Retired Oregon Middle School teacher gets national excellence award

March 27, 2018 GMT

A retired middle school teacher from Oregon, Wis. has been selected as one of four teachers in the country to win the prestigious Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher award for 2018.

Catherine Albers, now residing in Palm Springs, California, was nominated by former sixth grade student Jodie Guillen, herself a teacher now, thanks to the inspiration Albers gave her when she was in her class.

Albers said after receiving the award that she was inspired by her eighth grade teacher, Michael Dunn, who told her plainly “You are smart.”

“He inspired me to become a teacher on that day,” Albers said. “My life’s direction was forever changed.”

The awards were created in 2010 in honor of Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday. Each recipient receives $10,000, and to date, 75 teachers have been honored.

Albers joins Askia Egashira of Brooklyn, N.Y., Dennis McDavid of Oak Park, Mich. and Caryn Obert of Staten Island, N.Y. as the 2018 honorees.

Guillen, in her nominating of Albers, said the defining moment of her path to becoming a teacher was the kindness and compassion shown by Albers on the horrific day in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff, killing the crew that included teacher Christa McAuliffe.

The class was watching the liftoff together on Jan. 28, 1986.

“Once the dust had settled, Mrs. Albers gave us the opportunity to share our feelings as we faced one of the greatest tragedies of our young lives,” Guillen wrote.

“She said ‘If the Challenger disaster had to occur, I’m glad we were able to process it together,’” Guillen wrote. “I will never forget the kindness and compassion she showed me that day, and as I left my classroom, I knew that I wanted to be just like Christa and Mrs. Albers. I wanted to teach.”

Sondheim, who has won more Tony awards than any other composer, frequently attributes his success to the teachers in his life, the Kennedy Center said in a release.

“Teachers define us,” Sondheim said. “In our early years, when we are still being formed, they often see in us more than we see in ourselves, more even than our families see, and, as a result, help us to evolve into what we ultimately become.”