What students told us they love about 5 stellar teachers

In each of these educators, students said they found a friend, mentor, role model, and more.

“Abbott Elementary,” a wildly popular television sitcom centered on an optimistic Philadelphia school teacher, will return with new episodes this week — just in time for a new school year and following a successful Emmy Award run.

Chalkbeat asked readers to nominate teachers who are their real-life versions of “Mrs. Howard” — teachers who continuously demonstrated dedication and caring during the pandemic. Barbara Howard, played by Sheryl Lee Ralph, is a stern and compassionate teacher on “Abbott.”

Dozens of you responded to our request with nominations of wonderful teachers. We are featuring five of the nominees, who told Chalkbeat they are seeking to build a stronger sense of community and mutual support among school leaders, teachers, and students this year. 

Their work is especially notable in a moment when many teachers are struggling, as schools and students continue to deal with the fallout of the pandemic and disruptions to in-person class. Nevertheless, many educators who persevere say they aspire to make meaningful changes within their schools and encourage students to recognize their own potential.

Here’s what students had to say about the teachers who inspired them, and how teachers answered our questions about what they need.

Two people stand next to each other at a school function. One woman, teacher Briana Morales, is wearing a black dress, and the other, her former student, is in blue scrubs.
Briana Morales, left, with her student Taylor Ackins.

Briana Morales, 11th and 12th grade English teacher, East St. Louis, Illinois

What students had to say: 

Taylor Ackins said in their nomination that students could always rely on Morales as “a friend, mentor, mother, and a shoulder to cry on.”

Damiya Brown, who also nominated Morales, agreed: “Even when I felt like I couldn’t do it, she never let up and helped me believe in myself.”

Moralesteaches English at Gordon Bush Alternative Center in East St. Louis, Illinois. Morales lost three students to gun violence during the pandemic, and wanted to help students navigate their own trauma, especially during quarantine. 

“What kept me motivated was staying connected to students who needed a sense of normalcy and consistent support in a time of uncertainty,” she said.   

She said she was able to push her students toward academic success by validating their emotions and treating them like more than simply “kids that I teach.”

For the upcoming school year, Morales said teachers need more wraparound services to provide care for students, families, and educators who had traumatic experiences and are still processing them. 

“Leaders need to be prepared to address the harm that is being done when we expect our communities to ‘continue business as usual,’ and make a true, honest commitment to transforming educational spaces into conduits of healing.”

Student Francisco Carrillo stands next to teacher Andrew Cogswell. Fransicso is in a blue and black marching band outfit. Andrew, in a black jacket, holds a large trophy.
Student Francisco Carrillo, left, stands next to teacher Andrew Cogswell.

Andrew Cogswell, instrumental music director, Colorado

What students had to say: 

Cogswell “makes everything mean something in a student’s life. He is the biggest role model for many students, even by just being a band director. He supports and helps with anything for the future, even if it doesn’t relate to music,” said Francisco Carrillo.

Andrew Cogswellteaches and directs instrumental music at Alameda International High School in Lakewood, Colorado. During the pandemic, Cogswell said he reconnected with his reason for teaching by realizing the most important part of his job was not simply teaching music, but providing students with a safe place to be themselves.

“It took some time to realize the safe place didn’t need to be a physical one but that it was simply the time we spent together. I found the conversations we had were important in helping teacher and student alike in navigating life during a pandemic,” Cogswell said.

“While other schools and instrumental music programs are shrinking, ours is growing,” said Cogswell, adding that many school instruments are still in disrepair and need to be replaced. 

This year he would like school leaders, community members, and local governments to help the school acquire new instruments.

Desiree Fuller poses for a photo with one of her students. They are both dressed in black and white, and Desiree is holding a red sign that says “Oak Park Schools.”
Desiree Fuller poses for a photo with one of her students.

Desiree Fuller, 11th grade English teacher, Oak Park, Michigan

What students had to say: 

“I’m grateful for the mother role she plays in my life, her being my teacher, her being a good friend and also being a good role model to me and my brothers,” said Javier Briggs, Fuller’s former student.

Desiree Fuller is a restorative justice trainer and an 11th grade English teacher at Oak Park High School in Oak Park, Michigan. Multiple parents and students who nominated Fuller said they appreciate her dedication to building relationships with students, partnering with parents, and being available to talk about students’ progress and setbacks.

During and after the pandemic, Fuller said she restructured her teaching strategies to adapt to changing circumstances. But the community she created remained strong. 

“I had to learn a myriad of new teaching strategies to keep my kids engaged and motivated through virtual learning. When we returned to in-person learning, I completely restructured my courses in order to minister to the socio-emotional needs of my scholars,” she said. “Our classes were rooted in respect and empathy.”

Fuller’s ask: equity in school funding, so that more students can have access to resources and programs that address learning loss from the pandemic. She also is urging school leaders to raise teacher pay to attract and retain educators and to enable the school to offer after-school and Saturday programs. 

Samuel Bendinelli poses for a photo in a white shirt and patterned tie.
Samuel Bendinelli

Samuel Bendinelli, English teacher, Newark, New Jersey

What students had to say:

“Mr. Bendinelli has made the school year easier for me by being a trusted confidant and someone whom I could be my authentic self around,” said Dashawn Sheffield, a former student of Bendinelli’s. “There were often times when I entered his classroom with negative feelings, but it was like once I reached his classroom, I would instantly brighten due to his warmness, empathy, jokes, and overall optimistic demeanor.”

“I also think that it’s important to really believe in your students,” he said. “In the same way that their effort helped strengthen my resolve, your belief in your students’ abilities can translate into their own.”

Bendinelli said he believes that teachers need more training and professional development that involves coaching, practicing, planning, and rehearsing “key moments of lessons or important discussions with students” to get better. 

He also calls for state leaders to listen to teachers, specifically about working conditions.

State leaders should “solicit feedback about conditions that keep young teachers from making their new position a career, or that cause experienced teachers to feel a sense of burnout,” Bendinelli said. “Make sure that our desk in the classroom also means a seat at the table.”

Nicole Monte smiles for a photo. She has black hair and is in a crowded room.
Nicole Monte

Nicole Monte, special education teacher, Brooklyn, New York

What students had to say:

“I am grateful that she was the greatest teacher and the most helpful person when in need of help,” said Christofer Perez, Monte’s former student. 

Nicole Monteis an educator at Dyker Heights Intermediate School in Brooklyn, New York. During the pandemic, Monte said she struggled to maintain a connection with her students and provide emotional support while teaching them academically.

“I took for granted just being able to walk over to their desk and support their learning,” Monte said. “I went to extraordinary lengths to engage my students who were struggling, not just during instruction, but in their personal lives as well.” 

Monte said giving school communities opportunities to weigh in on solutions to local issues would be one way to better support students. 

“We need to strengthen our community-school partnerships, better develop our parental collaborations, connect our curriculum to real-world experiences, and give our students real platforms to have their voices heard,” Monte said.