sophomore English teacher, Bob Gillette, took us on a field trip during which we walked the city of Manhattan and each student had to give an on-sight oral report on one facet of the city.

{Teacher Dylan Connor in class}

Latin teacher Dylan Connor's classroom is a refuge for students.

I reported on shoe shiners from on top a milk crate with a megaphone. I remember it vividly. In the classroom, Mr. Gillette would ask deep philosophical questions that opened me up and ignited a fierce sense of curiosity and vitality within me. That is the source of my desire to teach: to carry that torch of inspiration that these teachers provided me to the next generation.

As a Latin educator my greatest contribution has been putting fun, music, and imagination into what many people see as a dry and dead subject. I have several guitars in class with which we write and sing songs about myths that we have studied, Latin noun declensions, or the red pens enshrined in the Red Pen Hall of Fame cabinet. Sometimes, we play Translation Tag, where a student has to go to the SmartBoard and translate a sentence and then tag somebody else to translate the next sentence, before he or she runs to base. My classroom is plush with colorful student work: a working chariot, a towering obelisk, a model of the Roman Forum made from Legos. My students say that the songs we sing about red pens or Latin grammar, the personal stories we share, the current events we discuss, the philosophical discussions about a Latin proverb, keep them coming back for more Latin. In addition, students often express that my classroom provides a place of refuge, where they feel comfortable, understood, and loved. Another accomplishment has been integrating my experiences as an activist for human rights into my role as a teacher. For example, my humanitarian work on behalf of Syrian refugee children helped inspire students to hold a Walk For Syria and a Clothing for Syria Drive in 2014. To inspire students to become aware of the world around them and to take action on behalf of others is essential to their own personal growth as well as to the society as a whole. Finally, I consider it a real accomplishment that so many students have expressed that my class is a safe place where they feel valued as people.

Back to top

Shaun Mitchell, Bridgeport

I was influenced to become an educator at a very young age by my own teachers. My first teachers - my parents – never attended college, and they worked hard their entire lives to support my brother and me; the one thing they always encouraged was to be curious and to dream big. I was fortunate enough to attend an excellent public school system in suburban New Jersey and graduated high school with only 84 students.

I did not naturally view myself as a smart person - inquisitive, of course - but I was not the best student academically. Through my collaboration with all of my teachers in every grade, their personal attention and encouragement allowed me to discover my work ethic and find my own strengths in areas I never knew I had potential. They unlocked the life-long learner in me and I knew early that I had to pay my gratitude forward to future generations. I also knew I didn't want to teach in an area similar to the one I had grown up. I wanted to use my strengths to help those in urban areas - those with the highest need for life-long learning, which ultimately led me to teaching in Bridgeport.
{Teacher Shaun Mitchell}

Shaun Mitchell, bottom right in hat, wanted to use his strengths to help those in urban areas.

While teaching in Bridgeport, two things stand out as my greatest accomplishments thus far. First, the creation and implementation of an African-American Literature curriculum that has allowed my African-American students to understand their own culture, how it relates to their world and the world around them, and ultimately how to find their identity in a nation filled with mixed emotions on race. It is a course that keeps teaching me each time I teach it. The curriculum challenges the students while gently guiding them to consider their own potential and place in the world, which is what I think all great courses should do. My second accomplishment is the creation of an after-school performing arts group called "The Central Players." In five years we have performed six plays, three musicals, and a student playwright festival with this group. I have seen over 150 students come and go on our stage. This group allows students a chance to find themselves through art and the meaningful discourse of how art changes society. Through the program, students have gained confidence, empathy, and imagination - not to mention a community where they feel safe to engage their minds in creativity. If it weren't for theatre and my own teachers, I wouldn't be the teacher I am today. It is my responsibility to give back to those who need culturally relevant learning opportunities.

At the end of the day, my two greatest strengths that I offer education are my work ethic and my disposition. Education is an ever-changing climate that requires two things from great teachers: hard work and a good attitude. I like to think that I possess both of those skills and they allow me to make the contributions that I do to our nation's children and teachers.

