Here in tiny Cuba, New York — a sleepy bucolic village on the western edge of Allegany County famous for its cheese in the same way Buffalo, its urban neighbor 70 miles to the north, is famous for its chicken wings — there are barriers being broken.
There are girls learning trades that traditionally have always been considered male-only — the kind of common longheld perception that often permeates rural communities such as this one where, perhaps, gender has for too long and too often determined fate.
There are boys, rugged and working class, discovering that their female classmates are more than capable of doing the very things their fathers and grandfathers have done for generations.
“It’s amazing to see,” said Joseph Franzen, a history teacher in the Cuba- Rushford Central School District. “You come to some of these rural communities and you look at these ag teachers and welding teachers and think that usually this is some hyper-masculine role. And sometimes young men have a hard time respecting women teachers in those positions.
“I don’t know exactly what it is about Carly, but those same burly young men who are driving tractors or digging drainage ditches or winning welding competitions look up to her. She’s an amazing teacher.”
Meet Carly Santangelo: Agriculture and careertech teacher, mother of two young boys, goat farmer, entrepreneuer, welder, tractor driver, NYSUT member and Renaissance woman. She can put brakes on a car, as well.
And, she is the 2022 New York State Teacher of the Year as chosen by the State Education Department.
“My goal every day is to help my students love the thought of coming to school, to love learning and to help them understand how what they are learning connects to the real world,” said Santangelo, a nine-year classroom veteran who teaches middle and high school in Cuba-Rushford.
“My most successful days are the days in which I have conversations with my students. I ask them a lot of questions about how things went and what they understood. The days that I walk out of here feeling good are the days I’m truly able to understand that they ‘got it.’ And that’s what brings me back.”
“Carly represents the very best qualities that educators across the state possess: dedication, passion and mastery of her craft,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. “We are proud to call her a NYSUT member. She is a shining example of the kind of professionalism that defines our union.”
Santangelo’s lessons span the concepts of environmental stewardship, agricultural sustainability and community building. With a focus on preparing students for the workforce, she also aims to develop in her students a sense of community through initiatives such as volunteering at the local food bank. And she is adamant about sending the message that all students are capable of success.
“My goal for all of my students, regardless of gender, is for them to see past the boundaries of gender,” said Santangelo, a Cuba-Rushford Teachers Association member. “I had an equal number of students this year, male and female,
participating in tractor driving. In conversations with my (male) students I have seen them gain respect for what women can do. It means the world to me to see my students starting to respect the people that will be in their lives in the future: their girlfriends, their future wives, the future mothers of their children, and understanding that (women) can be turning wrenches, too.”
“Carly is not only passionate about ensuring her students are provided the tools and skills necessary for success,” said NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene T. DiBrango, “she also helps them to discover their true potential and enables them to realize they all have the opportunity and ability to succeed. That’s a powerful message to deliver to students, and Carly’s work is as inspiring as it is important.”
Cuba-Rushford Central Schools Superintendent Carlos Gildemeister said Santangelo’s success is due in large part to her drive.
“She has a humble and quiet disposition yet possesses a strength for doing whatever is necessary so that students have a real-life experience in her classroom,” Gildemeister said. “She is tenacious and always does the right thing when it comes to advocating for her students. I love her determination.”
Michael Johnson, a Cuba-Rushford technology teacher whom Santangelo considers her mentor, said Santangelo is successful because her students know she’s “real.”
“Carly is knowledgeable and enthusiastic,” said Johnson. “But I think what’s most important is she lives the life; Carly’s authentic.”
That she is.
A few miles away from the Cuba-Rushford school campus, along a rural highway, Santangelo lives in a small farmhouse on a sizeable plot of land set back from the road and runs a goat farm with her husband. In the near future, the farm will also include a creamery.
That real-life experience and know-how not only comes in handy as an agriculture and career-tech teacher, it is also appreciated by students.
“What I like about her class is there’s a lot of hands-on learning,” said student Ethan Cole. “Seeing how things are done in front of us and watching her — instead of having someone just stand up there and describe how things are done — really helps us learn.”
Franzen — with whom Santangelo founded a World Foods and Diversity course that helps students understand how gender, race, history and other global issues relate to the food we consume — said Santangelo’s passion and versatility are keys to her success.
“I think the best teachers, and I would definitely put Carly in that category, can’t be pinned downed or siloed,” he said. “They are passionate about teaching, and even more passionate about learning and exploring and then sharing that passion with their students.”
Santangelo said, “every teacher can be a career and tech teacher, no matter what their content is.”
“We need to prepare students for the workforce, and we can do a better job preparing students by allowing them to solve problems, related to (curriculum) or not,” she said. “If you look at the job market these days, that is what employers want. They want employees who can figure it out. Teaching now is much more about helping students manage the information at their fingertips.”
Santangelo is especially passionate about exposing all of her students to the multitude of options that await them in today’s workforce to show them that everyone has something to contribute. “I work really hard at exposing kids to a variety of careers,” she said. “There are some students who maybe feel like they haven’t found a place yet to be successful. And they come to my class, they come to my shop, and they start to learn new skills, new trades or about new jobs. In exposing them to their options and teaching them new things, they can find what they are good at. And that can really help a kid — who, at first, may have felt less confident in themselves — discover that they do have a place in the world.”