Founder’s Blog

Woody Exley’s updates on the Alma Exley Scholars

Teaching Is Learning, Says ‘Ivy’ Horan

Isabella “Ivy” Horan, our newest Alma Exley Scholar, has broken into print with an essay published today (10/16/2019) on the editorial page of the Hartford Courant. In the essay, Ivy shares 10 lessons that she has learned from her young students while preparing for a career in education. She’s student-teaching in East Hartford while pursuing her master’s degree from UConn, and some lucky school district is going to be happy to welcome her to its faculty next year. — Woody Exley

Ten lessons I learned from my students

By Isabella Horan

As a graduate student in education who is placed in an internship in East Hartford, I am preparing for a career teaching such things as reading and math.

But teaching goes both ways, and in many instances, my students have taught me far more than I have taught them.

Ivy Horan

Here are 10 lessons I learned from my students that can be applied to the classroom — or to life in general.

Positive relationships are imperative. Students will not learn from you if you do not show them that you are there to support them. It is necessary to build a strong classroom community in which students can make mistakes, grow and feel comfortable with one another.

Laugh. At the start of my student teaching, I prepared detailed, pristine lesson plans. When some of my plans derailed within five minutes because a student made a funny noise or accidentally burped and the whole class burst out laughing, I learned to join in and laugh, too.

Be honest. My students have varying backgrounds; some of neglect, some of love and some in between. When life is hard, my students are real about it. They talk to me, and we work through it together. That’s what a classroom family is for.

Context matters. I have had students who sometimes come into school after only one or two hours of sleep. When these students doze off during a lesson, I check in with them instead of assuming they just don’t care. We need to be understanding, and we will be appreciated in return.

Have fun. Whenever I ask for class expectations at the start of the year, every student says: “Have fun.” Learning has to be fun! We need to sell education to our students. They need to invest in it to become lifelong learners. To my little friends who remind me we need to have more fun, thank you for your willingness to play new games and dance with me across the room.

Be yourself. Kids are real with us; sometimes a little too real — like when they say you “look funny” if you put on less makeup one day. It is hard to be vulnerable with others but it is important in teaching. I let my students know what I am learning in school. I tell them I can relate to some of their stories. I tell them I still have trouble with math, too. When students see you as a real person, they start to recognize you as a role model.

Coffee. I call it my “teacher juice” and my students do, too. When my students run into the room full of energy in the morning and I look like I am still waking up, they are sure to remind me to take a sip.

Appreciate cultural capital. I have learned more about cultures, languages, and experiences from my students than I ever expected. We need to show students how to learn from and work with others who have different backgrounds than we do. This is a necessary skill in the classroom and throughout life. We need to start it young. I can teach them about me, and they can teach me about them.

Things don’t always go as planned. You can plan what you are going to accomplish in each subject each day. But sometimes students need more processing, learning and practice. We need to respect that. I thank my students who are vocal about needing more time on a certain topic.

Try your best. We tell our students to stay positive and remember that they are learning. We don’t apply this point of view to our own lives enough. During student teaching, I made a mistake during one of my first solo lessons. As I became frazzled, one of my students said, “Ms. H, it’s OK to make a mistake. You are trying your best!” I will never forget that. It’s true. I’m not just a teacher; I’m a learner, too.

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Isabella “Ivy” Horan, a master’s degree student in the Integrated Bachelor’s/Master’s Program at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, is serving as a student intern in East Hartford. She completed her bachelor’s degree in elementary education at UConn in May.

Sibani Sengupta Named to Leadership Position

         I’m pleased to report that Sibani Sengupta, Ph.D., whom we honored in 2009, has been named assistant principal at Sacred Heart Academy, Hamden, Conn. She will continue to teach Human Gene Discovery and Honors Biotech Research. Previously, she had served as chair of the Science Department and dean of academic affairs. 

 I love it when I learn about the accomplishments of our scholarship recipients, and I was delighted when Dr. Sengupta told me, “Just like my fellow Alma Exley scholars, my journey as an educator took off when I was chosen to receive the Alma Exley scholarship and so I wanted to thank you for your support.”

