Rick DeCarr’s quirky new teaching strategy was supposed to be the most interesting part of his virtual classes Friday.
The teacher was introducing his sixth graders to “fort Fridays,” a new weekly occurrence where DeCarr teaches from a blanket fort in his home, inviting his students to do the same.
But when several of his peers, supervisors and members of the media showed up for his virtual lesson in the afternoon, he realized that the inaugural blanket-fort class — one that several students were already eager to participate in — was about to be put to bed by something even more notable.
During DeCarr’s lesson, Schenectady City School District Interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak surprised the ELA and social studies teacher and announced that he had been selected as the district’s 2021 Teacher of the Year. The educator of 13 years, in between his students’ exclamations of excitement and speeches from his supervisors, said it was “surreal” to even be considered for the honor.
“I set out to do what I do for the kids that are sitting here,” DeCarr said from his fort. “And even the ones who aren’t. I like to have a lot of fun with what we do.”
But for DeCarr, teaching isn’t just about having fun. It’s about providing his students with the skills they need to excel beyond the classrooms, the virtual meetings and the blanket forts.
“It’s important for [them] to leave me knowing that they have a voice in what they want to learn about, and a voice in what they’ve learned,” DeCarr said. “So that they can carry that forward with that and be advocates for themselves and their communities moving forward.”
Bochniak, however, said DeCarr was being a bit “modest,” later calling him a “rock star” who helped the district navigate the pandemic when virtual learning first took shape.
“It’s important to mention that during this entire pandemic, it’s certainly been challenging for everyone,” Bochniak said. “But he’s stepped out and helped everyone. And a lot of students in his class don’t know this. He’s there for [them] all the time, but he also makes himself available to all the other teachers, too. He has been a resource and is a member of our educational technology team. I don’t know how, without him being a part of a team, we would have been able to be as successful at virtual learning as we were.”
Even before the pandemic, DeCarr’s impact on his students has made him an “educational hero,” according to Oneida principal Tony Farina, who nominated DeCarr for the recognition. Farina estimates that DeCarr’s former students and parents have asked about DeCarr over 250 times in his last five years overseeing the star teacher.
“We bump into high-schoolers and they constantly say ‘Can you tell Mr. DeCarr we say hello,’ ‘Can we come by and visit,’ ‘He was the best teacher we’ve ever had,’” Farina said. “If someone needs help with instruction, we send them to Mr.DeCarr. If a student in the seventh or eighth grade is having an issue and Mr. DeCarr knows them, he reaches out and he helps.”
Seeing DeCarr recognized, for Farina, made him feel like he “won too.”
“It’s a sense of pride and accomplishment,” Farina said. “Truly, this is just something to get out there to say he’s the best.”