Educator of the Year Winners | Teen Ink

The 2022 winners of the Educator of the Year contest!

I usually don’t pay attention to most of the people I meet in school. Process was the same every year. New year, new school, new faces that I eventually forget about as they didn’t make much of an impact. That was the deal with me most of the time.

With me being on the autism spectrum, I have trouble speaking with people. So, as part of special education, they assign me to a speech therapist so that I could hone my skills in conversation. I also so this as more of a hassle as I thought my time was better spent working.

I met Amy during my freshman year. She’d come in during one of my study halls to pull me out. She always said “can I take you out for a bit?” which makes me think it’s optional. I always went with her, though out of fear of upsetting her. Room 134 is where we’d go at south (at north it was room 123). She goes in and I follow suit. We’d sit down, me at the end of the table with her to my right; then the session begins.

At first with Amy, I was kind of a steel trap. She’d get a couple of “mhms” and some shoulder shrugs here and there. A couple of times when she’d ask me a question, I’d just sit there with my eyes staring into space (mostly because I didn’t know how to answer or didn’t want to). She’d help me practice conversation by getting me to ask who, what, where, when, and how questions.

Most of the time, though, it was a low mumble whenever I asked one and it would take me like 10 years to come up with one. Amy would try to fill the silence by talking about her kids or something she’d be doing the weekend and offer me a chance to jump in on the one-sided conversation. Occasionally, on some good days, I’d be pretty talkative. I’d talk about something I was interested in like games, movies, some weird fact I learned about, or just talking about general stuff. Most of the time, though, it was just silence from me. The whole point of this was to get me to be better at talking to people, but that’s kinda hard when the subject can’t even answer a simple yes-or-no question. North campus was uncomfortable for a bit. The place was more maze-like with shorter hallways and had a big common area which made the place feel too open. Eventually, I got used to it though. My sessions with Amy changed when I transitioned. Being pulled out was still annoying, but not nearly as much as before. When we talk, I still give the occasional “mhm” and shoulder shrug, but now there were more words involved. I started giving thought-out, on-the-spot answers to her questions. There were still moments of silence in-between my answers, but now I actually respond to most of her questions. It’s not all business with her too. She’d ask me about video games or movies and I would give her my opinion. I tell her if I’m planning on seeing a movie, she’d ask about it, I tell her, and then she gets interested and might plan on seeing it. Same goes for video games.

Practicing with Amy has actually helped me in other ways. I used to not ask for help during class as I want to figure out the work on my own. Most of the time, it ends with me sitting there for like 20 minutes with no clue what to do. Now, whenever I’m confused or missing something, I ask the teacher any chance I get, which from experience, has benefitted me greatly. And whenever I’m asked a question, I can answer it if I know it. I can also sometimes behoove myself to answer it if I’m not called on.

When I was with my friends, conversation just came naturally because we were so comfortable being around each other. I’d always ask a question if I had one. When I was with people I didn’t know, it was way more difficult as you don’t know that person very well. Thanks to Amy though, I’ve managed to make progress little by little to improve my skills when speaking with others. Although most people I’ve met in school haven’t made much of an impact on me to make them worth remembering, Amy’s one of the good few who helped me improve both in my work ethic and myself as a person. I appreciate all that she’s done for me and I will remember what she taught me for years to come.

The “Educator of the Year'' contest is the perfect opportunity for me to properly share with everybody out there that Mrs. Ulibarri is the most extraordinary teacher in the entire world. Everyone may have an excellent instructor who has guided them with care throughout the school year, but I’ve had a teacher who has illustrated genuine compassion for her students and love for the career she has. Mrs. Ulibarri is the most compassionate, intelligent, ardent, whimsical teacher that I know; I don’t even think there would be a single term to depict the admirable character she holds as an educator. She teaches with such prestige and humor, captivating the class and instigating a thirst for knowledge in any student. Everyone is in awe of the clarity of her methods, the way she is able to explain math with such coherent technique to ensure that all of her pupils comprehend the material. Assurance can be provided to anyone who possesses even a trickle of doubt as to whether Mrs. Ulibarri is the finest contender for the credit she deserves.

