The lives of teachers: hidden talents, hobbies and pasts

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When you bump into your math teacher at the Midway movie theater concession stand the night before a test, you can’t help but think, “Well, this is awkward.”

As far as students know, or wish to believe, teachers are solely teachers; they leave school after ninth band to spend the whole night vigorously grading tests, preparing lessons, and creating homework assignments. But to many students’ surprise, teachers are more than teachers; they are adults with families, hobbies, jobs, and obligations.

In addition to leading zero band spinning classes and distributing demerits, Physical Education teacher and Dean Robin Figelman is a personal trainer. “Aside from teaching at Townsend Harris and being Dean, I also teach a course to Physical Education majors at Queens College once a week.  In my free time, I train clients in their own homes. My clients are mostly men and women in their fifties. I teach them lifetime fitness, how to diet and exercise; I basically put them through a workout just as I would with my high school students in boot camp, but at a level they can handle.”

“I coach a baseball team, so for me baseball season runs almost all year round,” said English Teacher Joseph Canzoneri. “We have 60 game seasons; we’re a neighborhood team and 13 players have been with me since they were seven.  It’s something I enjoy doing, and although I teach I find time for it.”

Assistant Principal of Pupil Personnel Services Veronica York is an avid snowboarder. “I love snowboarding whenever I can. I’ve ridden Mountain Snow, Killington, Stratton, and others. I’ve ridden three mountains in Chile. I ride a 144 feel-good flying V. I haven’t found a girl that’s better than me yet. In addition to snowboarding, I also like rock climbing and tough mudding.  I’m an adrenaline junkie; if there’s an extreme sport, I often love it.”

In addition to sports, teachers make time in their hectic schedules for their talents and hobbies.

Biology Teacher Katherine Cooper is a competitive Latin Ballroom dancer.  “I started about a year and a half ago, and I’ve participated in 3 competitions and 3 shows. I dance Rumba, ChaCha, Salsa, Paso Doble, and Jive, and I dance with a professional partner. I’ve taken ballet since I was 3, and I was part of a dance company, the Tina Thompson Dance and Fitness Theater.”

Physics teacher and Technology Coordinator John Tsai revealed his hidden talent, saying, “I play guitar and sometimes sing in a church band. We play contemporary music, it’s not like hard rock and roll, but stylistically it’s like rock and pop. I started in the 90’s, but not continuously.  I’m usually somehow involved with music; it can be hectic at times.”

“I love hula hooping,” said Science teacher Sarah Oberlander.  “What really got me into it is music; the type of music I listen to, a lot of girls do that, so I saw how great they were at it and realized, ‘I want to be like them!’ I started in August and ever since then I’ve been taking hula hooping classes in Brooklyn, making YouTube videos of me hula hooping, and even making my own hula hoops. I’ve become a really active member in that whole community. I try to find time, even if it’s fifteen minutes in a day.”

Librarian Jeffery Zahn has a secret passion for architecture. “During my free time, I participate in post and beam construction. It’s an old fashioned, 18th century style of architecture. It’s been an ongoing interest of mine, being surrounded by colonial structures as a kid. I attended Shelter Institute Building School, where I learned how to build things in this style. After Hurricane Katrina, I took my son down to New Orleans and we both worked to fix up the damage.”

After spending his day mixing chemicals together and concocting various solutions, Chemistry teacher Philip Porzio goes home and joins together different ingredients.  “I cook a lot, and I love to garden; I grow vegetables and herbs in the garden in front of my house.  I grow chives, mint, red peppers, rosemary, tomatoes, basil, and I like to make my own sauces and seasonings.”

Mr. Porzio is not the only food enthusiast roaming the halls of Townsend.  “I love food. I try every cuisine, it’s always been a passion of mine,” said Social Studies teacher Franco Scardino.

“I ran a food and catering service before I became a teacher. I still have good relationships with people in the business. I published 2 food calenders for the French Culinary Institute; I took photos of food from the top restaurants in the city. I attended the VENDY awards on Governors Island this year; it’s a convention where the top food trucks in the city compete in different categories. It was a really perfect September day, and we went around sampling every food truck in the competition. It was a really fun and memorable experience,” said Mr. Scardino.

The men of the math department have more in common than their derivation techniques. Stephen Mazza was in the Peace Corps for 4 years, and Timothy Connor was in the Army Reserve for 24 years.

Dr. Mazza said, “I taught math at a middle school in the Solomon Islands. There were no phones, no TVs, just a long dirt road up to the school and a tractor that never worked. When I joined the Peace Corps in 1988, it inspired me to teach. I joined a program where they paid for half of my masters. It was a completely different environment; teaching there was more challenging but the kids had to pass tests just to go to middle school, so they were more prepared.”

Dr. Mazza later added, “I was barefoot for three years.”

Mr. Connor said, “For quite a while, I was a track coach, teacher, and army man. I was an explosives expert; I jumped out of airplanes and drove heavy machinery. I just did these things because it was fun, and I was young. I joined when I was 20 years old. I went to college on a Track and Football scholarship, and when I got hurt I lost my scholarship and transferred schools in the middle of my junior year. At one point I realized I didn’t have much money, and the Army Reserve was right there saying ‘We’ll pay for college!’ and so I joined.”

The teachers at Townsend Harris have so much more to offer than a rehearsed DOE lesson plan; they are each comprised of their personal lesson plans, which are the ones that truly stick.

So next time you wonder why your in-class essay isn’t graded the next day or why you aren’t getting an email response within three minutes, just remember, teachers have lives too.

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