November 26, 2021

Local teachers have what it takes for students to succeed

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

McGraw High School science teacher Nicole Lener prepares students for a quiz in the structure and function of DNA.

Teaching, and teaching well, starts with respect, say local educators.

Cortland High School English teacher Steve Morgan and McGraw High School science teacher Nicole Lener agree that kids pick up immediately on whether or not they are respected.

And passion about one’s subject area is crucial, too.

Lener sat in her science classroom at McGraw High School Thursday and said she couldn’t teach anything other than her passion — environmental science and biology.

Morgan, who is in his fourth year of teaching at Cortland High School and previously taught alternative education at Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES and junior high schools in other districts and states, said having that one-on-one connection makes the teacher’s lessons resonate.

Beyond the required years of training and state certifications, it is a love of kids that is also important, agree local educators.

The state has changed standards that once tied classroom test outcomes to teacher performance.

In December 2015, the state Board of Regents passed a four-year moratorium on the practice. However, the state does still measure teacher performance through the use of teacher observations.

McGraw Central School District Superintendent Melinda McCool said union negotiations can determine the weight that these evaluations hold. In McGraw, she said, administrators regularly visit classrooms to see how teachers are handling their classes.


“If they know you respect them and love them, they’ll trust you and try things they wouldn’t normally try,” Morgan said. “And you explain why they’re doing what they’re doing so they understand they are not doing things because you want them to follow orders but the reason behind what we’re doing.”

For example, if Morgan gives a close reading assignment for a future essay, he explains to the students the reason behind it.

“With close reading you’re supposed to take notes while you read and if you don’t know what you’re taking notes for, it’s hard to take notes,” Morgan said. So he explains the need for taking notes with the purpose of organizing an argument and supporting it with evidence.

Lener shows respect for her students even in small ways. She told of one student who lost his paper and Lener was going to help him find it. She asked the student if it was OK if she looked through his notebook to help.

“Something as small as that, they think, ‘She could have taken my notebook, but she asked me,’” Lener said.

Both Morgan and Lener strive to make the lessons relevant.

Lener shares personal stories about things she’s found hiking, or takes the students camping, as part of their environmental science lesson. And Morgan uses books.

“English allows you to have the avenue to use literature to teach life lessons,” said Morgan. “That’s more important to me than the grade they get.”


And students say having a teacher take extra time with them is an important quality. Sixteen-year-old Cortland High School sophomore Michael Eaton said the teacher he thought was the best was his ninth grade math teacher, Abby Albright. He said she was always there for students like himself who needed a little extra help.

“If we’re stuck on a question, she’ll help us out and then let us do it by ourselves,” Eaton said.

This extended to after hours, where she would always be available to them in the math office if needed, he said. And, he said, her caring extended beyond the subject of math.

“She would talk to you if you were having a rough day,” Eaton said.

Kara Brown, 14, a ninth-grader at Cortland High School, said her favorite teacher was a seventh-grade Spanish teacher.

“He was very helpful, he taught very well,” Brown said. “And throughout the year we had a bond.”

This bond translated to grunts. Whenever the two would see each other in the hall, they would make a funny noise at one another.

She said this ability to connect with her in a funny way, combined with his skill teaching, made him an amazing teacher.


Good teaching comes down to striking a balance between caring about students and also holding them accountable, said McGraw’s McCool.

She says Lener has struck this balance.

“It’s delicate to have those relationships with students and also make sure they are held accountable and give their best,” McCool said.

McCool said a good teacher will also be striving to improve himself or herself.

“Teachers that mid-career are continuing to educate themselves and make sure they are honing their craft and knowledge, it’s encouraging,” McCool said.

Lener, who is awaiting word on whether she will be receiving a master teacher certification, something she sought this summer, said working to improve herself professionally comes easily to her because science is her passion.

“To me, it’s easy because that’s my interest outside of school,” Lener said. “To say I have to learn more about biology, awesome, that’s what I want to know about.”

This story appeared in the October 10, 2017 edition of the Cortland Standard. To become a subscriber call us at (607) 756-5665. Back issues available by request.