The UConn Neag School of Education’s reputation is well known nationally for its outstanding teacher education training program that continues to foster student success and produce educators that will teach the students of tomorrow. The UConn Alumni Association is proud to showcase some of our top notch Neag School of Education graduates from Connecticut whose passion, drive and knowledge are influencing the lives of those they work with every day.
Encouraging Students of Tomorrow
Vanessa Rodriguez ’05, ’06 M.A. (Neag) is thankful for the many opportunities she received from some of her teachers when she was in grade school. She credits her fifth and eighth grade teachers with helping her understand the value of education in light of adversity and the potential of how a teacher can breathe life and possibility into the most struggling student. Those types of values are instilled in Vanessa’s memory, and she now carries the torch in lighting up her students’ lives.
As a tenth-grade geometry and algebra teacher for inner city children at the Bulkeley High School in Hartford, Conn., Vanessa sees potential in every student she encounters. “One of the greatest challenges I face is motivating my students to learn mathematics despite their prior difficulties with it,” says Vanessa. Though these challenges pose great difficulty to students from time to time, Vanessa’s role is to teach her students that education is to learn how to learn, not just what to learn. “Both my students and I can focus on how we’re learning as opposed to the difficulty of the material with belief that learning is a lifelong process”. This year, Vanessa was instrumental in working with educators in Connecticut as a member of the state’s Rigorous Curriculum Design Team. The team meets to prioritize and support curriculum alignment in mathematics. She is also active in the Math Leadership Academy, sponsored by the Neag School of Education and state Department of Higher Education. The academy is comprised of thirty teachers from four Connecticut school districts who are learning new math concepts and shaping a pedagogy that will enhance justification and higher order thinking skills for their math students.
Each day, Vanessa sets new challenges for herself concerning her students. Including making them feel important and special. “I believe one of the greatest ways to meet the challenges of teaching is to make students feel important. If they believe they are extraordinary, then their actions will follow.”
When asked about how she felt about the difference she makes in the lives of children she teaches every day, she candidly said, “Teaching is often described as a roller coaster of highs and lows filled with excitement, thrill and laughter, mixed with frustration, disappointment and helplessness,” says Vanessa. “Some develop a more positive attitude toward school. Others demonstrate improved effort because they realize the relationship between hard work and success. Then there are moments when a student’s face will glow with job because he gets it, and math doesn’t seem so hard anymore. I think the question isn’t whether teachers are making a difference, but instead how much a difference we’re making.”
Advocating for Change
Margaret “Peg” Beecher ’91, 6th year (Neag) is just one of those educators advocating for change. As an accomplished educator, former principal, and author, Peg has taught at elementary and middle schools as a classroom teacher and was a program director in the areas of reading and the gifted and talented. Known for being an innovator in the classroom, Peg has spent the past fifteen years developing and implementing a curriculum designed to meet the needs of all children in the classroom.
Specializing in closing the achievement gap in schools, Peg made it her mission as a former principal at Charter Oak School in West Hartford, Conn., to better improve literacy programs through standardized test scores, effective curriculums and targeted teacher training. She also made this program successful through parental involvement in community programs and engagement with school activities. With the unending support of a well-trained, creative and committed staff, there was a significant improvement in student performance, and a dramatic reduction in the achievement gap.
Peg believes that effective school improvement requires a comprehensive action plan that is responsive to the unique needs of your population. “Students need sustained, systematic and explicit instruction as well as opportunities to extend learning beyond the parameters of the classroom. . .most importantly, they need dedicated, knowledgeable, creative teachers that really believe that they can learn and succeed.”
Now semi-retired, Peg is the site-facilitator at West Side Middle School and Washington Elementary School in Waterbury, Conn., for the CommPACT program, and organization that focuses on improving the performance of students in urban schools. It takes schools as they are and transforms them through a culture of collaboration suing research-based instructional strategies and leadership provided by UConn’s Neag School of Education. Peg’s role is to guide the school improvement process by working with the faculty and community to analyze a school’s strengths and challenges, establish a school vision and develop action plans in order to provide a structure of success. She continues to use the same successful methods from her experience and apply them to the programs she facilitates today.
Focusing on Quality
When it comes to hiring the best and brightest teachers to work with students, David B. Erwin ’75 (Neag) is the front runner behind selecting the best educators. With over 35 years of educational experience, David has made it his life mission to increase the quality of education in several school districts and innovate change among his peers. Serving several different roles throughout his career teaching in elementary education, David served as principal and superintendent in five school districts throughout Connecticut. Currently, as the superintendent at Berlin Public Schools in Berlin, Conn., David is setting the bar higher for the academic curriculum and encourages students to achieve their highest potential.
David ensures that his administrators hire the best and brightest teachers to work with their students. He also works hard to make certain that his staff remains current and up-to-date with significant issues in education to deliver high-quality programs to students. “My experience teaching at the graduate level affords me the opportunity to meet high caliber individuals that we can consider for positions in our district.”
When asked about how the classroom has changed in the past 10 years, David says, “The classroom of today is certainly one where technology can play a greater role. The world is really flat. . . students and their teachers can connect to nearly anyone in a seamless fashion.” As a leader, David sees the potential behind his school district and provides the tools necessary to ensure his school succeeds in producing quality students. “Each day is exciting to me. I always look forward to the start of each school year when I address staff one day and greet students the next. It makes me proud to know that I have a hand in the education [they] are receiving.”