Top City Teacher Shares Secrets

Melinda Tuhus PhotoA beloved teacher inspired Zakiyyah Baker when Baker was a student at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School. Now Baker teaches at the same school—and is inspiring students herself.

Baker (at right in photo) was selected as this year’s New Haven Teacher of the Year. She shared some of her secrets this week as as she joined top teachers from Hamden, West Haven and North Haven at a taping of N’Zinga Shani’s public-access television show. “21st Century Conversations”.

“I always knew I wanted to work with teenagers,” said Baker. She had planned to become a social worker. One day she stopped in at Co-op one day to say hi to her former teacher, Sally Kaczynski, who convinced her to co-teach a theater class at Co-op.

“She was my teacher in high school, and I may have been nominated Teacher of the Year, but that woman—I love you, Ms. K—had everything to do with it,” Baker said. “She’s retiring this year. She taught me the ropes; I was able to watch her, and I’m sure she learned from me as well.”

So instead of earning as master’s degree in social work, Baker switched to getting a master’s in education. Then she landed a full-time job at Co-op teaching language arts

“Nurture and challenge” sums up Baker’s philosophy in dealing with her students.

“It’s really important to be able to nurture the young people that walk into the classroom, and to balance that with challenging them academically,” she said. She added that she often acts as a coach “where I’m trying to teach my students that even though these obstacles may exist in their lives, that they still have to persevere.”

Three out of the four educators taping Shani’s program Monday night are teaching in the school systems they graduated from. Larry Stein (pictured on left) teaches fifth grade in Hamden, after being inspired by his Hamden High physics teacher, Mr. Sweet. “It was never him giving us the answers,” Stein said. “It was all hands-on,” whether students were creating huge bubbles or test-flying paper airplanes. Rosanne Ferraro appeared on the show too; she’s the West Haven teacher of the year.

One subject got all four teachers excited and talking at once: reading. In the cacophany that resulted, these words emerged: “Read a book, every single day.” Other suggestions for parents included taking kids on nature walks, watching TV shows together and discussing them, and just having conversations with your children.

“It’s really important for parents to know that the older their children get, the more they need them in their lives,” Baker said. “I think so many times parents think, ‘This one is older so they can take care of themselves,’ and it’s just not true. I see so many of my students who are just calling out for their parents’ attention; they want to know that their parents are concerned about their education.”

Asked for specifics, she said, “Like asking them about their homework, going over their homework with them, or sitting down next to them and reading a book or the newspaper, or just asking them how their day was. A lot of my students don’t even see their parents during the course of a day—maybe [parents could] send them a text message, ‘How was your day today?’”

And, on a society-wide level, they said pre-school is critical to getting young children coming to kindergarten ready to learn.

Districts select their teacher of the year in different ways. Baker, for example, was nominated by her school administrator and chosen by a committee of top administrators district-wide. Johnson, on the other hand, was chosen by a committee that included teachers and parents as well as administrators.

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posted by: coach on January 28, 2011  12:14pm

Congratulations Zakiyyah. Well derserved. Kudos to the other teachers as well. Education is probaly the single most important profession that will directly impact our children and the future of America. We need to start treating educators a little better in terms of pay and respect.

posted by: Josiah Brown on January 28, 2011  7:13pm

Congratulations to Zakiyyah Baker and the other teachers recognized here, and thanks to N’Zinga Shani for providing this platform.

Zakiyyah Baker cites her former Co-op teacher—now colleague—Sally Kaczynski as an influence.

Sally Kaczynski was twice a Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute Fellow, in 1989 and 1990.  She developed the following curriculum units:

The 1990 seminar in which she participated, on “Contemporary American Drama: Scripts and Performance,” was led by Thomas R. Whitaker, now Hilles Professor Emeritus of English and Theater Studies at Yale.

Five of the teachers who participated as Fellows in that 1990 seminar are still in the New Haven Public Schools two decades later.  Besides Sally Kaczynski herself, they are Sylvia Petriccione (of Betsy Ross); Mia Edmonds-Duff (Wexler-Grant); Cheryl Merritt (King/Robinson); and J. Gaffney Rogers (High School in the Community).

Five Co-op teachers have applied to be Fellows in the Institute’s 2011 seminars.

Regarding Co-op and its Creative Writing department specifically, more information is in the article below and in related comments:


There was consensus among the teachers N’Zinga Shani featured on the importance of reading and the involvement of parents.

The New Haven Public Library’s Wilson branch is the venue for a February 16 Literacy Forum on “21st Century Learning.”

Related information and resources (including free books and tutoring) are available from the all-volunteer Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven, the Literacy Center at 4 Science Park, and the new website at:

Everyone is invited to the February 16 Literacy Forum. 

