Annual teaching awards aim 
to recognize unsung heros

Last modified: Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Though it’s barely been eight months since Michael Berg started his career as a classroom teacher, it would seem that he’s been at it for years.

With less than an hour before dismissal, his fourth-grade students at Chestnut Hill School in Belchertown hardly make a peep as they work on personal essays. Berg moves swiftly around the room asking questions.

Jack Wojcik, 10, was writing his essay about the challenges of being the youngest member of his family. He has an older brother and an older sister. Taking a break from editing his draft to talk to a visiting reporter, he said he likes that his teacher sometimes lets the class work in groups — making learning more fun, but still getting work done.

“He’s actually really good at teaching, and he’s pretty funny too,” Jack said. “He’ll be intense, but he won’t be mean.”

Berg, a first year teacher, was among this year’s winners of the Pioneer Valley Excellence in Teaching Awards, a program sponsored by the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation in Agawam to honor teachers in Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties for teaching practices, demonstrated enthusiasm, volunteer work and community outreach. This year, the program recognized 142 educators, 48 of whom work in schools in Hampshire and Franklin counties.

Winners are invited to an awards ceremony at the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House in Holyoke, where they will be presented with engraved plaques, cash prizes and other gifts. Winners in Hampshire and Franklin counties will be honored April 29 at 6 p.m., and winners in western and eastern Hampden county over two evenings in May. Tickets are available from the winners’ school districts.

Harold Grinspoon, of Longmeadow, is a philanthropist who made his living as a real estate entrepreneur after dyslexia prevented him from going to college. He started the Harold Grinspoon Foundation with his wife, Diane Troderman, in 1993. The Pioneer Valley Excellence in Teaching Awards program began in the 2002-2003 school year, and has since honored more than 2,000 educators. The program is directed by Mary Anne Herron, director of education initiatives for the foundation.

Herron said the idea for the awards was inspired by an older program run by the Springfield Chamber of Commerce that honored a small number of teachers in the city. Grinspoon and his wife had been interested in finding a way to honor teachers all over the Valley, according to Herron.

Educators are nominated and winners ultimately chosen by colleagues, administrators, and sometimes parents. In addition to the Grinspoon foundation, the program is sponsored MassMutual, the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation and the Eastern States Exposition at a cost of around $140,000 each year, Herron said.

Herron, of Springfield, a former classroom teacher and school principal, believes it is important to recognize educators because they can have a profound impact on a child’s life.

She recalled one note she received from an award winner in recent years that said, “This is the first time anyone has ever said ‘Thank you’ for all of the time and the years that I put in.”

“I said to myself, ‘How can that be?’” Herron said.

Berg, 33, was a manager for a manufacturing company in Connecticut for six years before switching careers. He said he feels the elementary school level is a good fit for him. “That’s my personality,” he said. “I just mesh well with the kids.”

For Berg, this involves injecting humor and also making sure the students know they are respected. Clapping his hands rhythmically to grab their attention at the end of class, Berg asked them to line up when ready. Students formed a line to the door and Berg stood at the front, thanking those who became quiet, and reminding all that they needed to be silent in the halls.

“Yelling doesn’t work,” he said of his approach to classroom management. “Trying to talk to them like they’re human beings, it really helps. The respect goes both ways.”

It’s clear his students see it the same way. They know better than to talk while Berg is teaching.

“We got to listen. If we talk out, then we won’t be able to hear what he says, and he’ll have to repeat it,” James Greene, 10, explained.

Berg is also recognized by his students and colleagues for his willingness to accommodate different learning styles and paces. He allows his students to take certain tests more than once if they do not score well the first time. “I want them to understand and get it,” he said. “I don’t want to punish them for not getting it the first time.”

Katie Fletcher, a special education teacher, said Berg sometimes uses technology, such as online videos, cartoons and music to aid in his lessons. She has worked at Chestnut Hill for nine years.

“He’s always willing to try new things so the kids can learn and access the curriculum,” Fletcher said. “One and done is not his mentality.”

Chestnut Hill Principal Paula Fitzgerald was thrilled to hear that Berg won an Excellence in Teaching Award during his first year. “It’s a very nice way to recognize a talented educator,” she said.

Berg lives in West Simsbury, Connecticut with his wife, Sharon, and their 12-year-old son.

Other honorees

Other new teachers recognized this year include Amaru Pareja, an 8th grade math teacher at JFK Middle School in Northampton, Alyse Anderson, a science teacher at Easthampton High School, and Jennifer Eichorn, an 8th grade math and social studies teacher at White Brook Middle School, also in Easthampton.

Pareja is another first-year teacher. At 29, he said he feels young enough to easily relate to students, but at the same time matured by his years out of college. After graduating from Hampshire College in 2008, he worked as a photographer in Chicago before returning to the Valley. He earned his master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst last year.

He said he tries to treat his students like equals, while still maintaining his role of the teacher.

“I don’t pretend to be an all-knowing math teacher,” he said. “I definitely encourage them to find any mistakes I make. I think the honesty is just the biggest piece of it.”

During the JFK forum, a 20-minute period for all students every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, he said he tries to engage the students by sharing stories about his weekend snowboarding excursions, showing them videos, and occasionally, taking them outside. His goal in sharing his own interests and passions with his students, he said, is to help them realize their own.