Back to top


David Coss, Hamden

Three factors inspired me to become a teacher: Inspiring teachers from my childhood, the need to be challenged, and the desire to have a lasting impact. First, I was influenced by many gifted educators throughout my schooling. Each one of these educators revealed qualities that inspired me to pursue this noble profession. Mrs. Harple created an inviting and safe atmosphere for “her boys” in our transition class. She demonstrated compassion for all students, even difficult students, for they often need it most. In High School, Mr. Caruth, my social studies teacher, taught me how to think critically and offer opinions bolstered by facts, not emotions.

{Teacher David Coss with students}

David Coss, third from left, asks students for their best every day.

Today I emulate his style in my own classroom. Mrs. Gyorgyey was the toughest English teacher I have ever met. She was brilliant and relentless and would never let us cave into apathy. Embracing her tough spirit, I try each day to not let my students offer anything less than their best. I strive to honor the memories of each of these teachers in my classroom. Next, my desire to embrace challenges attracted me to teaching.

Before education, I enjoyed a successful but unfulfilling career in retail where my efforts enriched the corporate world. The work of the classroom teacher benefits students and society in a much more gratifying way. Although it can be exhausting, classroom teaching ennobles the educator while challenging them constantly to improve their craft. Finally, the enduring positive impact of a good teacher inspired me to pursue this career. Like the influential teachers I was privileged to have, I too desire to encourage my students to pursue productive lives. There is nothing more rewarding than encountering former students and finding them healthy and happy. Many students recount positive stories of our class, or how I made them feel about themselves. This makes it all worthwhile.

All social studies teachers strive to inspire their students to become informed and active citizens. Many of my former students cite my influence as the reason they have become community activists, lawyers, teachers, and social workers. As I witness my former students embrace the mantle of civic responsibility, I consider my role in shaping their political efficacy to be one of my greatest accomplishments. Additionally, my role as a mentor to teacher candidates and new educators has permitted me to give back to the profession that has done so much for me. As a cooperating teacher, fieldwork supervisor, TEAM mentor, or simply a coworker, I value the advice and support I provide to guide and retain quality educators. Many of my former student teachers still reach out to me for advice or to share stories of their successes. I feel it is a responsibility we, as educators, all share to open our classrooms to the next generation of teachers. In doing so I have enjoyed tremendous professional success and personal satisfaction guiding talented young men and women to enduring careers in the classroom.

Back to top

Tiffany Deitelbaum, Naugatuck

The biggest factor in influencing me to become a teacher is my love for children. I enjoy being with children and helping them learn not only content but about life. When I watch a student write a brilliant thesis statement or discover the theme of their favorite novel I get just as excited as they do! The love I have for children, big and little, has given me a patience and perseverance with them that I never thought I could have.

{Educator Tiffany Deitelbaum with students}

Tiffany Deitelbaum, pointing, celebrates each day's little victories.

I am also passionate about being a learner, which is important in the teaching profession. Successful teachers must first be lifelong learners to keep up with the ever-changing world. I spend hours each week learning the deeper nuances of content I am teaching as well as best practices in how to facilitate learning of the content and skills. I attend numerous conferences, both in person and online, from content to the Common Core to technology in an attempt to learn new material and better ways to teach my students. I also seek the assistance and help of my colleagues daily. I consult them when I have a question using a rubric to grade a student’s paper such as if it has a clear and well elaborated thesis versus a good one or what is the best way to teach the difference between a participle and a gerund.

