NIAGARA FALLS – Hyde Park Elementary School second-grade teacher David S. Glahe goes the extra mile for his students.
Before the first day of class, Glahe visits his pupils' homes to meet their parents or guardians and learn about and meet the children themselves. Occasionally, the youngsters have not been told of his visit and are surprised to see him. "It's the closest I will ever come to being viewed as a rock star," he said, laughing, as "their jaws hit the floor."
While the visit can be fun, his reason for making this one-on-one contact is serious.
"Learning things about my students gives me the opportunity to make connections with them," he said. "Early on in my career, it also gave me a better sense of the neighborhood that is served by Hyde Park."
For this and other innovative work, both in the classroom and in assisting other teachers, Glahe, who has been a teacher for 21 years, was surprised to be announced as winner of the U.S. Teacher of the Year Award from Niagara University’s College of Education during an assembly held at his school. Niagara University annually recognizes teachers, administrators and counselors on each side of the border.
"We all have a teacher we remember because they went the 'extra mile' for us," said Chandra J. Foote, Niagara University professor and dean of the College of Education. "Mr. Glahe is one of those teachers who will be remembered for a lifetime."
In his bright and well-organized classroom on a recent Friday, Glahe's 23 second-graders bubbled over with enthusiasm for learning. In unison, they opened magnetic books containing letters and sounded out the syllables for, then spelled out, the word "blister."
To spell words with more than one syllable, "break them into pieces, like you break up a chocolate chip cookie," Glahe told the youngsters, who are mostly 7 and 8. He held their attention by asking for participation, at the same time deftly dealing with a sudden concern about sneakers and gently advising a curious girl who fell out of her chair, "If you sit on your bottom, I think it will be safer."
Before reading the story, "Mr. Tanen's Tie Trouble," which tells the tale of a school principal who auctions off his tie collection to raise money for a new playground, the children raised their hands to suggest words that rhyme with "tie," then discussed the concepts of setting, characters and plot.
Surrounded by posters emphasizing cooperation and kindness, a rack of laptops, and shelves of books, flashcards, and an abacus, the mood in the room was relaxed, positive and curious.
When Glahe began his home visits as a young teacher, he wanted to use the time to introduce himself and explain his expectations.
As time passed and he matured, he said, "I began to realize the most important thing I could do was listen."
He starts the pre-class contact with a late-summer letter to parents that contains a modest supply list – each child needs a backpack, a box of 24 crayons, a few boxes of pencils, four markers and two boxes of tissues. He also says that he will be contacting each family to set up a meeting.
Most of the meetings are in the child's home, but a few this year were held at the school for convenience, he said. This year, he met with the parents of 17 of his pupils, which he said is "extraordinarily high." Usually his success rate is closer to 50 percent.
"It's very low-pressure, I tell parents it's entirely voluntary, and some of them just can't do it" because of work or other commitments, he said.
On the day of the planned visit, "Usually the parents tell the children I am coming, so the experience that I have is that they are sitting on the porch, and they see somebody coming up the street, they put two and two together or they recognize me from the hallway, and then they go dashing into their house to tell their parents," he said.
To each meeting, Glahe brings a short form that starts discussions. He asks whether the child takes the bus, the names of previous teachers, how to contact the parent, and who reads with the child and how often. Then the wide-ranging and most important question: "What else should I know about your child?"
Parents focus on everything from what subjects the pupil enjoys or struggles with to health concerns and insight into a youngster's personality or learning style. "They are normally very forthcoming," said Glahe. "What they tell me runs the gamut. When they tell me about the child's interests, that's really valuable because it helps me make connections that can help with learning."
Twenty years ago, most of his home visits were in the neighborhood around Hyde Park Elementary School, he said. But because the district now allows students who start at a school to remain there even if they move out of the school's immediate area, he now finds himself driving to other parts of the city to meet his students. "The majority of our students still come from the immediate neighborhood, but I have more bus students than I remember having as an early teacher," he said.
Foote said Glahe, who earned a master's degree from NU in 1996, was nominated for the award by Mark Laurrie, superintendent of schools in Niagara Falls, "but we were certainly not surprised by his nomination. We have been following his career since he graduated from Niagara University 20-plus years ago. He was among the first graduates of our program to receive the prestigious National Board Teacher Certification, which is the highest credential a teacher can receive in the U.S."