Mrs. Ulibarri’s classroom is certainly any blooming student’s dream. Inspirational posters and quotes beautifully decorate the walls with style and color, giving everyone who enters a feeling of inspiration and motivation. She isn’t a person who believes there are limitations to what we can do. One distinct memory comes to mind when I think about her classroom. I was filling out my high school packet one day, and I was supposed to sign up for a very advanced math class that Mrs. Ulibarri had recommended. Even though not many freshmen take this course, my teacher had said it would be a great fit for me. But, I wanted more; instead of signing up for the regular version of Integrated Math III, I selected Integrated Math III honors. When I spoke to her about my recommendation, she was both surprised and amused that I had made that decision. She said that there may be a chance that I wouldn’t be chosen for the honors considering my age, but she said that I was making the right choice by challenging the unwritten restrictions. She told me to “shoot for the moon, even if you miss, you still land among the stars.” It was one of the quotes she hung on the walls, and those words have been the fuel to the fire of motivation glowing in my heart. Her words inspired me to push beyond my limits. Mrs. Ulibarri’s classroom is certainly my favorite place in the entire school. It is a wonderful, quiet retreat with soft jazz music and lavender scented air. She opens her door during lunch, for anyone who would like to join her, entertaining us with funny stories from her career and lending an ear to anyone who wishes to share their thoughts on any and every subject.

Mrs. Ulibarri is always so kind and discretional, both a counselor and a teacher. Ready to give advice on how to solve any issues, and offering solutions to help us bypass the obstacles that stand in our way. She even tutors her students after school, offering extra help to any of her pupils who wish to obtain an additional breakdown of the lesson covered that day. She dedicates so much of her time to ensure that all of us will succeed, which is such a laudable characteristic to have. She has been teaching for a very long time, in so many different places. She has experienced so much good and bad, but she never loses her enthusiastic spirit of her love for math. Mrs. Ulibarri is the first teacher who has demonstrated what a true classroom family is, illustrating the special place she has in her heart for all of us.

All educators can instruct, but Mrs. Ulibarri can teach. She is undoubtedly the most forthright person that I know. Anything she writes on the whiteboard lodges itself into memory, and anything she explains organizes itself into a small file in the brain. When the time comes for us to finally use the skills we obtained in class, her lessons are right there in our head to guide us. Mrs. Ulibarri has never ceased to enchant us with the magic of math, everyday, proving her doctrine that nothing is hard if you can understand it. We have never had trouble comprehending anything she has taught us in the past year because her simplistic explanations are better than a lecture of a thousand words.

Mrs. Ulibarri is an amazing teacher who has been at our school for 30 years now. She has inspired and touched the lives of countless students who will always remember her with love and care for shaping them into better people. She is the first teacher I will sincerely regret losing once I graduate middle school because she may be retiring this year. I won’t have the luxury of visiting her if she takes this path, so I wanted to nominate her for this competition. My teacher never receives enough credit for all that she has done for the school and the students. As a reminder of this school year, I created a student ID of myself at my dream school, giving it to her on “future career” day. So, one day, even if we’re in different parts of the world, she’ll know where I am and that she was the one that helped me achieve my dreams. Mrs. Ulibarri has always been so supportive of everyone with what they want to do with their lives, and for this, I want to recognize her. Therefore, I am writing this essay to demonstrate how much I revere her wonderful character. To show her how much I appreciate her, and to show her that we all love her to the moon and back. This contest has been a great opportunity for me to share with you all just how commendable my amazing teacher is.

Since I was in kindergarten, I’ve known I love animals. I announced I would be a veterinarian, and still hold that goal today. As I grew, I naturally started learning more about science, and about nature. While I was a good student, I didn’t know that much about the world. I knew endless facts about animals, but I knew almost nothing about myself. It wasn’t until seventh grade in Merton middle school, when I met my science teacher, Mr. Wagner, that I started to open my eyes.

Mr. Wagner now teaches other subjects, but in 7th and 8th grade he was my science teacher. Yet, he was also more. He was a mentor, and friend of every student. Even my classmates who despised science would be happy in his class, because he made every bad grade seem like an opportunity rather than a failure. Mr. Wagner was proud to be himself, and inspired others to be the same.

Often, he would take a large part of our class time to pull our chairs into a circle, shoving the tables to the sides of the room so that everyone could fit. He made one person stand in the center, and randomly called on others to join them. They would each exchange compliments, and he required they cannot be about physical appearance. We would compliment each other on our hard work, the positive things we noticed that people might think go ignored, and it brought us together. It made us closer, and helped us grow as people to notice more than a pretty face or expensive shoes. I believe Mr. Wagner was so loved because he knew the value of teaching rather than instructing, and it was clear through everything he taught me.

Mr. Wagner had a record player in his room, well-known and remembered by any student lucky enough to have him. He would play records of songs from any decade, and help us find the meaning in them, or simply to give us exposure. I still remember the first song he played for us was Uncle John’s Band by Grateful Dead. After the songs ended and students were awakened from their trance, he would invite us to look deeper into the lyrics, and see it as more than just sounds that entertain us. In middle school, I never listened to music besides what was on the radio or the next pop song without meaning. It wasn’t until he showed me the power of music that I developed a taste of my own. I started discovering artists, found art in their songs, and revealed what genres made me feel whole. I wouldn’t have discovered the importance of music if Mr. Wagner had not taught it to me.

