Hundreds of Van Corlaer Elementary school children, sitting on the gymnasium floor, leaned forward. Girls were wearing their best dresses with polka dots, sashes and velvet. Some boys wore vests and tiny ties. Minutes before, they had gasped when numbers were held up in a row showing that one of their Schenectady school teachers would be awarded $25,000 from the Milken Family Foundation. Yes, that's three zeroes at the end.
Teachers lined the wall around the gym, whispering. Who would receive this award recognizing exceptional work as a national model of excellence? Local, state and federal officials sat up straighter. Who could it be?
"HEATHER O'LEARY!" announced Lowell Milken, who co-hosted the event with state Education Commissioner David Steiner.
The elementary teacher of English as a second language came forward slowly, stunned, quiet, trembling a bit, as hordes of newspaper and TV reporters and cameras lined up around her, flashing lights into her eyes.
"I'm completely, completely shocked," she said.
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"One thing in America we don't do well enough is honor our teachers," said Milken, adding that his family's foundation chooses to do so "in a very public way ... (because) greatness in education should be recognized."
O'Leary, a member of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, has been a teacher for more than 17 years. She began as a social studies teacher, and is in her eighth year teaching ESL at the small Van Corlaer Elementary School. She teaches children who speak Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Farsi and Pashto.
She said she loves working with teams at the school.
Principal Michelle Van DerLinden is a former teacher who "really has the whole school behind every student," O'Leary said.
Her daily duties including working three to six hours per week with young students new to this country, depending on their level of skill.
Some come to her tiny classroom unable to speak any English at all; those children spend a lot of time with the soft-spoken teacher. She is assisted by School-Related Professional Judy Ann Paludi, also a member of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers.
Even before the hubbub diminished, O'Leary was back working with her scheduled group of students She had Zalismar, Julio, Angelica,
Gregory and Naved pull out their "nature boxes," shoe boxes decorated with maps. Inside were pinecones, bark, needles and other earthen tidbits that they collect and name. They learn language by describing the treasures; they learn math by measuring them. Each day they record temperature and write a sentence about the weather with their new English words, also treasures.
O'Leary's days reach far beyond the classroom. Saturday she took two families, including five children, to Liberty Ridge Farm, where they petted animals, went through the corn maze, and took photos and wrote captions to read back so the whole family can learn English.
"It's a privilege to work with families. You do become part of the family," said O'Leary, admitting that it does take up a lot of her spare time. She takes students to school dances and game nights.
She said she would consult with her colleagues before deciding what to do with the money.
Teachers, Milken said, show up every day with the "unwavering belief that every child can succeed."
For nearly three decades, the Milken Family Foundation has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in support of public education, with more than $135 million directed to the Educator Awards program.
"You cannot apply for our award," he said. "We find you. You don't find us."
"It's just an honor to have one our teachers honored in this way," said Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady FT, who was there to share the excitement. " Every day, there are many teachers who, despite obstacles, are providing rich classroom experiences. Heather is an excellent example of one of many teachers in Schenectady and we're thrilled that she's been honored like this."
Schenectady School District reports that it has more National Board Certified Teachers - 36 - than any other district in the state. John Yagielski is the interim superintendent.
Before the ceremony began, choir students sang "The Future Begins With Us."
Congressman Paul Tonko told the students they are important, strong and special, and that not only are they the future, "you are our present."
He said that stretching and learning, in so many ways, "begins with the teacher."
Milken also encouraged students to think about teaching as a career.