More than 200 fourth and fifth grade students from Hillcrest Elementary School in Peekskill, N.Y., formed a circle around the edges of their cafeteria and began to sing.
“… We will remember the special moments you gave to us …
We will let your light shine on, your star will guide the way …”
The song was written just after the tragedy at Sandy Hook School by Hillcrest assistant principal Crystal Hernandez and her then students as a way to process their grief and shock. It is now taught to all students at the school these many years later and sung for special occasions. Today was just such a day.
On this particular day, Christopher Albrecht, the 2018 New York State Teacher of the Year, was making a special visit to Hillcrest, bringing along his own brand of energy, care and enthusiasm for teaching to their classrooms.
“I have never been sung to and I am touched by the wonderful welcome sign,” says Albrecht, a teacher at Fred H. Hill School in Brockport, N.Y., near Rochester, as he gestures to the 8-foot hand-decorated sign on the cafeteria wall that reads: Welcome Mr. Albrecht! He went on to say, “What you have created is so inspiring and positive and your song has already put a lot of joy in my heart.”
In his role as Teacher of the Year, Albrecht decided the best way to serve the schools of New York would be to visit directly with students across the state. Hillcrest is one of his very last school visits after a year of seeing more than 76 elementary schools and over 400 classrooms across New York state. Hillcrest marks his first visit to a school in Westchester County.
“In Christopher’s initial email offering to visit our school, he said he just wanted to come spend time with us and spread a little joy,” says Principal of Hillcrest Elementary School, Randy Lichtenwalner. “He more than lived up to that. His patience and positivity, as well as his flexibility in reading the students’ moods or interests are the mark of a good teacher. He made connections with our students, supported their thinking, boosted confidence, and made a truly positive impact in a very short period of time.”
Albrecht visited six classrooms over the course of the day that offered a snapshot of the broad range of learning styles at Hillcrest including fourth and fifth grade general education classes, dual language classes and self-contained special education classes.
Each year, New York state recognizes one exceptionally skilled and passionate educator as Teacher of the Year. The New York State Teacher of the Year program, now in its 49th year, is administered by the New York State Education Department. Nominations for the position can come from anyone, including school administrators, fellow teachers, students and parents. The honored educator serves as an ambassador for all New York State teachers and participates in professional development and speaking events through the National Teacher of the Year program with other recognized educators from across the country.
Aside from some mandatory National Teacher of the Year events, Albrecht was free to design how he wanted to best use his time as an honoree and the $1,100 in award money he received.
“I decided to make classrooms my mission,” says Albrecht. “Every time I went somewhere, I tried to serve students whether in a school, a soup kitchen, or a community center.”
He developed a presentation rooted in helping children find empowerment in their own knowledge and creativity. He used the award money to purchase books, which he briefly read aloud from during his class visits, and then with meaningful fanfare gave each student their own copy. Albrecht saw these books as a lasting gift that the students could cherish. Seeing the wondrous looks on the faces of the children as they accepted their book proved him right.
“Do you know what the one thing is that someone can never take away from you that stays with you forever?” Albrecht asks students.
“Love?” answers David, a Hillcrest fourth grader.
“I’m so proud of you for saying that, the world needs more Davids,” says Albrecht. “The answer is education. What you learn always stays with you.”
When Albrecht’s initial award money ran out, he received donations from friends, colleagues and anonymous donors across the state to purchase more books. The 5,000th book was among those handed out to students at Hillcrest Elementary.
Upon receiving his gift of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis, HarperCollins), Hillcrest fifth grader Caleb says, “This is amazing. I’ll never go to sleep now.”
The pride and affection that Principal Lichtenwalner feels for his students is obvious. He knows every one of the more than 500 students by name and, more importantly, their personal stories. Hillcrest is a Title 1 school where most of its students live at or near poverty level, are English language learners, and receive 100 percent free breakfast and lunch.
“Peekskill is unique within affluent Westchester County in that it is a small urban setting and one of the few communities in the county that has public housing,” says Lichtenwalner. “Many of our children have experienced trauma and interrupted educations. Many speak Spanish as their primary language. Poverty is a huge stressor and doesn’t set children up for educational success.”