        Dr. Sengupta earned B.S. and M.S. degrees from the University of Calcutta, India, and a Ph.D. in molecular biology and chemistry from the University of Connecticut. After doing post-doctoral work at the UConn Health Center, she earned her Connecticut teaching credentials through the Alternate Route to Certification. She can be reached at

Many Educational Leaders

         Of our 30 scholarship recipients, Dr. Sengupta is one of 11 who have served in educational leadership positions. 

         Miguel Cardona, Ed.D., is education commissioner of the State of Connecticut.

         Desi Nesmith is chief school turnaround officer for the State of Connecticut.

         Glenn Allen Jr. is chair of the Special Education Department at Carson High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. 

         Han-Ya Annie Hsu has served as chief of staff in the Office of the provost, Asian University for Women, Bangladesh, and director of global student success at Northeastern University in Boston, Mass. 

         Zakia Parrish, Ph.D., is principal of Hall Regional Career High School in New Haven, Conn. 

         Santosha Oliver, Ph.D., is assistant superintendent for instructional Services in the Windsor, Conn., School District. 

         Violet Jiménez Sims, Ph.D., is assistant principal of the Hartford Montessori Magnet School.

         Vernon-James Riley is associate dean of regional support at Relay Graduate School of Education, Washington, D.C.

         Khalil Graham, Ph.D., is managing director of the Aspiring Leaders Program at Teaching Trust, a partnership with Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Tex. 

         Justis Lopez is alumni affairs coordinator at the Council for Opportunity in Education, Washington, D.C., where he is serving other first-generation college graduates. 

Recognition for Excellence in Teaching

         Dr. Sengupta Sibani has received numerous teaching awards, including the High School Exemplary Educator of the Year Award from the Connecticut Association of Schools (CAS), the Hero Award from Ronald McDonald House Charities, and Outstanding Biology Teacher of Connecticut.

         It’s my pleasure to congratulate Dr. Sengupta on her recent appointment. And I’m also sending along hearty congratulations to all of the other Alma Exley Scholars who have accepted challenging educational leadership positions. These outstanding educators are having a substantial impact while serving as role models for students of color in particular as well as all students in general. 

– Woody Exley 

Belief in the individual motivates new Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona

Miguel Cardona reviews the scrapbook his parents started making for him from his first year in teaching.

Editor’s note: Hearst Newspapers columnist Jacqueline Smith wrote a beautiful profile of our new State Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona. The column, which we are reprinting here, appeared in several newspapers in Connecticut. In her column, Ms. Smith reflected on the article she wrote about him 21 years ago when he began his teaching career in a fourth-grade classroom in Meriden. That was in 1998, several months after he had been chosen as an Alma Exley Scholar. We at the Alma Exley Scholarship Program are delighted that we had the opportunity to play a small part in helping Miguel to launch his illustrious career in education. And we wish him continued success in his new challenge as the state’s premier education official. — Woody Exley

By Jacqueline Smith, Middletown Press

Miguel Cardona to this day vividly remembers the two teachers who were the most influential in his early years.

And from his first classroom as a teacher 21 years ago, he holds dear two students, in particular, who still call him their favorite teacher.

Now Cardona, the new education commissioner for Connecticut, has the opportunity to influence the hundreds of thousands of students in the state who returned to public classrooms for a new school year. He was sworn into office on Aug. 7, the first Latino to hold the top education position in the state.

He brings a student-centered sensibility to the leadership role, informed by the powerful experiences of his youth and the meaningful relationships nurtured as a teacher and then an elementary school principal.

I first met Cardona in his fourth-grade classroom at Israel Putnam Elementary School in Meriden. It was August 1998, at the start of his first year teaching. As a reporter at the Record-Journal, I wrote a news story of his excitement preparing for the 20 students with a bulletin board of a rocket ship and stars for each with the words “Let the journey begin!”

On Aug. 23 we met again, this time in his sixth-floor office of the Department of Education building where the view overlooks the flowing Connecticut River and the confluence of busy interstate highways.

I couldn’t help but think of how unlikely it would seem that a child growing up in a housing project (Yale Acres in Meriden), who started kindergarten with Spanish as his primary language — his parents came from Puerto Rico — and went to a technical high school with an auto technician specialty would become the head of education for the state of Connecticut. And at age 44.

Miguel Cardona is a living lesson on believing in the potential of every individual.

Many have written in the past month on his objectives as education commissioner, his take on education issues, and his first summit on public education with Gov. Ned Lamont, 70 stakeholders and students. So I will offer you something different — what has shaped the new commissioner’s personality and philosophies.

