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Lawrence School District teachers learn that their efforts have made a difference

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Nearly a year after schools — like most of life — changed dramatically when the coronavirus pandemic began, shifting from in-person learning to remote instruction, the Lawrence High School English Department asked students to write what they called letters of gratitude to teachers and staff who have had an impact on their lives.

The students wrote more than 350 letters, making clear how much they appreciated their teachers and how much teachers have helped them achieve. What was also clear was how much that gratitude matters to the educators.

“I asked the English Department to participate in this activity as an SEL (social and emotional learning) lesson,” Lawrence High Assistant Principal Kathleen Stanley wrote in an email. “Many teachers used the lesson to work on grammar and format as well. All of the English teachers embraced this and were very proud of the students’ participation and level of engagement. This has been a difficult year for many, I think the students appreciated the opportunity to reach out to former and present teachers and it certainly lifted the spirits of letter recipients.”

Social and emotional learning focuses on teaching students to understand and manage their emotions, set and achieve goals, develop empathy for others and establish and maintain positive relationships.

Sophomore Joelle Acosta wrote to her seventh-grade science teacher, Fran Ubertini, who stirred her interest in science and served as a mentor when Acosta entered projects in science competitions in seventh and eighth grades. “It was really nice writing the letter, because I got the chance to remember all of the good times in her class and at science competitions,” Acosta wrote in an email to the Herald. “However, the feeling of writing a letter was my favorite part, since it isn’t something I do every day. I did get a response from her and it was great hearing that she remembered me. I truly loved hearing from one of my favorite teachers and I hope we stay in touch.”

An excerpt from Acosta’s letter: “Today I wanted to thank you for the hard work of being the teacher of my class specifically. I want to thank you for being the teacher that made me love science. I remember not only my science class but the two years of science competitions that I did with your help. You taught us in class with patience, explaining everything thoroughly. Even though at the time I probably didn’t like the work or appreciate it, now I see the big value in everything you taught me.”

Senior Daniela Andrade wrote to science teacher Rebecca Isseroff, her Advanced Placement chemistry, honors chemistry and science research teacher. Andrade credits Isseroff’s guidance and support for helping her gain admission to Harvard University, where Andrade is headed next fall.

“I believe it is extremely important to recognize people’s amazing qualities, as we live in a society that seems to only point out the bad,” Andrade wrote to the Herald. “Therefore, when I was accepted into Harvard I knew I must express my gratitude towards Mrs. Isseroff as due to her diligence, dedication, and commitment toward her students, she has bred success for us.”

An excerpt from Andrade’s letter: “It was not until honors chemistry that I realized that if I want to become a doctor I had to excel at chemistry. Therefore, your course taught me how to study, how to read my notes, and how to persevere through a subject that I was not necessarily good at, all of which are skills that I will carry with me throughout my college career.”

Audrey Michlig, a Lawrence High junior, wrote to Terrence Batts, the high school orchestra teacher who retired in January. Michlig, along with a few other students, created a farewell video to Batts. At first she didn’t think there was anything she could say to him, especially since she cried in the video.

“Mr. Batts meant, and still means a lot to me, because he gave me so many opportunities in the music department,” Michlig wrote to the Herald. “I got to choreograph dances and become assistant orchestra director, and after he left I became the Tri-M Music Honors Society president.”

An excerpt from Michlig’s letter: “The memories I have from getting to choreograph, run rehearsals and direct (and even teach for a period!) are some of my fondest memories. Orchestra really was, and still is, the best part of high school for me. And you were always, secretly, one of my favorite teachers and still are.”

The teachers said they were moved by the students’ letters. Lawrence Middle School science teacher James Vasaturo told the Herald he had no idea of the impact he had made on his students in his 20 years of teaching. “It floored me — it’s a nice reminder what a strong impression we make,” Vasaturo said, adding that even years later, he sees former students who remember his favorite saying “Finish strong.”

A Lawrence High School sophomore who had a class with Vasaturo as a seventh-grader thanked him for helping her overcome a traumatic time in her life then, writing that she felt safe in his classroom.

Vasaturo wrote a thank-you of his own to the students he received letters from. A portion reads, “It also reminds me that it is an honor and a privilege to be able to teach science to such great young minds. If I helped you get to where you are going someday in the future that is great. That is the reason I became a teacher in the first place.”

Middle school math teacher Maria Karvales, who has been an educator for over two decades, wrote a thank-you note to Stanley for sending her the letters, saying, “I will keep them close to my heart. Words cannot describe the excitement and gratitude I felt. I have hopeful intentions for our Lawrence students. I truly believe our Lawrence family together make the greatest difference.” Karvales also thanked the students on Zoom.

Lawrence Elementary School sixth-grade math teacher Patricia Egan received four letters, including one from senior Miriam Ortiz. When Ortiz was 15, she asked Egan to serve as her godmother for her quinceanara, the traditional celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday in the Spanish culture.

“Miriam chose me because we had a very special connection,” Eagan wrote to the Herald, adding that when she read the letters, she cried. “She knew she could come to me for anything even after she wasn’t my student any longer. Being her godmother means I will always be in Miriam’s life. “I will try to be a good role model to her, and I will be someone she can always count on.

An excerpt from Ortiz’s letter: “You had such a great influence on me because you were always there for me when I needed help. You became a school mother to me which was amazing and when it got to my quince I was so happy that you were able to be my ring godmother and that you had such nice things to say about me and for me.”

Isseroff wrote in an email that Andrade’s letter was a “much needed shot of adrenaline” at a time when lots of extra work — at least 20 hours a week — is needed to transfer homework, notes and tests to computer platforms, while she teaches to near-empty classrooms and easily distracted remote learners.

“Daniela’s letter made me feel that at least I have accomplished some good and made an impact with some students,” Isseroff wrote, noting that she has taught chemistry for 27 years. “We teachers need to feel that our efforts have made a difference, and that is what keeps us going. That is why we became teachers.”