SOUTH HAMPTON — Five little faces huddled together and peered in the back door of the Eleanor Batchelder gymnasium.
Friday was “TOY” day at South Hampton’s Barnard School — a day to celebrate New Hampshire’s 2022 Teacher of the Year.
The recipient was Sara Casassa, 58, a language arts teacher and technology integrator from Hampton who was selected from among 14,000 New Hampshire public school teachers, 70 nominees, 28 semifinalists and three finalists.
Inside, a small gathering of parents, teachers and visitors took their seats in widely spaced folding chairs, while a dozen sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students sat poised with their poster board signs and cutouts.
Casassa’s students held signs that read, “She’s awesome,” “You’re the best!” and “Thank you for always being there.”
New Hampshire’s first lady, Valerie Sununu, a former public school teacher, and New Hampshire Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelbut joined the celebration, along with Deputy Commissioner Christine Brennan, State Education Board member Ryan Terrell and representatives from SAU 21.
“There are so many levels of things that she has to pull together to create the magic that she does in your community,” Sununu said.
South Hampton school board Chair Jim Kime praised Casassa for “leveraging technology” even in the pre-pandemic days. In one example, Kime said she created a virtual classroom for a student who was forced to leave school for three to four weeks because of an illness.
Cassasa’s virtual classroom became the prototype when COVID hit, and her expertise was critically important to both the students and staff.
The essay that went with her application spoke of reflecting and adjusting her teaching based on what is actually happening in her classes — a student struggling and falling behind, or a student pacing through material more quickly.
“While teaching pedagogy has changed and needs of students and families are much different then they were 20 years ago, the importance of creating relationships, engaging in meaningful learning opportunities and meeting students where they are has remained constant,” she wrote.
Casassa’s effort “meeting students where they are” aligns with the competency-based learning strategies that have taken hold in New Hampshire public schools and elsewhere around the country.
Competency-based learning focuses on what students learn, and at a pace that recognizes different learning styles, and different interests rather than a set number of hours of instruction.
New Hampshire has been at the forefront of this work nationally, according to Ellen Hume-Howard, the executive director of New Hampshire Learning Initiative, a nonprofit that helps schools implement new learning practices.
“I would say New Hampshire is lifted up as the model for other states in how they would move to competency-based education,” she said Thursday.
“What we were looking at is how we relay modern learning, and match that to traditional competencies,” said Terrell, the state education board member from Nashua and member of the Teacher of the Year Selection Committee.
Luke Andruskevich, a Barnard School seventh-grader, spoke on behalf of the 86-member student body.
“Even though ‘ELA’ (English Language Arts) isn’t my absolute favorite subject, I think that having Mrs. Casassa as a teacher makes it much more enjoyable.”
Luke says these meaningful learning opportunities could be a big writing project or working on a persuasive letter. Other times, it might be watching a “TED Talk” and sharing views on the subject matter in class.
Casassa has been teaching for 20 years, 17 at the middle school level. She was educated at Boston College, where she received an undergraduate degree in English and history, and a master’s degree in English.
She says that “access to books, access to technology and access to training and professional development” are the three critical elements to her success.
“I still love what I do,” Casassa said after a short ceremony that featured more testimonials. “I am still energized. I think that is partially because I’m always doing new things.”