2023 Educator of the Year | Teen Ink

The 2023 winners of the Educator of the Year contest!


High school isn’t exactly like the movies. There are no impromptu song breaks in the cafeteria, no bullies shoving people into lockers, and certainly no dance battles between cliques. Yet for all their discrepancies, one aspect that high school movies nailed was the effect a teacher can have on a student. It’s an archetype we’ve all seen before: with every coming-of-age film comes a benevolent teacher leaving a lasting impact on their pupils. However, this impact was something that I only became personally acquainted with after meeting Mr. K.

When I began freshman English, it quickly became obvious Mr. K wasn’t a conventional teacher. With his curriculum, long gone were the days of writing formulaic essays and reports. Instead, they were replaced with enriching activities like animations about books we read, argumentative letters to administrators, and videos we directed ourselves. Although this seemed unusual at first, I soon realized that Mr. K’s methodology fostered a distinct feeling of fulfillment. At the end of every unit, I got to watch with pride as my projects came to fruition. In Mr. K’s classroom, I wasn’t just a student. I was an inventor, director, and creator. I was someone with the opportunity to transcend the limits often imposed on my potential.

As the school year progressed, Mr. K proved he’d let our voices be heard. The signs of it were evident in his classroom: The list of our rights hanging on the wall. The votes we held to make important decisions. And — the one I appreciated most as a woman of color — our class discussions about equality. Everywhere I looked, I was reminded that Mr. K wouldn’t just let me know what my rights are, but advocate for them as well. I found that there’s a simple comfort in knowing that no matter what, someone was on my side, ready to stand up for me.

The most heartwarming detail about Mr. K was that he genuinely cared about our mental health. He often hosted wellness days where I could take a step back, put the world on hold, and check in with myself. Even better, he accommodated for the fact that high school is a torrential flurry that can easily spin out of control. I can’t count how many times Mr. K’s extended deadlines saved me from losing hours of sleep. How many times taking deep breaths as a class bought me an extra moment of respite. How, in the little ways, Mr. K helped me manage the ups and downs of growing up.

At the end of the day, high school truly is nothing like the movies. Real life is far more overwhelming, sometimes even disastrous, and doesn’t even have any dance battles to make up for it. But teachers like Mr. K help me turn it all — the whirlwinds, the stress, the chaos — into something I can tackle head-on. They make school a community I feel welcome to be a part of.

Thank you, Mr. K.

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In freshman year, I became captive to nicotine addiction. I found that through vaping, I could gain companionship, popularity, and a few moments of seemingly pure bliss. I was popular. I never found myself having no one to talk to or nothing to do after school. With a vape in my hand, I felt needed and important. For two years, this crowd I ran with was the most important thing in my life. Yet, something about me was different from them. I wasn’t as fearless as them. I wasn’t as confident. So, I got into fights, skipped school, and ended up being suspended. Twice. I remember thinking that that was as great as my life would ever get.

Now, as a junior, I understand that I mistook fearlessness for a lack of discipline and confidence as a mask to hide my misery. The crowd I ran with was fueled by self-hatred, addiction, and egocentrism. My popularity would end come graduation. The too few moments of seemingly pure bliss would become harder to come by, and I’d kill myself chasing it. The companionship I had had always been conditional and ran out when I had nothing more to offer than myself. Mrs. Blasi helped me realize this.

Mrs. Blasi taught my sophomore creative writing class. I joined the class due to my love of books and interest in writing. She saw something in me. Not with a vape in my hand or with my fists curled. She saw something in me — purely me.

Mrs. Blasi encouraged me to quit vaping. She assured me that I could do it, even when it seemed impossible. When I cut my friends out and suddenly had no one to sit with at lunch, her door was always open. When I was diagnosed with depression — not long after — she was my only confidant.

I have been sober for a year and I owe it to Mrs. Blasi — my teacher of the year — as much as myself.

I can recall the days that I stayed with Mrs. Blasi after school to write a contest submission for a local teen arts festival, a high fantasy short story. Adults don’t exactly approve when I tell them of my fantasy writing aspirations. Mrs. Blasi, however, has been my greatest supporter and teacher as I’ve been writing my novel. She gives me the strength to look the world straight in the eye and be confident in who I am and what I love.

When I think back to how I once thought that failing classes, sitting on the floor of a bathroom stall, and passing a vape around was the best my life would get, I want to cry.

I want to cry tears of joy that I met Mrs. Blasi. I want to thank her for saving me, for showing me that I have so much yet to accomplish in life, and for always encouraging my passions. I will forever be grateful that she saw something in me — purely me.
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“Smaller equals faster.” This was the sophomore year mantra that led me to lose tens of pounds that I shouldn’t have. I thought that I was helping myself, and everywhere I looked, my addiction to dropping numbers was reaffirmed as discipline.

A few weeks into my first varsity cross country season, Coach Kaczor asked to speak with me after practice. On a wooden bench in the athletic wing, he said the words that propelled me into recovery — “I’m worried about you.”

Him telling me that my weightloss was becoming detrimental to my well-being completely cracked the foundation that I had built my eating disorder upon. Here was someone whose job it was to make me a better runner, who was also wanting me to gain weight.

It seemed like an oxymoron. But I took it to heart anyway.

The following season, we both had high hopes for what I could achieve while actually being healthy. He was pushing me, assigning faster paces than I thought I was capable of. Sometimes I hit them, but with others, I panicked under my fear of failing. Regardless of the situation, he always knew when to push and when to back off.

It’s not an easy job to train teenagers to run, but he excels at it by taking a holistic approach to coaching. He understands that in order to perform at our best, our mental and physical health must be a priority.

Coach Kaczor made this clear by encouraging the team to communicate anything holding us back from running our best, even though this meant a lot of pre-practice and post-practice conversations.

Although it meant overtime for him, Coach made every chat feel important and somehow always offered the right response. Many afternoons he eased my anxiety about upcoming races with personalized advice and race strategy. Sometimes he just pulled me out of my head with the words, “Lexie, it’s running. You do it everyday.”

Prior to my best race of my senior year he said my favorite line of all: “Run the race that we both know you’re capable of.”

I didn’t get an all-time personal record that day, but I ran the whole 5K smiling and managed a season personal record. Coach Kaczor greeted me at the finish like I ran an Olympic trial’s qualifying time: “You did it! You were amazing!”

He has always been there to celebrate the wins of everyone on the team, no matter how small.

It wouldn’t be fair to talk about Coach Kaczor without also mentioning his other commitments as a third grade science teacher and a dad to two little girls. Occasionally, his daughters would accompany him on our Saturday morning practices, and for the past two years they hand-picked apples for the whole team to enjoy. Naturally, we’re all their biggest fans and get almost as excited as Coach when one of them has an assist to the winning goal of their soccer game.

I’m so grateful to have trained with such a thoughtful, inspiring coach for the past three years. In addition to showing me what it takes to be a great runner, Coach Kaczor taught me to believe in myself. I hope that everyone gets the opportunity to meet such an outstanding role model in their lifetime.

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