Glahe said he was inspired to pursue the national certification as a generalist/early childhood teacher, which he earned in 2010, by Deanna Cudahy, a second-grade colleague who had already earned the certification.
"I think the greatest value that I got out of doing the certification was self-reflection," he said. "The tasks really required me to think about how I teach and how I could improve my teaching."
In the past few years, as educational requirements in New York changed, Glahe led workshops to help other teachers meet the new standards, and shared information about technology in the classroom. In his nominating form, Laurrie called Glahe "a teacher leader."
Glahe said, "Lately, I've been more of a consumer of professional development than a provider," and praised the district for having "a great teacher resource center."
"He makes connections with the parents, and builds relationships with his students," said principal Mary Kerins, who leads the school with assistant principal Gerry Orfano. "They know that he cares about them. In the beginning of the year, he sets the tone for his class. They sign a compact that they are going to work together, follow directions, and help one another to do their very best. Doing that in his classroom sets the example for a lot of our other teachers, who follow some of the strategies he uses in his classroom to build a positive attitude."
The list of supplies he asks parents to provide is intentionally modest, Glahe said. "At least for the past couple of years, the poverty rate in Niagara Falls is such that the entire district qualifies for free lunches," he said. "I think most of my colleagues and I keep the supply list simple to create less of a burden."
"Our students can some from challenging situations," Kerins said. "But we put all of that outside the door and the classroom becomes a place where everyone can try, do their best and excel."
Staying at the same grade level for a long time – Glahe taught first grade in his first year of teaching before moving to second grade, where he stayed – allows him to reuse the same books in his classroom library, so he can designate more of his yearly budget for consumable supplies.
"I can use my budget to buy something like folders, so I don't have to ask the parents to get them, and organizationally, it's even better because the folders are all the same and I know that all of them have one," he said.
He also lauded the help from "The Teachers Desk," an organization that provides free school supplies to classrooms in high-poverty school districts.
Working with youngsters who don't have economic advantages is part of the mission of Niagara University, where Glahe earned a master's degree in education in 1996. "As a Vincentian institution, Niagara University seeks to prepare teachers for service to those living on the margins, including students with economic challenges and students with exceptional learning needs," said Foote.
Glahe was inspired by the career of his father, John Glahe, who retired as a high school health teacher in 1997, the same year his son started teaching at Hyde Park. "My father is definitely the reason I became a teacher," he said.
Glahe grew up in Youngstown and moved to Niagara Falls in 1985, graduating from LaSalle Senior High School. He earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and early childhood development from the State University at Buffalo, then a master's in education from NU in 1996.
His wife, Colleen Glahe, teaches English for Speakers of Other Languages in the Williamsville School District and also earned National Board Certification. "She is an amazing teacher and it is great to be able to talk to her about the job we both do," said Glahe. They have two children, Ben, 14, and Elise, 12, who attend school in Niagara Falls.
Glahe enjoys teaching second grade because of "the amazing growth that you can observe in the students" as the year passes. He assesses their skills early in the school year and can see the progress they have made when they are assessed again in June.
Back in the classroom, the youngsters wave their index "lasso fingers" in the air the way a cowboy twirls a rope, then use that finger to follow along as Glahe reads out loud about how Mr. Tanen auctions off his beloved ties to pay for a new playground. He praises them as they all smoothly follow Glahe's narration from one page to the next.
While Glahe hasn't yet had the child of a student he taught 20 years ago show up in his class, he did note the poignancy he experienced 10 years into his career, when he saw his first former pupils graduate from high school. "That's a really neat experience, to think that I taught that student and now they are an adult," he said.
When his name was announced as winner of the Niagara University award at the assembly, he said he had "no inkling" that it was coming. "It was very humbling," he said. He made a few remarks, he said, saying "how fortunate I have been to be at this school, to work with the people that I work with. I feel like any individual award I get has a lot to do with all the people that got me to that point.
"No one learns to become a teacher in a vacuum. Especially as a young teacher, you're talking with people, figuring things out and learning things from them, so getting an individual award feels a little funny. You look out at a crowd of people who you feel are just as responsible for that award as you are."