Teachers Honored for Commitment to Excellence, and to Children

by Lesia Winiarskyj, for the Connecticut Education Association

2019 TOY finalists and semifinalists gather with CEA leaders. Pictured left to right are Robert Rose (Glastonbury), Leanne Maguire (Torrington), Gregory Amter (Hamden), CEA President Jeff Leake, Jennifer Freese (Newington), Sheena Graham (Bridgeport), Ryley Zawodniak (Mansfield), CEA Vice President Tom Nicholas, Jessica Harris (Wallingford), Camille Spaulding (Spaulding), Kelly Shea (Manchester), Sean Maloney (Brooklyn), Ellen Meyer (Danbury), John Cote (Lebanon), Penny Zhitomi (Shelton), and Jessica Papp (Canton). Not pictured is Barbara Johnson (Colchester).

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.

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Sheena Graham reflects on what, and who, inspired her to be a teacher and a lifelong learner.

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.”

Personal connections “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.

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