My greatest contributions and accomplishments in education are centered on my students. I could say that watching a class go from being 46% proficient on a standardize reading assessment in the fall to 98% in the spring is one of my greatest accomplishments but teaching for me is so much more than a number. My greatest accomplishments come each day in the small achievements of each student. It is when Floyd gets so excited about writing and realizing he can be a writer someday takes the initiative to start a blog in which people actually start following him and reading every word. It is when Nate becomes enthralled with trying his hand at teaching and internalizes every piece of feedback I give him during his planning of a lesson he has initiated, designed, and complimented to the class. These moments when a student like Alyssa who has little access or experience with technology struggles to get her reader’s workshop book review online posted but perseveres and comes up to my room for help during lunches and study halls for days. She never quit and finally got it posted online. When together we finally saw her review on the bookstore website we spontaneously hugged and she couldn’t wait to print a copy to bring home to show to her mother. These moments are what will be remembered long after my students and I compile any data or graduate or retire.

Back to top 

Adrienne Dunn, Weston

I would love to say that I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a teacher. That, however, is not true. Quite honestly, I did not like school during my younger years. I did not look forward to school as it was a source of anxiety. I remember receiving feedback from my second grade math teacher that I did not know my facts. My parents were confused as I could recall them quickly when practicing at home.

{Teacher Adrienne Dunn}

For Adrienne Dunn, holding flowers, fifth grade changed her life.

The reality was that I did know my facts but when I was put in a stressful environment, which her classroom was to me, I would clam up. My parents started to put two and two together when I was coincidentally feeling "all better" at about ten after nine each day, which was when, conveniently, math was over. It was a struggle to get through that year. When I reached fifth grade, it was life changing. I had a teacher, Mrs. Edwards, who made the classroom a lively place where intelligent risk taking was encouraged and celebrated. She supported us in every subject. I remember developing into a writer that year. Our class was a workshop model where we were treated like authentic writers with genuine stories to share. We had an Author's Night where we shared a piece of our writing of which we were especially proud. Mrs. Edwards was able to make each student feel as though his/her piece was the highlight of the evening. We all felt unique and celebrated. From that point on, I gravitated to teachers who taught by creating a supportive, yet rigorous, learning environment as that is where I was able to flourish and develop into a conscientious learner. It was in her fifth grade classroom that I learned the importance of creating an environment conducive to learning for all.

My educational background has enabled me to provide a rigorous academic atmosphere while being socially conscious of each student’s needs. My greatest contributions and accomplishments have been establishing strong relationships with all students so that they are motivated to learn in our dynamic setting. Our classroom is a place where students feel welcomed and respected in an academic environment. Students are encouraged to share different methods of solutions, appreciate different perspectives and celebrate their differences. The energy in my classroom is that of excitement and determination. The students are enthusiastic not only about the content but the fact that they are the builders of their own knowledge. In order to provide the personalized education that our public school students deserve, you need to be able to know each individual and be able to adapt to meet each child’s needs. I understand that in order to do this authentically, it is critical to build strong relationships with my students. This is why students come to school each day with smiles on their faces, ready to learn.

Back to top

Kimberly Herzog, Westport

I wasn’t planning on teaching. In fact, I was interested in management, but I kept taking literature classes, following my interests of reading and writing. Then, upon completing an education class, I had a revelation. I called my father that evening and told him my change in plans: I was going to be a teacher, and I was going to teach English. I feared his reaction, as he was a businessman, yet during this conversation, he revealed that if he could go back, he would have followed his passion years ago.

{Teacher Kimberly Herzog}

Kimberly Herzog, right, is able to reach even the most reticent of students.

This passion for teaching has withstood unexpected obstacles and surprising successes, and it is the main factor. I love what I do: I am passionate about the content, but even more passionate about the learner. Nothing compares to the moment when a student becomes engaged in thinking and learning, achieving more than she ever thought possible. Reflectively, the empowering teachers I had as a student influenced me to become an educator: my sophomore English teacher, whose enthusiasm was infectious; my senior AP Literature teacher, who would ring a bell when a student said something profound; and my college professor, who made me love literature for its riddling language, and who taught me the value of the learner as an individual. These teachers became my models, and later, my mentors. They taught me to read differently, to think expansively, to share my perspective, to listen to ideas of my peers, and to be open to changing my thinking. In turn, as I began teaching, they made me strive to do better for the sake of each student, and to teach to and for the learner. By maintaining my focus on reaching the learner as an individual, I have been able to reach even the most reticent of students.