“I learned English in kindergarten rather quickly,” he said in his top-floor office. “I picked up a second language, but maintained the bi-cultures.

“It taught me there’s more than one way of looking at things.”

Second grade was pivotal. His art teacher at John Barry Elementary School, Gary O’Neill, talked about football or whatever would draw in a student.

“I remember looking up and thinking, ‘I want to be like him,’” Cardona recalled. “A male teacher, a black teacher, he’s cool. We connected early on.”

Mr. O’Neill, as he still calls his second-grade teacher, inspired his interest in art, which remains to this day. A more subliminal lesson, though, was that minority male teachers could, and should, be role models.

Cardona’s interest in art carried to H.C. Wilcox Technical High School in Meriden where art teacher Linda Ransom took note of his mural, “We are all one race — the human race.”

“She liked it, and said ‘would you be able to put it up in the cafeteria?’,” he recalled. “I felt so empowered.”

“The specific message was, it’s not only art, but also a way to develop as a person.”

He is a proponent of the arts as a powerful medium for students’ authentic expression and building of community.

“These two very influential teachers are bookends to my school career,” he said.

‘That really shook me’

As we spoke in the meeting room attached to his office, Cardona was carefully thumbing through a scrapbook his parents created, starting with his first year of teaching.

My story from 1998 is there along with pages and pages of photos and notes and drawings from students.

There’s a full-page sketch of the teacher, including his beard and tie, “To The Best Fourth Grade Teacher Ever!” It’s signed Karla Rodriguez, one of his first 20 students.

“He had a huge impact on my life,” Karla said in a telephone interview. “I was a very shy kid and he pushed me to be creative.” She now is 30, with two children and a job in a Meriden nursing home. “He was very firm in class, but also very funny. As a kid, you would want to listen and learn.”

Turn a page to see a youthful Cardona with 9-year-old Chris Garcia. In December of that first class year, Chris and his family left temporarily for Puerto Rico. The teacher had the class write letters to Chris so he would know he was not forgotten. When Cardona was visiting Puerto Rico with his family, teacher and student happened to reunite and the smiles say it all.

“He placed a lot of value in me as a person,” Chris said in a telephone call from Florida. “I struggled with a positive work ethic in school, and he said to me ‘why are you not doing the work? You’re better than this. Even as a young Hispanic man, you’ve got a bright future.’ ”

“That really shook me in a good way.” He taught more than English, math and science, he taught “life’s issues.” Chris, now a father of two and an administrative assistant to an itinerant minister and motivational speaker, keeps a photo of his most influential teacher in his home.

Cardona’s values also affected parents. In response to my first column on the new education commissioner, Laurie Rochlin Luedee wrote to share a touching story.

Her children attended Hanover Elementary School where Cardona would later become principal. In April 2003 her 7-year-old daughter Rachel died unexpectedly from complications of cystic fibrosis.

“One day, I received a call from Miguel telling me he would be leaving Hanover but before he left, he wanted to have a permanent memorial in place in memory of my lovely Rachel. It was important to him that she be remembered forever,” Laurie said. They settled on a memorial garden for the first grader. “We had a beautiful ceremony to celebrate Rachel’s life. I will never forget that Miguel still kept Rachel in his heart and placed a memorial as one of his priorities before he left Hanover.”

Now 500,000 students

Family and culture are important to Cardona. He, his wife and their two children love music and play with the family band at Christmastime. He plays the bangos, a percussion instrument, not the banjo as I first wrote 21 years ago.

In his professional path as teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent in Meriden, Cardona maintained a belief in encouraging the individual for the betterment of all. It will be harder these days when he’s responsible for about 500,000 students across Connecticut, and their teachers and principals and administrators, but it is an abiding philosophy.

“I believe in seeing and setting high expectations. That’s a critical belief I have,” he said. “Each child has the potential to change the world for the better.”

The commissioner’s meeting room contains, in a prime location between windows overlooking the motion of river and highways, two blue-matted notes from students.

“Most teachers don’t like me,” concluded one student in asking to be part of a safety patrol, “you are a hole different person.”

Jacqueline Smith’s column appears Fridays in Hearst Connecticut daily newspapers. She is the editorial page editor of The News-Times in Danbury and The Norwalk Hour. Email her at