The state's 2008 Teacher of the Year called on his union colleagues Friday to fight for young teachers and disadvantaged students, saying the "essence of great leadership is speaking on behalf of others" who have no voice.
In a dynamic speech that brought delegates to their feet, Fairport High School teacher Richard Ognibene demanded, "all of us must find the courage to speak for our profession."
Noting the education environment is vastly different from when he began his career 22 years ago, he said locals must fight for new teachers to ensure they get high-quality mentoring.
"When I was starting out, I was allowed to struggle a little before I hit my stride. That is not the case today," said Ognibene, a physics and chemistry teacher in the suburban Rochester school.
A former vice president of the Fairport Educators Association, Ognibene also called on his colleagues to fight for children in poverty. The denigration of educators in high-needs districts must stop, he said. Ognibene called those teachers "heroes," adding the school day is routinely "the safest and most nurturing part of the day" for many poor students.
The openly gay Ognibene implored delegates to protect gay students and teachers. "The only way to stand up to this culture of fear is for unions to take charge," as his union did when he came out to his school in 1994, he said.
"A union is at its very best when it works for social justice," Ognibene said.
Lastly, he urged his union colleagues to speak up for students harmed by standardized tests. "As a result of this testing frenzy," he said, "too many students get left behind."
Ognibene said public school teachers "do not have the option of serving a select few. We teach because it is morally right and because at the end of the day, our work changes students' lives for the better."
NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira said Ognibene "exemplifies quality teaching and learning. He cares so deeply for his students, their families, his colleagues and community."