My biggest accomplishments as a teacher have been rooted in collaboration. Recently, I presented at the AP National Conference on a project I created with a colleague, and I will be presenting at the National Council of the Teachers of English with a panel on advocating teacher voice to affect positive change. Through the Connecticut Writing Project (CWP) Summer Institute, I had the privilege of collaborating with teachers from other districts, and were awarded a $20,000 LRNG Grant to promote digital learning through the united vision of digital projects between several high schools in Southern Connecticut, with my project being Teen TEDxTalks. This collaboration continued with inter-district teachers and professors at Fairfield University, as well as the National Writing Project, for the culminating student-led conference "We Too Are Connecticut." This conference is one of my greatest accomplishments, as I was part of an organic effort to unite over 130 Connecticut adolescents from varying backgrounds to share the power of their voices - an opportunity they never had before. Collaboration has led me to some of my greatest ideas and applications in the classroom. By constantly learning with and from others, I broaden my perspective to positively influence my classroom and students.

Back to top

Evelyn Hudyma, New Britain

The road to becoming a teacher, for me, was somewhat nontraditional. I spent many years in the corporate world before realizing that my calling was in education. When I began a family, and my children entered the public school system, I became an advocate for education in New Britain. In addition to the traditional volunteering at the schools and organizing and supporting parent groups I was a candidate in a party primary for a seat on the Board of Education.

{Teacher Evelyn Hudyma}

Evelyn Hudyma, smiling, has been a long-time education advocate.

My bid was unsuccessful, however, it served as the first brick in my path to becoming a classroom teacher. I became a Parent Volunteer Organizer for my son's middle school and after a very exciting first year I spoke with the principal about opportunities for me in the classroom. That Fall I became a paraeducator at the school working with a special needs student. Over the next ten years, I had the opportunity to work with some of the most effective special education teachers in our district, who ultimately inspired and motivated me to take on the challenge of teaching in my own classroom. After returning to college to complete my degree and secure my teaching certificate in Social Studies, I was extremely fortunate to begin my career at the very high school I graduated from many years ago. Being an advocate for education all these years, and feeling the frustration of accepting budgets that are detrimental to our students, and class sizes that challenge a teacher's desire to reach every student, was a deciding factor for me to become a teacher. I believed I could make the biggest impact on education in my district by "getting into the trenches" so to speak, and do my best for the children of my district as a classroom teacher.

As a life-long resident of New Britain, I believe I have a unique perspective on the dynamics of our school district, and I have established myself as a civically minded member of the community. To that end, I believe one of my greatest contributions to New Britain education has been as an advocate for 20 plus years on behalf of our students. As a teacher I can communicate with families and encourage them to get involved in their child's education, beyond the classroom, through my own example. As a teacher, I am proud of the opportunities I have secured for my students in the form of educational field trips. Through several grants my students have been able to experience Connecticut history first hand and apply that new knowledge to their own community. It is important that our students have the opportunity to demonstrate their social skills beyond the classroom, and these grants accomplish that goal. Furthermore, as a student is participating in a museum activity, for example, it provides context for the age old question of "why do I have to learn this". As a teacher in an urban district, I am proud of my contributions and accomplishments.

Back to top

Brian Jehning, Regional School District 15

While attending UConn during my sophomore year as a biomedical engineering major I was recruited by Sibtech Inc., a small biotech company, to do cancer research over the summer. I consider this internship the best thing to ever happen to me. I learned so many things from my experience as a researcher, but the most important was that I needed something other than a lab bench, chemicals, procedures, and reports to fulfill my life.

{Teacher Brian Jehning and students}

Brian Jehning, right, found his true calling as a teacher.

I had some of the greatest colleagues in the lab. They were brilliant in their knowledge of cells and cancer, but it ultimately did not feel like the right fit for my passion, beliefs, and personality.

