Influential Educators

This year's Teens to Watch pick their favorite teachers



Michael Walsh of Wilton High School

Photographs Contributed

The September 2014 issue of Westport Weston & Wilton Magazine features three extraordinary local teens; Cooper Pellaton, Katherine Zhou, and Ross Wollman. Since we’re officially in back to back-to-school mode, we wanted to know which educators inspired them to excel or influenced the way they approach the world.   Read on to discover what makes these teachers as remarkable as the students they teach.


Michael Walsh

(English, Wilton High School) nominated by Cooper Pellaton

How long have you been teaching?  

I have been teaching English for sixteen years, fourteen of them at Wilton High School.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in education? 

Teaching is enjoyable because I discuss literature with people fourteen- to eighteen-years old, by-and-large a sublime pursuit.

What is the most challenging aspect of teaching? The most enjoyable?

The whole challenge of teaching is motivating the students; the plays, poems, and prose compel them if they’re open, so the teacher’s task is to bring immediacy to new materials about which a significant segment of the class might be indifferent. Fitzgerald has remained largely unchanged during the past sixteen years, but my students’ and my cultural contexts have changed dramatically.

Students’ realizations are the most gratifying experiences of teaching. Paradoxically, when a student arrives at an understanding through her own efforts, and the teacher becomes inessential, he has done his job well. For that reason, teaching is equally art, science, and luck.

What role do you believe teachers have as mentors?

As a mentor I must make my students uncomfortable by being completely authentic. They detect insincerity unerringly, so the best policy is candor.

A few thoughts about Cooper…

Cooper's inquisitiveness sets him apart from his peers. He listens to everyone and everything, which is remarkable, and then he comments, integrating the most recent point or contention into his statement. Though reserved, his enthusiasm is unmistakable as a result of his quick, thoughtful responses. He also has a subtle and dry sense of humor which compels me to think about his ironic observations hours afterward.    

 

Adele Valovich

(Orchestra Director, Staples High School) nominated by Katherine Zhou

How long have you been teaching?

I will be starting my 38th year.  It really doesn’t seem possible that it has been that long!  I taught in Atlanta, GA for 3 years; Victor, NY (a suburb of Rochester) for 3 years and I have been in Westport since then.  I began teaching lessons at Staples, all the Orchestras at Bedford and the beginners at Kings Highway for 9 years and then moved to the High School in 1992.

How does your personal appreciation of the arts shape your approach to music education?

I began playing the violin when I was five years old.  Music is such a part of my being that I really cannot remember a time when I was without it.  The Arts define who I am as a person.  I want to share the passion that I have for music with as many students as possible.  I believe that every single person in the universe is capable of experiencing and/or performing music.  I believe that our educational system would be much better and our students far more human and less stressed if everyone had the Arts in their lives during the day.  I have recently begun the study of metal sculpture and find such symmetry between the Arts.  It brings me the same sense of joy and wonderment when I am teaching as when I am performing music or creating a sculpture.

What do you enjoy most about working with young people?

I enjoy their energy – sometimes more than others.  There is an amazing sense of wonder and discovery even at this level.  And the look on their faces after they have mastered a particularly difficult piece is priceless.  The feeling of accomplishment and the fact that they have shared that beauty with others is something that they will never forget.

How does your work inspire you both personally and professionally?

I often tell parents (and anyone who will listen) that I have the best job!  I share my talents with a group of highly motivated and energetic young people.  They thrive on a challenge and will work to master that challenge.  They share a common sense of beauty with the universe and mightily strive to replicate what the composers heard and intended.  I’d like to think that we all have a synergy, learning from each other and always growing.

In your opinion, what separates a good teacher from a great teacher?

I think a great teacher is someone who is fondly remembered by her students as someone who reached out to them and joyously inspired them to achieve more than they ever thought possible.

A few thoughts about Katie…

Katie is one of those rare students who touches your life and leaves a lasting memory. She is a gifted musician, an inquisitive scholar, an elegant young lady and an exceptional friend.  She was an excellent role model as a Concertmaster and one I’m sure others will try to emulate.  The best thing about Katie – her elusive smile – because once you see it you know you’ve “nailed it”!  

 

Damian Long

(English, Weston High School) nominated by Ross Wollman

How long have you been teaching?   

This is my tenth year as a teacher and my ninth at Weston High.

Why did you choose to become an educator?

 I’ve always loved the subject I teach, and I wanted to help future students discover its pleasures.  I enjoyed being in English classrooms when I was in high school, and I thought a career in a place like that might be very rewarding.  As it turns out, it has been—but in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated when I thought about the job from the perspective of a former student.

If we were to visit your classroom, what would we see?

 On my best days, you would see kids talking with passion and specificity about a piece of writing.  They’d be listening to one another intently and wanting to make their own voices heard.  When that sense of forward momentum happens, it’s a great day—and I’ve gotten better over the course of my career at setting the conditions for that, but it’s far from a foolproof process.

How does your work inspire you both personally and professionally?

 I’ve been at this long enough now to get emails from students years after I’ve had them in class who have told me the impact my class made on them as readers, as writers, even as people.  I’ve kept a collection of those, and I return to them from time to time.  I can’t tell you how much they inspire me when it comes to the current classes I’m teaching.

What do you find particularly appealing about teaching in Weston?

I have some great colleagues and the parent community here has been increasingly supportive of my work over the years, but I wouldn’t keep doing this if it weren’t for Weston’s students.  They have a range of personalities and abilities just like any group of people would, but on the whole—especially when I compare them to what I remember of high school students from my own time there—they are, on average, extremely committed and focused and intelligent and cheerful.  I’ve had groups that I am genuinely sorry to say goodbye to at the end of the year.  This is a community that, on the whole, values education—and that makes a difference in my work.

A few words about Ross…

 Ross has a sense of humble generosity that is very rare, given his endlessly impressive panoply of skills.  I saw such remarkable intellectual growth in him from the beginning of my 10 Honors class to the end of my AP Lit class, and he achieved this almost wholly by dint of an unflagging effort and the sharp, critical focus he brought to the texts we studied.  Running my senior AP class last year was notably more difficult when he wasn’t there to drive the discussion forward.  For our theater group’s tech crew, he carved out an invaluable set of roles for himself over the years that made him invaluable to several plays and musicals; last year’s spring production of Carousel bore the stamp of his work everywhere, and probably would not have been possible without his ever-intelligent sense of initiative and creativity.  He is a remarkable young man and stands poised to make quite a mark on the world.

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