Grinspoon: Excellence in Teaching award winners in Northampton, Easthampton, Westhampton reflect on what makes a good educator

Last modified: Thursday, April 17, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — What does it take to be an excellent teacher?

For Melissa Power-Greene, a special education teacher at Northampton High School, good teaching requires “really connecting with students.”

“It means looking them in the eye and asking them how they are; how was that track meet or that job interview?” said Power-Greene. “It’s the little things that matter most.”

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Power-Greene teaches students in an alternative learning program at NHS.

For Hampshire Regional High School business teacher Mark Cavallon, teaching is about creating openings for dialogue with students.

“I tell them the first day of class that when someone else is talking, be respectful,” said Cavallon, who heads the business and technology department at the school in Westhampton. “I like that give and take. And I learn a lot from them.”

Jan de Ubl, who is in her eighth year of teaching science at White Brook Middle School in Easthampton, believes good teachers must also be “forward thinking.”

“We are preparing the students to be citizens of what’s ahead,” she said. “I’m constantly trying to bring in scientists and people who can talk with students about what’s forward — what should we be thinking about for the future?”

The three local educators are among 140 public school teachers in western Massachusetts selected by their districts for Pioneer Valley Excellence in Teaching Awards. This year’s winners, who range from first-year teachers to veterans of K-12 classrooms, were chosen based on nominations submitted by peers, parents, students, administrators and staff,

The awards program, sponsored by the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation and local business supporters, invites districts to name one honoree for every 1,000 students enrolled. Districts with more than 1,000 students can also choose a first-year teacher for an award.

Since the foundation created the teaching awards 11 years ago, staff members say, it has received more calls every year from schools that want to participate. This year, 35 districts in Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden counties honored teachers with awards.

Grinspoon employee Mary Anne Herron, awards program director, said school leaders are eager to participate. “They want to show the value they place on teaching and how much they appreciate what goes on in the classroom,” she said.

“Because of the pressures teachers are under these days, we have a lot who are leaving the field,” she said. “This is a way of encouraging young people to come into education.”

Area school administrators say they look forward to the moment each spring when they notify teachers who have been chosen for awards, often surprising them with flowers, balloons and banners.

Hampshire Regional School Superintendent Craig Jurgensen said in choosing teachers, principals look for educators who are “respected by peers, students and parents” and whose work “reaches above and beyond classroom and schools walls with outreach and volunteer activity.”

The three award-winning teachers interviewed for this story were humble about being selected, citing their many deserving colleagues.

“Every year when it’s announced, I feel this could be anybody here,” Cavallon said. “I have great friends in this building.”

Following are brief profiles of three honorees.

A true calling

Mark Cavallon, 48, started out with goals for a career in the private sector. After earning a business degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1987, he spent a year teaching and coaching at Westfield High School — an experience that sparked his interest in education.

Cavallon went back to school for a teaching certificate but found there were few teaching openings. For a decade, he worked as an auto-insurance claims adjuster before returning to what he believes is his true calling: the classroom.

Cavallon, who helped replace Hampshire Regional’s traditional accounting classes with a broader business and technology curriculum, does not regret his time in industry.

“I can draw from my experiences with negotiations and customer service,” he says. “I try to talk about that in class, to tell stories and let my students know you can learn a lot from life situations.”

Still, he is grateful to be working with high school students every day.

“I like being with young adults,” Cavallon said. “It forces you to stay young. Young people get a bad rap, but I think there are a lot of great things going on with them in school that people don’t get to see.”

In his 14 years at Hampshire Regional, Cavallon said he’s seen teachers shoulder increasing responsibilities. Still, his essential approach to teaching has not changed.

He credits his mentor, Carole Landry — former head of the high school business department who died of cancer in 2006 — with inspiring him to stay focused on his students.

“Carole was someone the students wanted to go to,” he said. “She always said if the students like a teacher, they will like a course and that has stuck with me.”

Cavallon, who lives in Westfield with his wife and 8-year-old son, still has ties to the business world — connections he said he brings to teaching subjects such as personal finance and overseeing the high school’s work internship program.

“I have friends who tell me they could never teach,” Cavallon said. “But when I get home, it’s a good tired. I never go home frustrated.”

Middle school science

Jan de Ubl has always loved science, but she knew early on that she did not want to spend her career in a lab.

Fortunately, she says, someone suggested she might want to consider teaching.

At the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, de Ubl earned an undergraduate degree in biology and a master’s degree in science education through an extended degree program. Her professional experience includes stints teaching science at the high school and college levels. She also taught at a Navajo Indian reservation in New Mexico.

De Ubl was teaching at the Holyoke Community Charter School eight years ago when she was asked to be a reference for a colleague seeking a job at White Brook Middle School. When the phone conversation ended, they both ended up being hired to teach in Easthampton.

De Ubl, 51, who lives in Hadley, is a single parent of three children, ages 23, 20 and 16. She says teaching middle school has convinced her of this: “My role is far more significant than simply the transfer of content.”

She said she’s become attentive to the middle school dynamic. “I appreciate how critical it is to address the developmental needs of students,” de Ubl said. “One day they are 6 and the next, 16.”

She said she is also keenly aware of how digital technology has changed the classroom experience.

“The learning platform is so different,” de Ubl said. “With how committed students are to the Internet and new technology, we need to contemplate and review how we are teaching and how best to prepare them.”

At White Brook, de Ubl has brought in outside resources ranging from robotics company representatives to Smith College scientists to boost students’ exposure to real-world science.

“It’s not many teachers who have five colleges a stone’s throw away,” she said. “I try to seize those opportunities.”

De Ubl said she has learned from her peers at White Brook how to develop relationships with students and their families.

“I feel fortunate,” she added. “This is one of the few jobs where you are gifted to have that interaction with kids. I tell them it’s a treat to know them.”

True passion

Growing up in the Midwest with parents who were educators, Melissa Power-Greene says “the one thing I was sure I never wanted to do was become a teacher.”

But after earning a degree in psychology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, she landed a teaching job with what was then the Hampshire Educational Collaborative, “and I realized teaching didn’t have to mean standing in front of a bunch of kids going over just one content area,” said Power-Greene, 39.

She soon realized her true passion was helping vulnerable students, those who, for various reasons, were not thriving in school. Power-Greene earned a master’s degree in special education from Westfield State University. Before joining Northampton High School in 2011, she worked for five years as a special education teacher at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School.

For her, teaching at-risk students is a worthwhile challenge.

“My students have heart and they are the most interesting and endearing people I’ve ever met,” said Power-Greene, who lives in Northampton with her husband and children, ages 18, 9 and 6.

“My students go through real struggles and heartbreak, and yet they stay in school,” she said. “They inspire me every day.”

Another challenge is convincing people that her students “aren’t just sitting around doing no work,” Power-Greene said.

“Some people think being a special education teacher is a thankless job,” she added. “I tell my students I want to be here. I feel like I’m the lucky one.”

Power-Greene said she regularly thinks about “how to get better with what I’m doing.”

She believes the teaching award is an important acknowledgment for both faculty and students at her high school.

“I feel honored that they would recognize the real work that’s going on,” she said. “When I got the award my students told me, ‘Don’t cry Miss Power-Greene. Come over here and give me some sugar!’”


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