He had a love for teaching, which was obvious as he spent the majority of the school day smiling. He was passionate about science, and passionate about giving his students more than factual education. Yet, as he taught me about thermodynamics and the periodic table, I couldn’t help but soak it all in like a sponge. I knew I loved animals and nature, but I didn’t realize how science could fascinate me and fill a void that lay in my stomach for years prior. Mr. Wagner nurtured my passion for science because his own was infectious—a thrilling, contagious drive to learn more. He helped me discover my purpose and the aim for my life. Mr. Wagner may have taught me how to love school, or I suppose he may have simply shown me why I should.

I have played baseball my entire life, but I never tried playing for a team that was considered competitive. The end of the 2016 summer, right before I turned 13, I had chosen to go for a much more expensive and competitive team with Prospect Training Academy. One of the first coaches I met was Cody Smith.

He was a coach that worked a lot with the older kids and taught pitching for a majority of his time. I always thought I threw hard, I could throw any pitch at any time and no one would be able to hit it. I learned through watching the older guys Cody was teaching that I was not as good as I thought I was. I wanted to be like those older guys throwing mid to high 80s. I would take lesson after lesson with a bigger group of my teammates, trying my absolute best to get better. I would always think to myself, what did these guys have to do to be able to throw this hard?

I began to do private lessons with Cody. He would watch me pitch and measure my velocity on my throws. I threw very slow. After a few lessons with Cody, I didn’t see much progress. I started to get down on myself and tell myself there was no future for me in pitching.

Cody taught me something very important about baseball and life through these lessons. I remember after a few weeks of working with Cody we started to do pull downs. I increased my velocity a significant amount. After each throw, Cody would smile and get excited as if he was the one making progress in his own work. Every improvement, big or small, Cody would display this excitement and joy with me that made me feel as if I accomplished something amazing. Cody’s fiery passion made me begin to fall in love with the process of improvement just as much as accomplishing my goal.

Shortly after my Seventh grade season I began to develop anxiety and depression. It gradually became worse and worse until it began to overtake my life. It became a long term issue that I even battle to this day, but Cody taught me something very important without knowing he would later become a huge part in how I deal with my mental health today. He taught me that I need to focus on something small first to accomplish a much larger goal.

To this day I can still hear his passion for coaching and that booming voice he had, that he displayed at each and every practice. During my darkest days in my life, I would always try to remind myself that I need to keep pushing and working everyday just like Cody had taught me with pitching. I needed to find a way to celebrate the little things in life and find joy in improving myself whether it is with mental health, school, or baseball. I just needed to keep practicing and find a passion, like Cody had, for accomplishing small feats.

Although what you did for me was indirect, it impacted me to this day as you were one of the first educators/coaches in my life that celebrated reaching achievements with me. You made me feel like I could achieve anything I wanted as long as I worked hard at the small things. Thank you for being the best coach I have ever had and changing my life through the game of baseball.

When I think of an analogy between me and Ms. Davis, I think of Cory and Mr. Feeny from "Boy Meets World." Their relationship was fundamentally comedic and yet often so valuable to Cory’s adolescence and future. The interactions between Cory and a simple history-teacher-turned-principal shaped him into the man he became in the later seasons of the show.

I remember when I entered high school, I was gravely disappointed that “Boy Meets World” did not give a very accurate depiction of what high school life would look like. There were no crazy adventures or entangled love stories or teachers that I felt I had truly connected to on a personal level — the last one hit me the hardest. My entire life I’d been molded into thinking this was how my high school life was going to be like, only to find out that Disney Channel lied.

And then I met Ms. Davis.

It’s hard to even articulate what she did for me, but I think the easiest way to put it is that she was there. Sometimes, the simplest phrasings are the most powerful. She made herself available
when I was dealing with things that I didn’t really believe anyone else could possibly understand. Like growing up feeling unloved because of my weight, my relentless need to seek out approval from the relationships in my life, or even how growing up black in a circle of white culture doesn’t bode well in the long run. She made me feel safe being vulnerable, and like she cared. She made me feel seen and for the first time in what I realized was an incredibly long time, I felt like Celeste. Not just a ghost walking around in a Celeste-shaped body, but a person. With feelings and experiences that mattered. That someone cared enough to listen to.

Growing up I never had a role model that looked like me and I thought I never would. And then I heard that there was a black female teacher who went to an Ivy League school that for some reason unbeknownst to me was working in North Brunswick Township High School. Oftentimes, people of my demographic forget that our goals are not intangible or out of reach. I started
to let that weigh me down and prevent me from being the best student possible, but Ms. Davis, just by being herself, gave me hope. The real reason we connect is that we allow ourselves to be each other in our rawest and most vulnerable forms. Even if I’m just a kid. Or a student. And she’s probably like 500 years older than me or something. She just makes me feel like Celeste. And deep in my soul, I know I make her feel like Tyler.

