Rebecca Haslam, who earned both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Saint Michael's College, has been named the 2015 Vermont Teacher of the Year, the state Agency of Education announced Tuesday, October 21.
In announcing the honor, Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe cited in particular Haslam's innovative and collaborative work to educate students, teachers and the public about diversity. "In Rebecca's classroom and in her work with colleagues, diversity is an asset that she leverages to enrich the learning of both children and adults," Holcombe said. "We all can learn from this work as Vermont becomes a more diverse state and a member of a more global society." Nominating Haslam for this year's Teacher of the Year honor was now-retired longtime Saint Michael's Education Instructor Anne Judson, a mentor and admirer, especially of Haslam's diversity work.
Since not long after her 2003 graduation from Saint Michael's with a double-major in studio art and education with teacher licensure, Haslam has worked as a popular first-grade team-teacher at Burlington's Champlain Elementary School, and recently she also has been the Burlington District's Social Studies and Equity Curriculum Coach for grades K-5, working with teachers in all six Burlington elementary schools "to employ resources that are more inclusive in content, language and practice," according to the Agency of Education.
Haslam, a Burlington resident who grew up in Duxbury, MA, before coming to Saint Michael's, also serves on her district's Equity Council and is a leader of professional development sessions for all Burlington teachers called "Equity Conversations," with the goal of "moving all staff, students and the community along the continuum of cultural competency so they can meet the needs of each student in the diverse population in Burlington."
While teaching, Haslam also steadily worked to complete her Saint Michael's master's in education in 2012 with a concentration in arts in education, under the supervision of Jonathan Silverman of the college's education faculty. One of Haslam's early education mentors during her Saint Michael's undergraduate years was Education Professor Valerie Bang-Jensen. "I taught her in a literacy course about teaching reading and language arts while she was an undergraduate, and I just wanted to step out of her way because she was determined, she was professional, she just was hungry for everything that we could teach her," Bang-Jensen said. "What was amazing is that she turned around and implemented it in the way a seasoned teacher might before she even graduated. She has this really wonderful ability to expect the very best from her students and dive into getting there with really high expectations, but in a really supportive, appropriate way. She's really on the cutting edge of teaching."
As an example, Bang-Jensen cited the way Haslam incorporates yoga "body breaks" for her students when they need to focus, explaining to the students why they're doing it so they can use the technique all their lives. "She teaches about culture in ways that are very sophisticated, yet age-appropriate," said Bang-Jensen, who invoked a term by a well-known education researcher -- "withitness" (with-it-ness) – that she says could have been invented for Haslam. "She is 'withitness' personified," the professor said. "Another way to describe it is radar – there's a lot going on in a first-grade classroom, and it takes a special person like Rebecca to be on top of all of it and to be so attuned to all the nuances and activity."
It's not the first time a Saint Michael's graduate has earned this type of honor: Matthew Hajdun '05 was a Milken Family Foundation Teacher of the Year winner in 2012, Maria Ung was the 2011 winner of that award, while Katie Sedore '05 was a 2013 winner." Also, Tracey Bellavance '03 won a University of Vermont Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award in 2013. "We're on a roll!" said Bang-Jensen.
Jonathan Silverman says Haslam was in his graduate course called "Heroes, Art and Social Justice" and "she just reveled in it … finding the heroic dispositions in all of us, empowering her students to learn about those heroic elements and then try to achieve them." To Silverman, Haslam was herself a hero when she tackled some problems in a first-grade class at Burlington's Integrative Arts Academy as part of her work "and she really did wonders with a very tough first-grade class." Her final capstone project with Silverman was on "how the arts can empower students to learn about social justice and equity." Judson said that was what really inspired her to make the nomination.
Haslam says her thesis with Silverman, piloted in a classroom during her studies, proved so effective that she brought it to the Burlington school board and got the go-ahead to share it with the district. "I had a team of 16 colleagues help me pilot the curriculum I'd written at Saint Michael's," she said, and from that she was encouraged to create the social studies coach position. "We also were able to convince the school board that creating a District Curriculum Equity Council was important considering that Burlington has so many refugee families," she said. "We have kids from 30 countries who speak nearly 50 languages in Burlington and the curriculum was geared to white middle class mainstream culture."
Haslam has been a volunteer with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, becoming a liaison for a family from Ghana, and she taught summer school for special education and English Language learner, tutored individual students over the summer, taught in the After School program for grades K-5 and provided reading instruction at King Street Youth Center.
Haslam transferred to Saint Michael's in 1999 after attending half of her first college year at a much larger university – she knew of Saint Michael's since the older siblings of some high school friends attended and she had visited a few times. "Saint Mike's had that tight community feel and I got to know my professors really well, which for me was particularly validating -- they were always so encouraging," she said, adding that her work on social justice during graduate studies helped her make connections that led to her present district-wide work. She explained that since her husband is director for the Vermont Workers Center, she already has been tuned into such issues as migrant justice, health care and human rights, making her diversity work for the district a logical extension.
"It was as a college student at Saint Mike's that it all started to come together for me," she said, "in my own struggle to claim my own racial identity while at Saint Mike's – I'm Asian American, and grew up with a very white culture, so I just started to own that identity and what that meant for me in my life and as a teacher." Haslam had an undergraduate GPA of 3.97 and as a graduate-student GPA of 3.98. She also did a junior-year semester abroad in Perugia, Italy in 2002 while a Saint Michael's undergraduate.
Her student-teaching supervisor in those years was now-retired education professor Laima Ruoff, who said, "I was so impressed with Rebecca and with how during a challenging and sometimes stressful semester of student-teaching, she behaved with so much grace and class and professionalism -- that was just astounding to me."
As the 2015 Teacher of the Year, Haslam will travel statewide visiting schools and working with teachers. In addition, she is Vermont's candidate for the National Teacher of the Year award, sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers. Haslam, who is the mother of two boys ages 2 and 4, will travel to Washington, D.C., this spring for a reception at the White House, where she will meet the President. Since 1964, Vermont has participated in this program recognizing outstanding teachers.