Schools recognize top teachers

Published 9:48 pm Wednesday, March 26, 2014

King’s Fork Middle School sixth-grade math teacher Audrey Casazza has been named Suffolk Public Schools’ 2013 Citywide Teacher of the Year. “It was ‘Wow!’” she said. “It was a surprise.”

King’s Fork Middle School sixth-grade math teacher Audrey Casazza has been named Suffolk Public Schools’ 2013 Citywide Teacher of the Year. “It was ‘Wow!’” she said. “It was a surprise.”

In Audrey Casazza’s sixth-grade math classroom, a cabinet on the back wall is festooned with the heartfelt birthday cards her students have received.

“It’s one of the icebreakers,” Casazza said. “In the beginning of the year, they share their birthdays, and then on their birthdays they get a cupcake from me.”

It’s part of getting to know each student individually to better tailor her teaching, she said.

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Casazza came to Suffolk Public Schools — and King’s Fork Middle School — five years ago. She was recently named the division’s 2014 Citywide Teacher of the Year.

“It was ‘Wow!’” she said of her response to the accolade. “It was a surprise.”

While many teachers come to the profession with less certainty, Casazza said she had always wanted to teach.

“When it was time to decide what to do, there was no question,” she said. “It was, ‘What do I need to do to become a teacher?’”

At Dowling College in New York, she studied mathematics as an undergraduate, and education, concentrating on mastery learning, as a post-graduate student.

She began her teaching career in New York in 1981, then after working for five years, took a 20-year “sabbatical” to raise her children.

Casazza came to Virginia in 1995, and she worked for the Virginia Beach school division for two years before arriving at King’s Fork Middle.

Casazza says she works “really hard” and expects no less from her students.

Not an instructional day goes by when they are not required to submit something to Casazza that’s graded. She says it’s how she “keeps up with what they know, and where they need extra help.”

Besides the display of birthday wishes, something else that jumps out inside Casazza’s classroom is a “mastery chart” on the wall, tracking where her class stands in mastering the curriculum; students also track personal progress with individual mastery charts.

“The bottom line is: I care,” Casazza said. “I care about each and every child I teach, and how well they are doing.”

In a news release, King’s Fork Middle Principal Jennifer Presson said of Casazza’s approach: “No question is too small or too big, no skill practiced in isolation, no student need left unattended.

“Her understanding of how to unlock the mystery of mathematics for middle school students is remarkable. Her enthusiasm for math is contagious. Even the most reluctant students develop confidence in math.”

Three other Teacher of the Year winners were surprised in their classrooms by district Superintendent Deran Whitney last week.

Northern Shores Elementary School special education teacher Mallorie Jones — Elementary School Teacher of the Year — has developed “a passion for children with special needs, because her brother was born with cerebral palsy,” according to the release.

“For that reason, she believes building positive relationships with students and families is vital.”

Jo Ann Murray from Nansemond River High School, named High School Teacher of the Year, is described as an English teacher adept at making grammar lessons and Shakespeare “engaging and interactive” for her ninth-graders.

An “equitable education for all students” is important to Murray, according to the release, and beyond the classroom she’s involved in the Suffolk Education Foundation and the March of Dimes on behalf of her school.

Suzanna Hodges, an 11th-grade English teacher at Nansemond River High, which she graduated from four years ago, earned the honor of Citywide Rookie Teacher of the Year.

Demonstrating how her youth helps her connect with her students — who aren’t that much younger than her — she recently challenged her students to summarize a novel using Twitter.

“I can honestly say, these past five months have been the most tiresome, exhausting, stressful, rewarding months of my life, and I will work hard each day to ensure my students receive my very best each and every day, year after year,” Hodges was cited as remarking.

Award winners — citywide as well as at the school level — will attend a banquet in their honor on May 1.