RSVP: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

posted by: Doris Monk on January 30, 2011  9:48am

To my beautiful and gifted daughter Zakiyyah Baker,

Words cannot express how proud I am of you. When I look back and see where God has brought us from with all of the obstacles that were in our way, I am amazed!  You kept the faith daughter.  You never quit, caved in or gave up and now you have reached a point in your life where you realize that with consistent trust in God, all things are possible.  You are an exception to the rule and those of us who have you in our lives are blessed. You are an inspiration to all. To God be the glory!


posted by: Tom Burns on January 31, 2011  1:15am

Congratulations Ms. Baker—I don’t know you but I teach in New Haven also and am so proud of the work you are doing—-Ms. Kaczynski—does it get better than this, you must feel so proud to have touched this young woman’s life—and now she can touch so many others—(that is your legacy)—Super stuff—-Ms. Doris Monk—-Your daughter is an inspiration to all of us—you have done a great job and should be proud—thanks for letting her be one of us——and finally Mr. Josiah Brown—the Yale Institute is a Godsend and so much a part of the NHPS fabric—-I applaud your efforts to improve our situation in New Haven—-for this program enhances our professionalism—-so many adults and students have benefited from this program, it is immeasurable——Keep doing what you are doing—In closing the real hero in my eyes is Ms. Baker——do your stuff and leave a legacy—that is all that matters—-All the best—Tom

posted by: N'Zinga Shani on January 31, 2011  3:24am

OneWorld is delighted to present this TV program honoring these outstanding teachers. They were selected through a process in their districts.  They represent a much larger number of dedicated educators who are the backbone of our education system throughout CT.  Each teacher provided a list of innovative and creative ideas that he or she employs each day in the classroom.  It was energizing talking to and learning from them. 

All the teachers provided answers to this question:
  What are the three most important ingredients in the academic success of all children? We say a special thanks to the foll:

1) Larry Stein, Ridge Hill School in Hamden.  Larry attended Ridge Hill School and now teaches there.  He loves to teach and uses creative ways (such as dressing up as various historic characters) to engage his 5th grade students.  Larry believes that the three key ingredients in academic success are:  a) identifying the needs and abilities of each student and providing individualized attention; b) Creating a positive school climate, which is a safe learning environment for all, and c)  Having a strong home school connection. This was emphasized by all teachers.

2)  Don Johnson grew up in North Haven and attended North Haven Middle School; he now teaches 6th grade at that same school and he simply loves doing it.  Every day for Don provides a new set of opportunities to excite and challenge his students.  He does not want to do anything else but teach.  He believes the three key ingredients in academic success are: literacy, curiosity and support systems.  This is another vote for a strong home school connection.

3)  Zakiyyah Baker grew up in New Haven and graduated from Cooperative Arts High School; she now teaches there.  Three of the four attended the school where they now teach.  We at OneWorld think that is rather unique.  Zakiyyah thinks respect, rigor and differentiation are central to the academic success of students, particularly in high school.  She should know; one of her high school teachers made a major difference in her life and encouraged her to become a teacher. 

4)  Rosanne Ferraro is the exception to this group in that she did not attend school in West Haven.  She went into teaching at the age of 40, after having had a successful career in marketing.  That is where the exception ends. 

Rosanne Ferraro, like Don, Larry and Zakiyyah, loves to teach; she is excited about teaching and thinks it is the best job in the world.  After volunteering at her son’s school, he suggested that she should become a teacher; she took his advice. Like the others Rosanne glows when she talks about being with her students and getting the results she desires. Among the most essential things for academic success she counts parents’ respect for education, their commitment to early learning, and open communication between home and school. She thinks these are foundational values that tell children that education and applying oneself to learning are priorities.

All four exceptional teachers emphasize the need for parental involvement in children’s education, and the importance of the parents or adults in children’s lives paying attention to and validating their successes. We also salute Marilyn Ciarleglio, exemplary teacher at Clinton Ave school (NHPS), and all the other teachers who earned a “5” for being exemplary educators in New Haven. 

Outstanding educators, involved parents, engaged and committed students, and a caring and supportive community are the essential ingredients in preparing all of our students for a successful future.  These are also the ingredients America needs to compete successfully in the global community.  We invite you to watch “21st Century Conversations” on AT&T U-Verse, or on your PEG access station to see all our education programs. Visit to see other education and health literacy videos.

posted by: Lynn Evans on January 31, 2011  11:13am

It is gratifying to note the passion these teachers exude when talking about their kids, but more importantly, recognizing the needs of their students and working with them. I have found that you have to work with the ‘whole’ child not just the part sitting in your class waiting to be instructed. Once a child recognizes that you care about them as an individual or see them for who they are, they are willing to open up themselves to not only the academic structure but also the social skills needed to survive today. For many this is a much needed skill that is sadly lacking, which is why we have the behaviors. I applaud them and all the unsung heroes not shared in this article, and hope they too keep the faith and continue to uplift and up-build our youths of today!

posted by: Lisette Bernier-McGowan on January 31, 2011  7:51pm

Of all the programs aired on public access television, 21st Century Conversations is by far my favorite. In those occasions when I am not able to view the program, I can always count on the New Haven Independent for an excellent coverage of what transpired at the studio during another excellent conversation between Producer N’Zinga Shani, facilitators,  and guests. Even though I was not able to see this last program, I am happy that 21st Century Conversations’ focus on education includes a segment dedicated to the Teacher of the Year. Nothing can be more important than to honor the recipients of this award who because of their excellent contributions to their profession, superior ability to help all students achieve and inspire a love of learning make us all proud.

