LEWISTON – The New York State Board of Regents bestowed one of its highest honors in naming Lewiston-Porter special-education teacher Ashli Skura Dreher its New York State Teacher of the Year for 2014.
Besides being a teacher, Dreher is also a single mother of two school-age daughters, a person who overcame her own special needs as a child, and a doctoral student in teaching and curriculum, while also leading a unique program in life skills and literacy for special-education students.
Dreher has been with the district for the last 15 years and is one of the first Lewiston-Porter teachers chosen for the top state honor in Principal Paul J. Casseri’s tenure.
“Obviously, we are just so proud that we are able to recruit and retain a professional like Ashli,” Casseri said. “She brings a tremendous amount of talent to the table, and we will continue to support the great ideas she comes up with.”
Casseri said Dreher’s program for more-severely handicapped students is an extraordinary learning experience focusing on life skills and workplace lessons, as well as academic rigor and literacy.
Dreher was named Teacher of the Year last month and was presented a certificate of recognition by Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch and Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. She will be traveling across the state to teach others her program of language- and literacy-based education and will compete with other teachers from across the country for the honor of National Teacher of the Year.
In the spring, she and other Teachers of the Year from across the nation will meet with President Obama. Among them will be the National Teacher of the Year. “Ashli is truly a model of teaching excellence; she is the kind of teacher principals want to lead a class and parents want to teach their children,” King said.
She has achieved the gold standard of teaching, National Board Certification for Professional Teaching Standards, one of teaching’s highest honors, and is currently a dissertation-level doctoral student in the Teaching and Curriculum Department of the University of Rochester’s Margaret Warner School of Education and Human Development.
Dreher also served as the New York State United Teachers Education and Learning Regional Coordinator for Western New York and Rochester areas for 10 years to promote turnkey teaching and professional development and continues to teach undergraduate courses for Ulster Community College.
Dreher, 40, is the mother of daughters Heavyn, a senior in high school, and Skye, a first-grader.
You must have been excited to be chosen Teacher of the Year.
Yes, I am. I am excited and honored to represent teachers across the state. It’s a great opportunity; that’s for sure.
Were you someone who grew up and always wanted to be a teacher?
Yes, I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. When we were younger, we would play house, and I would never fight for the mother role, but I always fought to be the teacher. I had to be the teacher. There was just never a question about what I would go to school for.
What makes a good teacher?
I think every teacher is passionate about their work. They have an unending belief in the potential of their students, and that’s what makes teachers a very special breed. We always believe that our students have the potential and ability to learn. They feel that their students not only can learn, but will learn. So many teachers are working under difficult circumstances, with family and neighborhood issues that are almost unimaginable, yet they come to work every day, and they persevere and they do their very best to reach their students and help them to achieve.
Why did you choose to work in special education?
I did start out going to Canisius College, where I received my bachelor’s in elementary education and English, but my master’s degree is in special education. What I found when I was student-teaching was the move toward full inclusion and kids with special needs were in the classroom, so I needed to learn more to work with students from all different ability levels.
So why did that become your specialty?
I had some problems growing up myself and took some adaptive physical education in elementary school. I had a wonderful teacher who worked with me and who really promoted my hand-eye coordination and my ability to participate in sports. I was able to row in college and participate in synchronized swimming and speed swimming teams in college, so I really came a long way. My teachers [in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District] who worked with students with special needs inspired me to want to be a special-education teacher.
What do you do with kids in your program?
We do a language- and literacy-based program, but there are also a lot of life skills. So we do cooking in class, and every week, we have a different cooking program and we write about what we cook, we do reflective work. We do have a phonics component for students still sounding out words.
Why do you think you stood out to be chosen as Teacher of the Year?
I think part is my educational background as a dissertation-level doctoral student, but I’ve also taught a number of grade levels in different areas. And I am certified in elementary education and secondary education English and certified in special education, as well as school district administration as well as finishing up a doctorate in teaching and curriculum. That was beneficial and caught their attention as well as the fact that my program is different from a lot of other programs in that it is language- and literacy-based, as well as a community-based integration
How are your students integrated?
Students are placed at job sites. They work one or two days a week out in the community and then we also go out into the community. We do our shopping for life skills class at Tops, where they would shop when they are adults.
What is the ultimate goal?
To make them part of the community, as independent as possible, and to make them as literate as possible. We want to make sure they leave with literacy skills, numerous skills, and also that they are able to participate in their communities.
You have an impressive résumé, but you also said you are a single mother. Isn’t that tough?
Actually, it’s been a motivating factor for me. As the main provider in the family, you almost have to be successful in your career. So I think that my children have motivated me to be a success so my children can have what a two-parent family provides.
It seems like it would motivate your children, too.
It sounds very corny, but we have a family motto – “Dreher Ambitions.” Everybody works hard is basically what it is.
It also sounds like a good motto for a teacher.
Yes, it is, but I also have great families. They all come to school ready to learn. I am fortunate to be at Lewiston-Porter.