“The biggest thing I try to push with them is some sense of adventure,” he said. “I’m trying to get them to figure out what it is they want.”

He lives in Northampton with his wife, JFK English teacher Megan Pareja, and their black lab, McKensie.

Meanwhile in Easthampton, a look inside Anderson’s classroom does not reveal a conventional scene. Students are divided into groups, but work on different activities. Instead of assigning all students the same projects, Anderson said she invites them to choose from a variety of assignments with different values to earn points toward their grades. She said she picked up on this style during her time student teaching at Northampton High School.

“I notice that the students are much more motivated,” Anderson said. “It kind of personalizes the pace for every student.”

Anderson, 25, is in her second year of teaching. On a recent day during anatomy class, students in one corner of the room worked on a lab experiment to measure how exercise affects carbon dioxide production in the body. Students in this group did jumping jacks, then, using a straw, blew into a liquid that changed color depending on its carbon dioxide content.

Some students labeled and colored in worksheets identifying parts of the respiratory system. Others worked on laptops, using an online program in which they could perform virtual surgeries.

“It’s literally my favorite class because I get to learn on my own, but if I need help, she’s there to help me along the way,” said senior Linsey Branscomb, 18, who was working on labeling the parts of the respiratory system.

All the while, Anderson traveled around the room, checking up on all the students and answering questions.

Junior Chloe Crabb, 17, said she thinks most people don’t realize how much work is involved in teaching this way.

“She sacrifices her own time to make sure we’re actually learning the material,” Crabb said.

Anderson lives in Holyoke with her significant other, Davin Pasek, their two dogs and a chinchilla.

Eichorn, also in her second year of teaching, laughs as she admits that growing up, she swore she would never be a teacher. Several members of her family are in education, and she dreamed of something different. She earned her bachelor’s degree in finance, but soon realized the corporate life was not for her.

“I just figured I love numbers, and I love kids, so what better combination than to be a teacher,” she said.

She guides students through algebraic concepts using blocks to help illustrate different equations. Students say that this helps them learn math.

“It’s hard for me, so I usually ask for help a lot,” said Caitlin Bolduc, 12. “Then I have that aha moment, like, I knew that.”

Eichorn said she enjoys working with middle school students.

“I just like this age,” she said. “They’re just so innocent, and they’re trying to figure themselves out.”

Eichorn, 33, lives in Montague with her husband, Erik Eichorn, and their two boys, ages 4 and 7.

Other educators honored this year include Northampton High School French teacher Barbara Bitgood, Bridge Street School special education teacher Martha Hopkins and Leeds School fifth grade teacher Michele Subocz in Northampton, and Easthampton math coach Joan Schaffer. Their years on the job ranges from fewer than 10 to more than 40.

On a recent morning in Bitgood’s class, students shared laughs as they wrote radio advertisements in French for their own made-up clothing stores. Some students created a store for baby clothing, others a store for summer wear.

Bitgood said she tries to create projects that teach students practical ways to use language.

“I really try to build my class around real-life tasks,” she said. “Language is all about connecting with people, and language is a vehicle we use to get things done in the world.”

She said she is grateful to work in a school where her ideas and decisions are respected.

“That intellectual liberty and freedom to follow my passions and follow what my students are interested in is very important to me,” she said.

Bitgood, 37, has been teaching for 15 years, including at JFK Middle School and in Iowa. She lives in Holyoke with her husband, Sean Sumner, their two boys ages 4 and 8, along with their cat, guinea pig and fish.

Other winners include Fort River Elementary School social studies teacher Tim Austin, Pelham Elementary School third grade teacher Meg Gallagher, Amherst Regional High School special education teacher Rebecca Herskovitz, Amherst Regional Middle School teacher Denise O’Donovan, and Crocker Farm Elementary School reading specialist Jennifer Smith in the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District.

Austin’s students said he makes class more interesting with his sense of humor, and also by tying current events into their lessons. Last week in class, he played a National Public Radio show from the same day about a tax on junk food in the Navajo Nation.

“He’s just a fun teacher in general,” said sixth grader Morgan Brennan, 12.

Austin, 33, is in his seventh year of teaching — he also taught in Deerfield. He lives in South Hadley with his wife Jess and their 2-year-old daughter.

Gallagher, a teacher for 31 years, grew up in Belmont, not far from the Perkins School for the Blind, and says her first career goal was to become an art teacher for the blind. She went to college for elementary education and art, and gradually changed her focus.

“Teaching is different every day,” she said. “It’s very creative, and to me it was important to do something that gave back.”

She has also taught in Amherst, Holyoke, New Hampshire, and at the start of her career, taught English at the American School of Durango in Mexico. She lives in Shutesbury with her husband David Gallagher. They have two grown children, ages 22 and 24. She won’t divulge her age.

She learned she won a Grinspoon award this year when Pelham School Principal Lisa Desjarlais showed up in her classroom with flowers, and told her she had won in front of all of her students.

“They were pretty pumped,” Gallagher recalled with a smile.

But Gallagher says she’s been surrounded by other talented educators throughout her career — and they all deserve awards.

“It’s a little uncomfortable to be singled out for it,” she said. “You don’t become a good teacher on your own.”

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at


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