Together, they represent numerous, exceptionally skilled and dedicated educators -across the Nation - who add value to society by serving as the impetus for their students’ personal and professional growth.  Often, the increased emphasis on reading, mathematics and science to prepare students for a technological and information-based world seems to relegate the well-being and development of students to academic achievement. It is when we encounter the personal anecdotes of teachers such as Zakiyyah Baker and Larry Stein and learn how they received inspiration from beloved teachers (Ms. Kaczyski at Coop in New Haven and Mr. Sweet at Hamden High, respectively) that we reconnect with the essential reality of the ripple effect of classroom life - where the example and behavior of teachers can go a long way in shaping the kind of adults students will evolve into. The overarching far-reaching impact of that example combines both academic achievement and socio-emotional development.

Good teachers know that children learn about study habits, perseverance, self-sufficiency, dependability, compassion, integrity and character through gentle guidance and by observing others behaving in these ways. They look to provide students with abundant opportunities to observe and practice these behaviors. In Zakiyyah’s words, this is best described as: nurture and challenge. 

As noted in the article, Zakiyyah Baker’s anecdote about her trajectory from student to social worker to teacher is truly inspiring. Nevertheless, I am somewhat disappointed that the first-hand experiences of the other three award recipients played a lesser role in describing why these excellent teachers were selected to receive this prestigious award. Their very own unique stories needed to be told. Their personal anecdotes could have been brought to life, more vividly through direct quotes, allowing their voices to speak loudly about their passion for teaching and learning.

The NHI and all other media should always seize all and every opportunity to spotlight stories where young people can observe others and each other behaving in ways that inspire a life of purpose and character, even in the midst of great adversity.

Kudos to Top Teachers: Zakiyyah Baker, Larry Stein, Rosanne Ferraro, and Don Johnson.  Rosanne Ferraro is the Teacher of the Year for West Haven; she is an inspiration to those who are considering a mid-life career change.

posted by: Karen on February 8, 2011  2:45am

Hello OneWorld:

With everyone talking about education reform, it is good to see an article that focuses on outstanding teachers because they are in fact the foundation of a good education.  Sadly, teachers are under great pressure.  For decades their role in education was largely ignored by the unions who often only saw teachers as the instruments of the unions’ income and did not always do what was best for the profession. I think the unions are often at the root of the problems teachers face, but no one wants to admit to that.  Some of us who visited your web site are very impressed with the education reform video where the president of the New Haven Teachers Federation seems to really get it.  It must be nice to work with him.

One of the main problems we have in education across the country is that after decades of neglect at every level, all of a sudden everyone wants a quick fix.  President Obama has it right that we need to have sustained efforts and commitment from all sectors.  In NY there are all kinds of issues with teachers and they are not being addressed in a comprehensive manner but rather mostly through political posturing.  Of course, that is NOT the answer.  People need to listen to President Obama, Michelle Rhee and these outstanding teachers featured in your article.

I really like the comments I read on the article and congratulate OneWorld for honoring these outstanding educators, and also hearing from them what works well for them and their students.  Thank you kindly for this kind of work.  Sometimes it is the little personal plans that work best and not the big district pushes.  Teachers who are struggling should partner with people like these in their districts.

Congratulations to these special educators and to you for telling us about them.  School districts should ask and listen to teachers about how to fix their school systems, and more people should visit your web site; there are some really good information there about education reform.  Thanks also for showing us female math and science teachers on your site.

posted by: Marc on February 9, 2011  4:12pm

Enjoyed the article….somewhere between the act of teaching, the flow of new information, and the ability to facilitate students’ learning, is the necessary human contact which demonstrates “I’m here for you and you are valued as a human being.”  This must be obvious in the school and the home!

posted by: C. Hinds on February 14, 2011  1:39pm

Dear Ms. Shani:

It is good to see another article honoring teachers.  I am really pleased to see that a young black teacher has been identified as being a teacher of the year.  I do not know the criteria used to select such teachers in New Haven; however, seeing that it is such a large district I imagine that she must really be a standout.  In this Black History Month it is encouraging to many of us to see this type of recognition.  It is equally good to read about Mrs. Ferraro who went into teaching at a later time and is reportedly enjoying it. 

Every school district should have formal and informal mentoring programs for young teachers and even for older teachers.  After at least four years of training, it is disappointing to realize that we might be in the wrong profession.  During teachers training if there were mentoring programs many people would find out early if they have chosen the right profession to be in.  Teaching is a very tough job; most college teacher training programs don’t prepare teachers for the reality of the inner-city classroom.  Congratulations to OneWorld for honoring outstanding teachers; they do make a positive difference for the rest of our lives.  Thanks also for the details in your comment about each teacher.

posted by: Yolette Bryant on February 15, 2011  7:50pm

My students come from predominantly low Socioeconomic status, and feel the brunt of hardships their parents and in many cases PARENT are having to deal with. I find that having one on one conversations with students and making brief “icebreaker” style comments such as “How is your day going” and “I really like what your wearing” helps to lift spirits and prompts them to transition into their academic work. Working toward building a positive relationship with a student will help teacher and student to achieve success.