Nancy Rygiel – an Achieve math teacher for grades 1-5 at Franklin School and Achieve language arts teacher, helping 3rd and 5th grade writers at McKinley School – is the 2021 recipient of the Rotary Club of Westfield’s Philhower Fellowship in recognition of outstanding teaching at the elementary school level.
Rygiel received the award at a virtual meeting of the Rotary Club on May 4 and was honored later that evening at a virtual meeting of the Westfield Board of Education.
“I became a teacher because I love working with students and watching them grow and mature, both as scholars and as citizens,” says Rygiel who joined the Westfield Public School District in 1993, teaching language arts and mathematics at Edison Intermediate School. “I was fortunate to have teachers who impacted my life and I was raised by parents who both were teachers and have always been great role models. They say that it ‘takes a village to raise a child.’” I am so happy to be part of a child’s village and to help them make connections and grow.”
Rygiel says that watching students grasp concepts that originally were challenging is “so inspirational and rewarding.” “I love helping students understand that, with practice, they can master things they have not mastered YET,” she adds.
“Nancy is so deserving of this award,” says Franklin principal Dr. Paul Duncan. “She has so much passion and brings a love of math to what she does. Her students know that she believes in them and she’s a constant advocate for them.”
“I have been so lucky to work with Nancy for many years at Franklin School and she has taught me what it means to be an educator,” adds Franklin assistant principal Mary McCabe who taught 4th grade at Franklin for many years before serving as interim principal last year. “She is a shining example of the difference you can make in the life of a child as a teacher.”
Duncan and McCabe point out that Rygiel also serves as an Instructional Technology Support (ITS) teacher, constantly solving technology issues or finding innovative ways to use technology in the classroom. “She’s helped our staff become more successful during this challenging year,” Duncan says.
“Being an ITS this past year has tested my perseverance but, each day, I have been in awe of the technology advances my colleagues and our students have made,” says Rygiel who credits the district technology team and master instructional technology teacher Jeanine Gottko for their hard work as well. “When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade. Well, the Westfield teachers have truly made some of the best lemonade in their use of technology this past year.”
Colleagues and families submitted letters of nomination, supporting Rygiel for the Philhower Award. One parent – whose child is now in middle school – took the time to detail in her nominating letter the positive effect Rygiel had on her son. “We all know how one teacher can impact the life of a child,” she wrote.
“Nancy’s passion for math is infectious and helps motivate her students to do their best,” said one nominator. Another writes: “In a year full of uncertainty and change, one thing has remained constant: Nancy Rygiel’s passion, heart, perseverance, and determination.”
“This past year surely put all of us through our paces- the teachers, the students, the parents, the administrators, and all of our support staff,” Rygiel says. “For me, the hardest part has been the distance; we have been more isolated from our students and from each other as teachers. I learned many new things this year, as all teachers have, about technology, but I think what this year solidified for me is the belief that collaboration is the key to success.
Rygiel says that students, parents, teachers, and staff worked together “more than ever before.” And she says, despite the challenges, there are many silver linings.
“Although the beginning of the pandemic was rough, I think for me, as a mom, getting that extra time with my own kids at home that I would not have otherwise had was priceless. I think all parents feel that. There were more family dinners and family game nights than we had in years prior,” says Rygiel. “I think the family time helped us realize the importance of spending time with those we love. As teachers, it really had teachers realize how much we LOVE being WITH students. Missing that hustle and bustle of a successful elementary classroom and school filled with learners was tough- but teachers found ways to create that hustle and bustle and engage learners virtually, and there are so many great techniques, tools, and strategies to learn and keep from that experience.”
Rygiel notes that, when she started at Franklin School, the current Westfield High School seniors were first graders. “I feel very connected to this class, partially due to that and partially due to having a daughter their age,” she says. “I want to wish the Class of 2021 all the best of luck as they continue to move forward. I hope they recognize all that they have overcome through this past year, and I commend them on their resiliency. Take time to celebrate all of your accomplishments and enjoy every moment, Class of 2021!”
The Philhower Fellowship was established in 1993 by the Rotary Club to honor former Westfield Rotarian Charles Philhower and to recognize the importance of teaching in the elementary grades. An educator for more than 50 years, Charles Philhower, who died in 1962, was supervising principal (superintendent) of Westfield schools for three decades as well as co-founder and past president of the Rotary Club of Westfield.
“I am deeply humbled and extremely honored to receive this award,” Rygiel says. “I feel strongly that teaching, especially this past year, is a team effort, so I share this award with members of our community: my teacher friends who work tirelessly every day, but even more so this past year; our administrators, custodians, nurses, and secretaries who help things run smoothly and keep us safe; the Westfield parents who partner with teachers to help us and support our best efforts; and most importantly our students who have demonstrated how amazingly adaptive and resilient they are. This past year, every member of our community earned the title of Teacher of the Year.”