The inaugural Herald Head of the Class Awards, presented by Bank of America, honored the best and brightest teachers on Long Island with a gala virtual ceremony on June 16 that celebrated the dedication, determination and lasting influence of our educators.
“Even before COVID-19 arrived, even before teachers were declared essential workers by New York State last August, we all understood just how essential they were,” said Stuart Richner, CEO and Publisher of Richner Communications, as he welcomed viewers and finalists. “It has always gone without saying that our schools are the true heart and soul of Long Island. We have seen that proven time and time again.”
Following a public nominations period during which parents, faculty, students and members of the community nominated teachers they felt have gone above and beyond and truly stand out, an advisory board reviewed all entries, and 34 Elementary, Middle and High School educators were recognized as finalists for their exemplary work. In addition to a winner chosen in each of the three school-level categories, the Rising Star award denoted a teacher at the beginning of a career that shows particular promise for a bright future.
As the anticipation built for the opening of the envelopes and the reveal of the winners, Bank of America Long Island President Bob Isaksen underscored the importance of businesses in our communities becoming part of a lifetime of education, helping advance students through school and even after graduation. “At Bank of America, we know that educators play a critical role in transforming the lives of students,” Isaksen said, “particularly during times of crisis for our communities. That’s why we were so eager to support the Herald in recognizing Long Island’s top educators.”
The night’s first honor, the inaugural Bank of America Rising Star Award, went to kindergarten teacher Jordan Sabinsky of Searingtown Elementary School. “To be included with such a great group of teachers means the world to me,” said Sabinsky, who was inspired to become a teacher while working with young children on a trip to Guatemala. “I became a teacher because I wanted to truly make a difference in kids and inspire them.”
Nancy Aquino, a 2nd grade teacher at Steele Elementary School, won the Elementary School division, and shared a moving account of a teacher who made a huge impact on her life at a young age. “My fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Savalas, made learning fun,” she said. “I kept in touch with him all through my life, and unfortunately he passed away a year-and-a-half ago. I went to his wake and just wanted to meet his family and tell them, ‘Your dad meant so much to me and I feel so thankful to be here today to tell you what he did for me and let you know that I followed in his footsteps.’”
The emotional celebration continued as ABGS Middle School Hempstead Special Education teacher Grace Dong-Janeo won the Middle School division. “I’m very honored, and very surprised that among so many teachers, I was selected as a finalist,” said Dong-Janeo. “I felt that I made a connection when I was very young at summer camp and was always drawn to students that needed a little TLC.” Dong-Janeo shared insights into the hard work during the pandemic that helped make her students’ experience smoother, discussing interfacing regularly with their parents to help them learn Zoom and Google Teams.
When the final envelope of the night was opened, the High School division award went to foreign language teacher Rebeca Rodriguez of East Rockaway High School. “Human contact is the most important thing while teaching,” said Rodriguez. “I think we took for granted how important it is to be able to see our kids’ faces, their expressions, to be able to talk in the mornings before class, just being able to be with them.”
As we begin looking ahead with hope to days when students and teachers will all once again be able to experience that in-person connection, we won’t soon forget the impact our educators had during this past year of unprecedented challenges and the appreciation we all feel each day.
“I’ve got kids in school myself, and I know how hard you all have worked this past year and a half….I am truly grateful for all of your work,” noted Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a former Baldwin school board member herself and a special guest on the awards show. “A huge congratulations to all of the finalists and winners tonight. Wherever you teach, whatever level, you’re doing a fantastic job. We’re with you, we’re grateful for you and we support you.”
Eliza DellaMonica, Wantagh Elementary School
Erin Kennedy, Rhame Avenue Elementary School
Jackie DeMainto, Hewitt Elementary School
Melissa Polzella, Covert Avenue School
Dorit Pinto, Schechter School of Long Island
Lynda Last, Long Island Hebrew Academy
Susan Steers, Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf
Jamie MacMillan, William L. Buck Elementary School
Keelah Helwig, Waldorf School of Garden City
Gia Nigoghossian, Glenwood Landing Elementary School
Barbara Bentley, St. William the Abbot School
James O’Hara, Lynbrook North Middle School
Jean Carlson, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
Jennifer Monsour, South Side Middle School
Kimberly Epps, Oceanside Middle School
Margaret Delahunty, Baldwin Middle School
Michele McLoughlin, Robert M. Finley Middle School
Beverly Robinson, ABGS Middle School
David Radtke, Wisdom Lane Middle School
Michele Palmer, Baldwin Middle School
Benedict Tieniber, Lynbrook High School
Catherine Temps, Hicksville High School
Susan Poulos, Glen Cove High School
Paul Ryan, MacArthur High School
Jordan Hue, Long Beach High School
Joshua Levitt, Freeport High School
Sara Perrone, East Rockaway High School
Steven Anusiak, Seaford High School
Ross Lipsky, Valley Stream South High School
Leslie Pieters, Roosevelt High School
Special thanks to Herald Head of the Class Awards Presenting Sponsor Bank of America, and to Geico Local Office Lynbrook for their support. Watch the full Herald Head of the Class Awards ceremony on YouTube, and be on the lookout for more stories about the winners and finalists here on LIHerald.com.