SOMERS, N.Y. – Special education teachers, both past and present, were honored at this year’s Special Education Parent Teacher Association (SEPTA) awards ceremony. Carol Haber-Cohen, who has worked in the district since 1995, was given the Award of Excellence, and Robert Fisher was presented the Award of Merit.
“We’re honoring them for their outstanding service to our students and to our special education and Somers community,” said Laura Cabo, co-president of SEPTA.
From the beginning, Joyce Plaut-Freeman, SMS speech and language therapist, said that she knew Fisher would be a great addition to the Somers teaching community from the moment she interviewed him 15 years ago, although he seemed “serious and buttoned-up.” She added that the first impression was wrong, and that in the years she has known him, he has been warm, student-centered and has a great sense of humor.
“In all my years working with Bob, he has never made a student feel they have given a wrong answer,” said Lorraine Stetson, teacher at Somers Middle School. “He builds self-esteem without anyone knowing he’s doing it.”
Plaut-Freeman added that the creativity he employs in the classroom leaves neighboring classrooms entertained and inspired by things such as wolf howls and serenades.
While he excels in the classroom as a teacher, Fisher revealed that he wasn’t always the best student, and struggled particularly with mathematics when he was growing up. Ultimately, the experience led him to go down the path of a special education teacher.
“I experienced firsthand the frustration of failing tests and the debilitating effect it had on diminishing one’s confidence and self-esteem,” he said. “This led me to believe as teacher: before you crack the cover of classroom books, you must first seek to uncover the gifts each child possesses.”
Fisher thanked the Somers community and his wife.
Stacey Elconin, principal of Somers intermediate School, listed the myriad roles Haber-Cohen assumes outside of the classroom, which includes co-chair of the Special Education Committee and co-chair of the Author’s Day Committee, to name a few.
“Once you enter her classroom it’s very clear to see the role that has the most special place in her heart,” Elconin said.
Elconin added that Haber-Cohen has many strategies “up her sleeve” for any teaching situation and acts as a relentless advocate for her students.
Somers High School student Tyler Steinfeld, and Haber-Cohen’s former student, agreed and said that her ability to “connect with her students” inside and outside of the classroom by using their interests to make learning fun, left him with a memorable experience after he left her classroom.
“Whatever she did always went back to Legos,” he said, remembering how she catered to his fourth grade group’s interests in particular. He added that as a teacher, she makes students feel supported.
Haber-Cohen said she was overwhelmed, grateful and thankful to her fellow SEPTA members for the recognition. Cohen’s inspiration came from her family, she said. Her mother was a role model for her, as she advocated for appropriate education placements for her brother, Howie, who had Down syndrome. At a time when there weren’t options for students like Howie, Haber-Cohen said, her mother was a pioneer in getting the school board to support the creation of appropriate learning environments for special education students.
The Somers Central School District, on the other hand, is very supportive, she said, adding that the support of the community plays a big role in the success of the special education teachers and students.
“It takes a village,” she said. “It takes a supportive administration, it takes professional, passionate teachers, therapists and support staff and, finally, it takes a highly informed, strong-willed advocating parent to educate our children. While we may not always agree with each other, I am incredibly proud to be a member of this village.”
During a special addition to this year’s ceremony, Joanna Orzech, a middle school student, sang an acapella rendition of Sarah McLachlan’s “In the Arms of an Angel,” in memory of Sherri Mangus, a Somers special education teacher who died earlier this year.
Orzech sang the song after it was announced that going forward, the Award of Merit will be renamed the “Sherri Mangus Award” in future SEPTA ceremonies. Mangus won the award in 2013.
“It is her spirit that will define this award in the future,” Cabo said. “Sherri’s mantra was it’s not about what the kids can’t do; it’s all about what they can do. She was relentless in her quest to find creative ways to teach her students and help them utilize their strength to accomplish their goals.”
Cabo spoke from experience, as Mangus had taught her son, Sean. Cabo said Mangus was known for never giving up on her students.
“Her humor, warmth and ingenuity was a tremendous gift both to Sean and to our family,” Cabo said. “SEPTA will honor her memory each year as we award another outstanding member of our faculty who embraces these same qualities going forward.”