Teacher award winners rely on empathy for students

Deb Wolinsky can’t remember a time in her life when she didn’t want to be a teacher.

Rhonda Pierre went through a period of denial. She majored in computer science in college and had to go back to school after starting a family to earn a teaching license.

The two math teachers, Wolinsky at Broad Ripple High School and Pierre at Harshman Middle School, traveled different roads as educators but their paths crossed on a stage at the Eiteljorg Museum tonight. They were two of the four $25,000 winners of the Hubbard Life-Changing Teacher Awards.

The awards are the brainchild of Al and Kathy Hubbard, Indianapolis philanthropists and supporters of education causes. They were moved to find a way to honor Indianapolis Public Schools teachers last fall after reading a newspaper column about an inspiring IPS teacher, Jamie Kalb, who who helped turn around the life of one her most troubled students. She was the first winner.

The Hubbards then set out to find and honor more teachers like Kalb with what they intend to be annual awards they have pledged to support financially for at least three years. Working with the United Way, and their family foundation, they put together a panel of reviewers who chose 10 finalists, all of whom earned $1,000. Four of them were announced tonight as grand prize winners.

The other two winners were Tina Ahlgren, a Shortridge High School math teacher, and Cynthia Hartshorn, who teaches choir and drama at Arsenal Tech High School.

Wolinsky and Pierre remember the email that went out from the district announcing the awards. They liked the idea.

“I wish more teachers were recognized,” Wolinsky said. “Teachers need to be celebrated.”

Still, neither expected what happened next: their students, former students and colleagues rallied to nominate all four winners for the awards.

In all 231 teachers at 65 IPS schools received a total of 561 nominations. Pierre’s name alone was put forward by 16 different people.

“I felt so humbled that they thought to nominate me,” she said.

The common theme in this group of elite teachers went beyond what they knew, they way they imparted that knowledge and the stellar results for all four in terms of the staggering test score passing rates and big shares of their formers students who went on to college and success afterward.

What set them all apart was the way they cared about their kids.

Wolinsky went to court and talked a judge out of sending a promising student to jail. Ahrens spent all night with her student in the hospital when she had a baby. Hartshorn talked a student into joining her choir instead of a gang. He’s on Broadway now.

Sometimes the message they send that their students matter is less grand, but just as meaningful. A colleague told a story about how Pierre scrounged a toothbrush to help a distressed student with tangled hair, gently brushing it out with the spare dental instrument.

“A great teacher is one who connects with students,” Wolinsky said.

In their cases, a deep empathy for others perhaps drew them to education. Wolinsky was aimed toward a teaching career all her life. Pierre’s mother used to tell her how she would come  home from school and reteach everything she learned each day to her dolls and stuffed animals.

Even so, Pierre resisted as adulthood neared, aiming for a career in business. But as she raised her family, she felt a tug toward the classroom.

“I believe it’s God-given,” she said. “Somehow you are able to build relationships with children.”

The big honor in a room full of VIPs was wonderful, Wolinksy said. But she hoped everyone would remember many more unheralded teachers quietly make a similar impact on the children the teach, even if they weren’t nominated.

“We don’t stand alone,” she said. “We just have students who follow though.”