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UH Alumni Earn Top Teacher Awards Amid Support from Coogs

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On the playground at Harvard Elementary, teachers John Pacheco, Melani Alcorn and Kristina Lesniak (from left) share a bond as UH College of Education alumni. (Not pictured: Heather Moore)

Posted June 6, 2017 – A University of Houston flag waved outside Harvard Elementary School in the Heights neighborhood this spring after an alumnus won the honor in an auction.

The flag also served as a fitting tribute to the school’s award-winning teachers for 2017. Both are Coogs as well. John Pacheco, named Harvard’s Beginning Teacher of the Year, graduated from the UH College of Education in 2015. Kristina Lesniak, Harvard’s Teacher of the Year and a finalist for the Houston school district’s annual elementary school teacher award, graduated in 2014.

Their mentor, Heather Moore, is a UH grad, too.

“I feel like a proud mama,” Moore said. “The awards are voted on by all of the teachers and administrators, so you know they’re good people, not just good teachers. They ooze positivity. When it’s hard, they’re both still smiling.”

Together with first-grade teacher Melani Alcorn, another Coog who drew high praise, the four share a bond – turning to each other for advice and support (and, at times, to talk UH football).

Lesniak and Pacheco credited their coworkers and experiences in the College of Education for their success.

“All of the teachers deserve it,” Pacheco said. “We all had our challenges. Just completing that first year is a major feat.”

Moore, who graduated UH in 1996, understands those growing pains but had confidence in the new Coog teachers.

“I had so much faith in Ms. Lesniak her first year, I put my own daughter in her class,” Moore said. “And my daughter had a great year.”

Lesniak graduated a semester behind Alcorn at UH, and they bonded quickly when they joined the Harvard staff. Pacheco fit in easily.

“We’re on this journey together,” Alcorn said.

‘Building a Coog Nation’

These four standout teachers are part of a large network of UH alumni working in the Houston Independent School District. More than 825 UH graduates served as HISD teachers in 2015-16, according to the latest data from UH’s Center for Research, Evaluation & Advancement of Teacher Education. Other graduates work as principals or central office administrators.

“It’s always exciting when our alumni are recognized because it means they are doing great things for kids,” said Amber Thompson, who chairs the teacher-preparation program at the College of Education. “We knew their potential when they were in the program, and now everyone else knows too.”

“We love to see our graduates working together in the same schools and building a Coog Nation,” Thompson added. “It’s our mission to make sure all students have an effective teacher in the classroom, and these teachers are a testament to that commitment.”

Pacheco is one of at least four recent alumni who won the rookie teacher of the year awards at their schools this year.

“I am so proud of these novice teachers,” said Lecturer Carrie Cutler, who taught all four in her elementary math methods classes. “I can recall the feelings of excitement, energy, enthusiasm and complete exhaustion that first year of teaching. It is truly amazing what they’ve been able to accomplish.”

Full Circle and ‘Loving It’

The Harvard Elementary teachers agreed that they share a growth mindset, or the ability to see setbacks as an opportunity to improve, thanks to the College of Education.

“You have to have spunk,” Pacheco said. “If the lesson doesn’t go well, dust yourself off with the same passion you started with. Kids are resilient, and teachers have to be too.”

Growing up in Houston, Pacheco said, he always thought he’d be a teacher. His mom worked as a clerk at his elementary school. The youngest of seven children, Pacheco was the first in his family to graduate from college. He has come full circle teaching in the Heights, where he attended middle school.

Alcorn and Lesniak, on the other hand, thought they wanted careers in the medical field. Alcorn, whose mom taught pre-kindergarten, started college majoring in biology and then switched to human development and family studies; the new major, plus encouragement from academic advisor Kimberly Zainfeld, led her to teaching.

“It’s crazy because I never thought I’d be a teacher, but now I’m here and I love it,” Alcorn said.

Lesniak considered nursing at first.

“I needed to help people, and I didn’t know how,” she said.

 A family friend who worked as a teacher urged Lesniak to follow suit after watching her play with her grandkids. Lesniak had to take a new round of courses, but it was the “best craziest decision,” she said.

For Moore, her commitment to teaching was solidified after year one on the job. “If you have a difficult first year, you know you can handle it.”

Now in her 21st year teaching, Moore said the novices help her as much as she helps them.

“The teachers from UH have a bond here,” Moore said. “We’re really building something.”

–By Jeylan Yassin

–Photo credit: Jaime Questell