During my junior year, while still in engineering, I took up an opportunity to volunteer for the America Reads Program. Each week, a bus took us to Kinsella Elementary School in Hartford. The program coordinator, a female friend and student at UConn, begged me to join the program because there were no male students involved. I gladly took the opportunity for a break a few hours a week from the demanding engineering curriculum. This experienced changed my path forever. Spending time reading and doing math problems with elementary aged students each week became something I couldn’t live without. Reflecting upon all of the great teachers I had growing up in New Britain, and the influences they had on my life and my personality, I knew pursuing teaching would be a way for me to give back many of the things I had been lucky to obtain. During the spring semester of my junior year, I applied for the NEAG School of Education, one year later than I should have. To me, one extra year in college to find my true calling was undoubtedly worth it. I vividly remember sitting my parents down to have the conversation with them about changing majors from engineering to education. I feared their wrath, especially with them counting on me financially, and now considering a change to a profession that didn’t pay nearly anywhere the same money. Yet, they didn’t care. As I cried because I felt I was letting them down, they hugged me and encouraged me, saying I would never look back.

My greatest accomplishment to date is bringing the Digital Arts and Sciences Academy to Pomperaug. Through a great partnership with Education Connection in Litchfield, we have been able to provide one cohort of students each year the opportunity to participate in the best STEM program in our state. As the site coordinator, I have gotten the opportunity to experience a great leadership role, and Pomperaug’s Academy is renowned as a top program in the state. Every year our students are recognized for their great work at the Connecticut Student Innovation Expo. I am proud to have a part in developing this program into one of our schools most distinguished programs.

Back to top

Mark Mishriky, Bolton

{Teacher Mark Mishriky}

Mark Mishriky always knew he wanted to help others and work
with kids.

As a high school senior, I contemplated many career paths. I only knew that I wanted to enter a profession in which I could help others and work with kids. I committed to the University of Connecticut as a pre-med major, hoping to become a pediatrician. However, the summer before my freshman year, I began to consider teaching. This was because of Mr. Peterson. He was my cross-country and track coach. I was never a strong math student and he would always tutor me on the bus on the way to our track meets. What made an impression on me, was how much he seemed to enjoy helping me. As a senior, I was placed in Mr. Peterson's trigonometry class. For the first time in my life, math became my favorite subject. This was not because Mr. Peterson was my coach. I loved his class because everyday, he exhibited the same genuine happiness he had shown helping me on the bus. Mr. Peterson loved teaching and was able to make it enjoyable for everyone, regardless of their strength in math. As I reflected on this over the summer, I noticed Mr. Peterson's yearbook photo. This would be his last yearbook photo as he retired that year after four decades in the classroom. In the picture, he showed a large, welcoming smile and it inspired me to consider a career in education. I thought, if I could enjoy my career half as much as he did, I would be very happy. I was right.

I believe that my greatest accomplishments and contributions to education occur within my classroom. I am most proud of the rich personal relationships I build with my students, and see the benefits in my classroom every day. I am very proud to have introduced the National History Day program to Bolton High School. It has allowed me to enrich the study of history through inquiry-based research and has been adopted by several of my colleagues. It has also enabled me to inspire excellence in my students, sending three students to compete at the national level. In addition, I have tried to bring a sense of social consciousness to my school by creating the BHS Social Justice Club. Our club has raised thousands of dollars and dedicated thousands of hours to service projects at the local, national, and global levels. We have also educated our school community on issues of human rights and justice. I have also brought a global perspective to BHS, establishing an exchange program with a sister school in Bolton, England. Finally, I am proud to have contributed to the professional learning of my colleagues at Bolton High School. I have been chosen to pilot several professional development activities and share my learning with colleagues. I have developed reading, writing, and data tracking programs that have been used widely by peers. In addition, through my work with the technology committee, I have helped improve the implementation of educational technologies within Bolton Public Schools.

