After a unique private meeting with Gov. Spitzer, the 2008 Teacher of the Year and four finalists were honored with a reception that celebrated the teaching profession and more than 240,000 teachers around the state.
In a passionate speech noting the heroic work that goes on every day in the classroom, Teacher of the Year Richard Ognibene Jr., a chemistry and physics teacher at Fairport High in Monroe County, said he intends to spread a simple message as he travels the state.
"Schools are the answer: The challenges we face, whether intellectual, social or economic — can be alleviated by good schools," said Ognibene.
Ognibene, a teacher for 21 years, noted the audience at the October event included his parents, Elaine and Richard, who both still teach at Siena College in Albany; and his fifth-grade teacher, John Grady, a Niskayuna retiree who showed him that a teacher can change a life forever.
Ognibene is a dynamic teacher who has been known to open the school year by writing his name in ethanol on his chalkboard and setting it on fire. To demonstrate the principles of gravity, he drops a bowling ball and tennis ball from the school roof.
He has mentored new teachers; led a district-wide program that teaches civility, respect and tolerance to students; organized a fund-raiser for a Kenyan school; and presented workshops on how to make gay youth feel welcome in the classroom and the workplace. Ognibene has also served as vice president of the Fairport Educators Association. He will now be in the running for national Teacher of the Year honors.
NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira saluted Ognibene and the four finalists, urging them to be the voice of practitioners — letting state and federal officials know how their policies affect those in the classroom. The four Teacher of the Year finalists were:
• Felipa Gaudet, a kindergarten teacher at Violet Avenue Elementary in Hyde Park. Gaudet has developed innovative programs to help students living in poverty and English language learners. To reach out to families of her students, many of whom are from Oaxaca, Mexico, Gaudet has created a special day celebrating the culture of Oaxaca.
• Elaine Ormsbee, a middle-level alcohol and drug prevention counselor in North Syracuse, is known for making every child feel like an important part of the school community. She has been a leader in anti-bullying efforts.
• Anne Sierotnik, a West Genesee High English teacher, mentors other teachers. She has organized class activities to benefit a number of charities.
• Alison Albright, an English teacher at the Canandaigua Academy, commits an extraordinary amount of time to working with students on writing, both for school work and college application essays. She is a National Board-Certified teacher.
For the first time in recent history, the Teacher of the Year and finalists met with the governor before the award ceremony. "Gov. Spitzer was extremely personable and was interested in hearing what each of us does," said Gaudet. "He said teachers deserve to be paid as much as investment bankers."
— Sylvia Saunders