However, while the school’s test scores are below the state average, this does not reflect the vibrant environment that greets students each day. The brightly lit, spotless school is filled with inspirational quotes painted on the walls, books, artwork created by the students, and high expectations for educators to meet the children where they are - whether it is special learning needs, a challenging home life, or simply motivation. Lichtenwalner and his dedicated faculty are highly invested in their students and work hard to provide a loving and encouraging environment as well as a sense of consistency and security.
“Test scores might tell the public that this is a struggling school, but from what I have seen so far, this school is so far from failing,” says Albrecht. “It is a warm, loving, educational environment and that is a big part of what these students need right now.”
“A school like ours is always measured by what we don’t have, but there is so much we do have,” says Lichtenwalner. “Instead of looking at the stats that might say something is wrong, we would rather look at our students and see what is right,” he adds. “Tests only give a snapshot and it is unfair to be judged by that. Our students face challenges, but they are learning and progressing. You would not call a flower a failure if it hasn’t bloomed yet. It will blossom eventually.”
“Teaching is a calling, and all of our teachers are hungry to get better and make a positive impact,” continues Lichtenwalner. “Our visit with Mr. Albrecht today reinforced for us why we do what we do and showed us new paths to connecting with our kids in positive, encouraging ways.”
The critical importance of taking students’ emotional and social states into account when they walk into the classroom is a value shared by Albrecht and the 2019 Teacher of the Year Alhassan Susso. Having emigrated from Gambia to Poughkeepsie in 2000 at age 16 to start public high school with little English and a rare eye disease that nearly left him blind, Susso understands very well that each student’s personal story can impact success or failure in school. Susso credits his own “incredible teachers who went above and beyond to help him succeed in his new environment.” Susso, who still lives in Poughkeepsie, is now himself a high school teacher in the South Bronx for a student population entirely comprised of recent immigrants.
“Teaching is all about cultivating relationships,” says Susso. “If you want to influence a student and lead them to academic and lifetime success, you need to understand and empathize with what influences them.”
“We as teachers need to find a happy balance between finding what kids are good at and helping them address what they are not good at yet,” says Albrecht. “Giving each child an education that is tailored to their ability should be the right of every student. The result of such a mindset allows students to develop their sense of purpose, curiosity, resilience and happiness.”
Corinne Zola is a freelance writer focusing on parenting, education and community. She is a founder and current board member of the Westchester Children’s Museum and lives in Mamaroneck with her husband and two kids.
Following are the books that Albrecht shared with students he met over the course of the year (listed here in order for youngest to more experienced readers):
•The Snowy Day, Ezra Jack Keats (Viking)
• The Biggest Apple Ever, Steven Kroll (Scholastic)
• The Kissing Hand, Audrey Penn and Ruth E. Harper (Tanglewood)
•Three Times Lucky, Sheila Turnage, (Puffin Books)
•Mouse and the Motorcycle, Beverly Cleary (HarperCollins)
•Runaway Ralph, Beverly Cleary (HarperCollins)
•Stone Fox, John Reynolds Gardiner (HarperCollins)
•The One and Only Ivan*, Katherine Applegate (HarperCollins)
•The BFG, Roald Dahl (Puffin Books)
•The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis (HarperCollins)
*If Albrecht had to choose only one of these books to share, The One and Only Ivan would be it. The book is based on the true story of a lowland gorilla kept in captivity in a shopping mall. The point of the story is that even when life offers the worst, resiliency is possible. Albrecht’s decision to use this book was intentional based on the fact that he feels that, “bouncing back up after being knocked down is an important trait that needs to be developed in our students.”
The New York State Teacher of the Year for 2019 is Alhassan Susso, a high school social studies teacher at International Community High School in the Bronx. Susso is the first teacher from the New York City/Westchester area to be recognized with this honor in 20 years.
Susso’s students are all recent immigrants. To address their needs for language development, acclimation to a new culture and learning environment, and help guide them toward a pathway for positive academic and social experiences, Susso launched a program called Inspiring Teens’ Future. Students come an hour before the school day starts to learn life skills necessary to succeed academically, socially, professionally and economically. As New York State Teacher of the Year, Susso will work with other teachers across the state, including in New York City and Westchester, to share the model for this life skills program, that is now seeing 97 percent of its students going on to college from 28 percent before the program was introduced.
Do you know a dedicated, skilled, innovative, caring teacher? Submit a nomination. Visit www.nysed.gov/