Back to top

Jodi Okenquist, Granby

The author Emma Bombeck writes, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me.” Her sentiments echo mine. This philosophy led me into teaching. I wanted a career where I could contribute my talents toward enriching the lives of others.

I can’t sing, lack athletic prowess, and often misunderstand mathematical equations; but I’m top notch when it comes to loving kids. Throughout my teens I spent my free time caring for children. I baby-sat, coached, and helped with the youth at church.

{Teacher Jodi Okenquist}

Jodi Okenquist knows her accomplishments
depend on helping others achieve.

I felt most content during these activities. Eventually, an awareness that working with children was my greatest talent and the desire to contribute meaningfully led me to pursue teaching as major in college. With time, I’ve learned that my accomplishments hinge on my ability to help others achieve. My greatest successes are my students’ successes. This is the true honor of teaching. Though children reach success through different methods, all are capable. I look forward to opportunities for celebration and growth with my students. There are small successes to celebrate, like completing a homework assignment by implementing iPhone reminders. There are collective successes to celebrate, such as uniting as a homeroom to bring in the most donations for a food drive. There are also long awaited successes, earned with hard work, like advancing to the state competition for History Day after hours spent refining projects. No matter the success, these moments are what motivate me to help students realize and reach their individual goals. Nothing pleases me more than the smile of a confident, proud student. I’m fortunate to teach in a school with wonderful climate.

I’m proud of our community and the contributions I’ve made to support positive school climate. I coach cross-country, supervise History Day, chaperone dances and the Washington D.C. trip, and will supervise student council this year. I encourage student participation in extracurricular activities because I feel they’re essential for the healthy development of adolescents. I’m particularly proud of the learning opportunities and connections I’ve created through coordinating our school’s History Day program and by coaching our cross-country team. Students who participated in History Day had meaningful academic enrichment opportunities. Many lunch and after school hours were spent conducting research, refining theses, interviewing sources, and creating projects.

Likewise, involvement in cross-country is also enriching for students. As a coach, I find more satisfaction in the number of students on our team each season than the number of meets we win. Usually about sixty students participate and I love that so many students in our school have the opportunity to make meaningful and healthy connections through athletics. Students develop camaraderie through team membership and a sense of accomplishment as their running improves. I can think of few greater joys than a classroom or field full of adolescents who’ve elected to stay after school. It’s a sign of safety and community.

Back to top

Robert Riley, Plainfield

The factors that influenced me to become a teacher were my constant questioning of why I needed to learn what I was being taught. In high school, I was college prep; physics, chemistry, trigonometry, and a three sport athlete all four years. I pictured myself teaching physical education, but after a year in college my dad suggested to look into Industrial Arts. I was a hands-on kid. I took some Industrial Arts courses, the connection was made, and I found purpose and relevance in my learning. My new major, Industrial Arts, placed me on the path to where I am today.

{Teacher Robert Riley and students}

Robert Riley, in red at left, improves learning through technology.

I pride myself on my dedication to continuously learn. I have gone back to school to learn more about technology and have bought technical manuals on everything from 3D printing to lasers in the work place. I absorb information and integrate every bit into my curriculum and model new ideas for my students. I am innovative and share my curiosity for discovering with my students. I have been instrumental in our student accountability system and helped streamline and clarify data processes for our data team, developing a system and structure in place for data collection. I feel I have directly affected instructional practices in the district by peer coaching, sharing innovative software, pioneering a credit recovery program and managing direct instruction courses through on-line learning. I have developed many professional learning presentations for educators on updated technology applications. While facilitating these professional learning opportunities, I coach teachers on how to use the technology, model how it will help instruction and learning, and provide educators assistance in integrating new ideas into their courses. As a mentor teacher, I demonstrate the importance of technology integration. As the director of our credit recovery program, an on-line self-paced learning program, I have worked with hundreds of students to help them recover lost credits so they can graduate with their cohort. During the summer, I work with all students to help them get back on track with their credit status. I have worked with many seniors, needing one or two additional credits, that may not have come back to complete a fifth year, to gain the credits they need, to proceed to the next step of their educational journey or career. I help manage our Acellus on-line learning for students who require more direct-instruction. This program allows students to learn at their ability level and pace their own learning. Our intellectually disabled population now have access to biology, history, science, and math courses that address their learning styles. Our non-traditional learners have found success in AP and college preparatory course using this program. It allows for any type of learner to find success without the stresses of a traditional class. Students find success with technology based learning. I believe my greatest contributions and accomplishments is my ability to use technology to positively affect teaching and learning.