We are not Cory and Mr. Feeny. We are Celeste and Ms. Davis. And there is an oddly comforting feeling in that cognizance.

Ms. Davis once told me that the reason she started working at North Brunswick was because of the diversity and that she wanted to be the role model to black students that she never had. I hope it makes her happy that she can count at least one.

Sometimes, with a seven-hour school day followed by hours of rehearsals, a student can spend more time with their teachers than they do with their family. A teacher can either make this a grueling experience or create another family at school for their students.

Mr. Chaviano teaches choir for grades 9-12 which includes five different choirs of varying levels of difficulty. He also directs The Broadway Company which is a musical theater troupe that is known for its high skill level. Mr. C is passionate and dedicated to making his students better all-around in music and life.

I see Mr. C twice a day, once during the day for choir class, and again at the end of the day for rehearsals for The Broadway Company. Our rehearsals start during the school day and can run until five o’clock or as last as 9 o’clock at night. During these long hours, it gives him time to truly get to know us. He is always ready to listen. Over the years in high school, I’ve had some rough days, and he’s always been someone that I knew I could go to for support. Running up to him before choir class, he listens to all of my daily grievances and makes a sassy remark that is sure to cheer me up. No matter if it was issues in a class, a funny story, or the latest piece of gossip, he was always there with a comfy seat in his office and an open ear.

Mr. Chaviano always pushes his students to be better because he knows that they are better. We have long hours of Broadway rehearsals so that he can make sure that we are acing all of our dance steps and know every note of every harmony in the show. He has mastered the art of tough love and says the hard truth because we need to hear it. He sets the bar high but teaches us that we can meet it every day. When we hit the mark, he is sure to tell us how proud he is and celebrate our accomplishments with us.

He prides himself on the environment that he has created within The Broadway Company. All fifty students within it are friends who support each other through every up and down that we face in rehearsals and life outside of the theater. He creates a space where, even as each other’s greatest competition, we can see each other’s talents and work together to make each other better.

Most importantly, Mr. Chaviano always tries his best to treat us like people. If he sees an issue, he always comes to the students first. He trusts us to problem solve on our own to teach us those important life skills. He has helped me break out of my shell and become who I am today. I came into high school with very few friends and not a lot of confidence, and now I can leave with a bold attitude and knowing that I have at least one hundred other people who have my back. Thank you, Mr. Chaviano.

Nancy McFarlin is the Honors Comp/Lit teacher at Palisade High School in a small town known for its peaches and surrounding mountains. Mrs. McFarlin has impacted so many kids in a positive way. Here is how she impacted me ...

Thinking back on my freshman year of high school, I never would have thought that one teacher would change my life so much. I met Mrs. McFarlin my eighth grade year at an IB Shadow day. Her instant bubliness and welcoming arms immediately drew me towards her. Her class was a comforting space and she challenged my writing. I have always been interested in writing and many teachers considered me talented, but no one encouraged and challenged me like she did. Freshman me walked into her class with a lot to say and to get off my chest. I was in the depths of my eating disorder, I had just lost my mom, and like everyone else I was navigating life through a worldwide pandemic. She quite often allowed me the creative freedom to express myself through my writing. While there was content that she had to teach, she gave me just enough wiggle room to grow as an individual writer. Her class was always right after lunch, and she always encouraged me to finish my lunch in her room during class. When she found out that my mom had passed away, she was nothing but supportive. Maybe it was her mother's instinct, but her kindness was extremely helpful when grieving all while navigating my first year of high school. At the end of the year she pulled me aside for a conversation and I’ll always remember how inspiring it was. She told me that I was very talented and had it in me to be an author when I was older. She encouraged me to pursue a career in writing after graduating.

More recently, this year (my sophomore year), I took her creative writing class to build upon my love of writing. In that class she gave us much more creative freedom and ability because the curriculum wasn’t as strict. Each piece of writing she gave us feedback to improve it and other comments to encourage us. I specifically remember one story I submitted, a memoir that I am creating. She came up to me after reading the night prior and she told me she couldn’t stop crying after reading it. That was a pivotal moment in my life when I realized I could impact people through my writing. I could change lives and inspire people through my writing. That’s when she encouraged me to enter my first Teen Ink writing contest. She continued her positive attitude through contracting COVID and not being able to be at school for quite a few months. Overall, her teaching has inspired me greatly and she truly deserves to be educator of the year not just this year, but every year.