One, Ann Marie Todes of Scholars' Academy, grew up in Hells Kitchen, the daughter of working-class Eastern European immigrants. She was celebrated as New York State's Teacher of the Year in 2004, and has won other prizes, including the nationwide "Back to School, Back to Style" contest sponsored by the clothing designer Jones New York. One of five teachers in the U.S. so honored in September, 2006, Todes' award of a personal makeover and new wardrobe was eclipsed by the scene that day in Rockaway Park, as buses carrying 400 volunteers from Home Depot and The Hands On Network arrived at Scholars' to spruce up the school, inside and out, in recognition of her honor.
The other teacher, Luz Maria Alessandri of Channel View School for Research, known to her students simply as "Ms. A," has never received or sought an award or prize. Her parents were immigrants as well, but both were physicians and her blood is aristocratic, through and through. Her ancestors included many of the business and political elite of Chile, including a former president. After completing their medical training in New York, her parents were unable to return to Chile due to the restrictions of the junta, so they raised eight children here in Rockaway.
The lives of these two extraordinary women connected over 30 years ago. Todes was a young teacher with about a decade of teaching experience, and Alessandri was a student in her fifth-grade class at PS 114 in Belle Harbor. Todes recalls Alessandri fondly as "this bubbly little thing with a mop of brown hair" who was very talented in math. Both delight in recounting the story of Las Vegas Day in Todes' classroom, when students got to apply their math skills in a simulated casino environment. Unbeknownst to Todes, Alessandri was a "pro" at card games, having learned from her older siblings. When the imposing Dr. Alessandri arrived to pick up his daughter that day, Todes said, "Oh, she's the one dealing the blackjack game over there." Sure enough, a group of students was gathered around Alessandri, one after another asking the young dealer to "Hit me, Luz." To Todes' surprise, Dr. Alessandri did not disapprove.
Todes remained at PS 114 until 2004, when she became a sixth-grade humanities teacher at Scholars' Academy. The arduous three-hour daily commute she makes from her home in Manhattan to teach in Rockaway is well-known to her colleagues and the parents of children in her classes. But the most memorable thing to Alessandri is that Todes NEVER, EVER raised her voice, or favored one student over another.
Years later, Todes recalls that she would occasionally speak with Alessandri on the bus, as they headed to their respective teaching jobs. Alessandri began teaching at PS 42 in Arverne in 1990, moved to Middle School 180 in Rockaway Park in 1999, then became the math coach at Channel View, a New Visions "school within a school" housed in Beach Channel High School in 2004.
Alessandri is a highly skilled educator in a subject that many find difficult to teach well. When I was a novice teacher in the New York City Teaching Fellows program several years ago, I found Alessandri's assistance with math lessons to be priceless. In my opinion, there was no staff person at the school more even-tempered or consistently reliable than Alessandri. Her long experience with math lesson planning is worth its weight in gold, and she is always warm, friendly and caring with students and other teachers.
Yet she never strays from her goal of encouraging students to take responsibility for their actions at all times.
Todes and Alessandri are different in many ways, yet they share similarities. Though neither ever became a mother, they both love young people and strive every day to value all students in their classrooms as individuals. Unlike Todes, Alessandri has mainly worked in schools near her home. However, during the summers and on weekends for over ten years, she treks to the Bronx, where she is an administrator and teacher at the Rosedale Achievement Center. There, she leads SAT preparation and practical skills classes for high school girls, and field trips to colleges and universities.
Alessandri is not the only Todes protegé to have landed in the school system as a teacher or administrator. My own daughter was fortunate to be assigned to Todes' homeroom at Scholars in 2006, and then, the following year, her new humanities teacher was one of Todes' former students. As my daughter told me recently, echoing Alessandri's words, "There were tons of kids who tried to 'suck up' to Mrs. Todes in sixth grade, but it never worked. She never played favorites."
Alessandri is clearly the heir to Todes' legacy. As we were concluding our interview at a local restaurant last week, a former student who was having lunch with her mom came over to "Ms. A" and renewed their acquaintance, relating how she was now absolutely thrilled with her job teaching pre-school students in Brooklyn. A testament to the success of not just one great teacher, but two.
May all of our hard-working, devoted teachers enjoy a much deserved rest in the months of July and August!
Comments about this column are encouraged and can be emailed to vrc@ rockawave. com.