Back to top

Andrea Sias, Bloomfield

As a child, I vividly remember my excitement at receiving a microscope under the Christmas tree or making a mess of the kitchen with the non-Newtonian fluid of corn-starch and water. I authentically learned about the world around me by exploring it with my own hands—questioning, experimenting, and developing my own conclusions.

{Teacher Andrea Sias}

Andrea Sias teaches her students scientific inquiry.

When I enrolled at Quinnipiac University, I was full of excitement to continue my educational journey but making messes and exploring wasn’t a choice of a major, so I declared myself “Undecided”.

In my first collegiate science class, a classmate discovered my affinity for the course so she sought me out for help before the first quiz. After endless nights in the study lounge, making models, songs, study guides and demonstrations I realized that I was discovering the answer to my question. I could forever continue my quest for exploration by showing others ways to investigate and explain the world by being a teacher. “(Education) is not the learning of many facts, but training the mind to think.” – Albert Einstein. I have carried this passion of exploratory, hands-on learning throughout my educational journey and into my daily teaching routine. Experiences, questions, and curiosity, create a hunger for learning—a need to discover an answer that might not come easy. Experiences provide a much more authentic vehicle to learn than memorizing facts or looking up statistics Through scientific inquiry I train my students how to think and find the answers to questions not only essential to my course, but to their lives.

Despite my strengths in the classroom, it is impossible to ever be completely satisfied with your ability as a teacher in the dynamic world of education. There is always a new strategy to try, a new challenge to face, or a new standard to measure. As a TEAM mentor, I love being able to facilitate the process of self-reflection and collaboration between colleagues. New teachers focus on something they want to improve in their practice, and I facilitate the process of experimentation and finding answers. This process never ceases in quality teaching. Every day I come into school with a new challenge for myself of how I can improve a lesson this time around, or how I can truly engage every student in my classroom.

This spirit of collaboration extends beyond the walls of my own classroom. Early in my career, I was provided with the opportunity to be part of the collaborative team of administrators, teachers, parents, students, and community members to redesign our school with an emphasis on experiential learning. I have led and participated on committees related to writing curriculum, developing partnerships, fostering parent involvement, incorporating technology, and even deciding the school name. However, it is not my individual efforts that are my greatest contribution to GEMS or Bloomfield, but it is my commitment to my students, my efficacy of teamwork, and my love of learning, that epitomize what it means to be Teacher of the Year.

Back to top

Laurie Sweet, Regional School District 6

My granny, Elizabeth, sparked my interest in art when I was eight years old. We walked along the Ben Franklin Parkway and up the stairs, past the buffalo statues, and into the Philadelphia Art Museum. I was in awe with the Griffins on the rooftops and mesmerized by the greatness of such a structure with its columns of Corinthian order. I was equally in awe with the collections in the interior. My love of Philadelphia's grand fountains, architecture, and art was born.

{Teacher Laurie Sweet}

Art teacher Laurie Sweet entered teaching
from the corporate world.

