Norwich teacher of the year focuses on making students feel safe and comfortable

·4 min read

Jul. 5—NORWICH — When Andrew Lee started his teaching career at the John B. Stanton elementary school in 2005, his new classroom was eerily familiar, except it did have a new carpet.

In 1986, Lee had attended second grade in that very classroom, and remembered one day, he threw up on the carpet and then ran into the same hallway and same boys' room bathroom.

"I walked the halls, and everything is the same, right back from 1986," Lee said. "It's just funny that I've come full circle."

Lee last week was named the 2022 Norwich Teacher of the Year. He has spent his entire teaching career in Norwich, mostly teaching second grade at Veterans' Memorial School. In 2020, as young students faced increasing mental and physical obstacles to learning with the onset of the pandemic, Lee left daily classroom teaching to join the district's focus on students' behavioral issues.

Lee said as he was getting older and he was ready for a change with classroom teaching becoming more difficult. He felt his strengths as a teacher lie in his ability to make students feel safe and comfortable and to get them to realize they have the skills to learn the subject matter. He enjoys building trusting relationships.

"I had the degrees, and it felt like the right time," Lee said. "I love the behavioral side of teaching. I have the classroom manner, and I'm really good at building relationships."

Lee still teaches core academic subjects, and his students still spend most of their time in their regular classrooms. But when the environment becomes too noisy and distracting and they need a break, they go see Lee or his colleague, teacher Adrianne Canestrari, who is new to the Norwich district.

Students have just completed what Lee described as a "very difficult year" for many young students, as schools resumed full-time in-person learning after a year of mixed remote and in-person learning during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said his students fared better last year, with fewer students and a quieter environment during hybrid learning, when half of students learned remotely each day.

"This year, you have some kids who haven't been in school for nearly three years," Lee said. "From kindergarten to third grade, all those core social skills are lost. They're gone. Everybody is anxious. Everybody is frustrated. Everybody is confused."

Lee said he felt "humbled and honored" to be named Norwich Teacher of the Year this year. But he said the award really belongs to the staff at Stanton and throughout the district. Lee also was named Veterans' School Teacher of the Year for the 2019-20 school year.

"We don't have a lot of resources, but we do great job with what we have," Lee said. "I think sometimes the older generations don't understand that it's different now. Everything different. Social media is different, the children are different. Education is different."

Lee, a 1998 graduate of Ledyard High School, earned his bachelor's degree in early childhood education at Salve Regina University in 2002 and a master's degree in special education at Southern Connecticut State University in 2014. He continued his education with a sixth-year degree in education leadership at Southern in 2019.

He developed a love of school and a passion for teaching as a student at the William A. Buckingham School in Norwich, where he attended the fledgling integrated day program that combined fifth and sixth grades with teacher Joan Heffernan. She later went on to develop the separate Integrated Day Charter School in Norwich.

Lee wrote in his biography submitted to the Teacher of the Year selection committee that Heffernan "made school fun." He learned the importance of allowing students to initiate their learning experience, rather than have them just listen to a teacher at the front of the room.

"I truly felt that these years were academically memorable, and I attribute this to her," Lee wrote of Heffernan. "I can vividly remember Mrs. Heffernan allowing us to choose topics to research and select books based on our interests. ... Looking back, I feel she was very ahead of her time and had a way of connecting with her students on both a professional and personal level."

Lee and his wife, Rebecca Atkins, live in New London with their French bulldog, Otis. Atkins is a former teacher for the state Department of Developmental Services and The Lighthouse vocational educational school in New London.

The couple decided four years ago to use their education and relationship-building skills in another way. They became foster care parents for children temporarily taken from their biological families. Lee said he and his wife made it clear to the state Department of Children and Families that they were not interested in adopting the children but instead wanted to focus on making it possible for them to return to their homes.

They have hosted six children to date, taking a break recently as Atkins has just started a new job.

"Almost all of our foster children have been students of ours or have had relationships with students of ours. All have gone back to live with their families. We're very big on reunification."

c.bessette@theday.com