Little did I know then, that ten years later, I would return to Philadelphia as an art major in Illustration and teaching major in Art Education at Moore College of Art. My high school art teacher, Sal Gulino, influenced me as well, to become an art teacher. Sal saw potential in my creativity and recommended that I apply to Wesleyan University's Center for Creative Youth (CCY) Summer Program in my sophomore year. I was accepted to the Visual Arts Studies and was immersed for four weeks with performing artists, dancers, writers, and musicians. CCY was a paradigm shift for me. I applied to art schools and chose Moore, as Philadelphia beckoned me, a place that ignited that initial art awareness. My parents influenced me in becoming an art teacher, as both were creative in nature. They were always on an adventure, building farms and a 42' trawler, so, when I said I wanted to apply to art school, they embraced my decision. I did not teach art immediately out of college. I worked at PC Week, Boston for seven years. I began as a Typesetter, then Production Manager, and finally Assistant Art Director. Another paradigm shift, leaving the corporate world, freelancing, and being a mom. My brother and I ventured to Artwell’s Open Studios. Artwell’s director, Stewart Wilson, told me about a visiting artist grant at the local high schools. My first class that I taught at Wamogo was as a visiting artist: “Who Am I, and How Am I Seen?” This is how I got my foot in the door to teach one class, every day, for one year, at Wamogo High School.

I believe that my greatest contributions and accomplishments in education is to build relationships with my students and colleagues so that they/we can create and collaborate on reflective projects. Everyone is an artist, it is just a matter of fostering the creativity. Art is a process, a journey of self expression while learning new ways to create art. I encourage students to have a sense of curiosity, a sense of belonging, to have fun, to develop confidence to take action, to strive for a sense of accomplishment, and to have the spirit of adventure using the 4C's of 21st Century: Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, and Communication. I love to see students stretch their thinking for a competition or a collaborative classroom project or for a community project. When students see their work on display or published, they are so proud.

Back to top

Chinma Uche, Capitol Region Education Council (CREC)

In rural Nigeria in the 1950s and 1960s educators were community leaders, organizing people for social good and were looked at as great role models. Most students could not go to school because their parents could not afford their school fees. I was fortunate to be the daughter of a pioneer educator in my town and had the opportunity to go to school. My mother (the educator, an orphan supported by the church) involved my siblings and I in community activities and we were encouraged to share what we learned at school with other children who could not go to school. This was my early introduction to teaching, a noble profession.

{Teacher Chinma Uche and student}

Chinma Uche, standing, has taught on three continents.

I was also inspired by my elementary school teachers who sacrificed a lot during the Nigerian Civil War to make sure that we continued to go to school, even at times under a tree shed with constant bombardment. Furthermore, I had great college professors who loved their jobs and communicated through their lives and examples that teaching is fulfilling and fun. Of particular mention is Professor John Amazigo who mentored me and suggested that I go to graduate school.

After 34 years of teaching mathematics across three continents (Africa, Europe and North America), I consider my greatest contribution to be the impact my teaching and extra-curricular activities have had on children’s lives. I have students who have earned their Ph.D in mathematics education and also students who are working in companies, such as Google, that are changing society. I have other students in computer security whose interest was triggered by the computer science (CS) courses they took in our school. Many of my students are involved in volunteer activities in their communities and are making great differences. Looking back at my early years, I benefitted from my teachers’ belief that I could affect my world positively, even when we had little to nothing. I therefore work to build belief/confidence in my students through in-class and extracurricular activities. My work has been greatly supported by the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA, where I run professional development activities, formulate and disseminate materials to bring computer science to all k-12 students in our state and nationwide to enable all students benefit from today’s digital society. Through our efforts, the Connecticut Commissioner of Education established a CS Advisory Council to help bring CS to all Connecticut students and I serve in this council. In fact, through our work in the Computer Science Advocacy and Leadership Team (CSALT) of the CSTA and working in partnership with (, we are bringing computer science to students worldwide. I am a founding member of both CSALT and the Connecticut chapter of CSTA (CTCSTA, and I have served CTCSTA as its president since its inception. I have also worked with the College Board, as an official pilot instructor, in the development of a new AP CS course which will be launched in 2016.

Back to top

Content Last Modified on 8/31/2016 2:58:16 PM