[ 2024 new york state teacher of the year ]

In Teacher of the Year’s classroom, students set the groove

artistic digital illustration of a music note that incorporates smaller music notes and piano keys

ith a friendly smile, special handshakes and a simple “how are you today?”, Rochester music teacher Zachary Arenz starts each morning by welcoming students to school as they get off the bus. It’s his way of checking in and meeting students where they are emotionally that day.

“I don’t always know what happened in the hours before my students arrive at school or walk into my classroom,” Arenz explained. “It’s a chance to make sure that they’re having a good day and if they’re not, what can I do to help?”

At Flower City School Number 54, Arenz’s colleagues jokingly dubbed him the “kid whisperer” for his innate ability to read his students, build positive relationships and gain their trust. For some kids, Arenz is their main motivation for coming to school at all. He shares a time when he learned from one of his ensemble students, who had been racking up absences, that the reason he was missing so much school was because he was going back and forth from his separated parents’ houses.

Zachary Arenz plays alongside a student flutist
Teacher Zachary Arenz plays alongside a student flutist in his Rochester classroom.
“It’s heart wrenching because he plays an important role in our ensembles and he has no control,” Arenz said. “He’s just a kid, he can’t hop in the car and drive himself to school. But then I heard him say one day that he makes sure he gets to school for practice. Hearing a student say I came to school today because I had a lesson with you, if that doesn’t melt your heart, I don’t know what does. To be their reason is very special and not something to take for granted.”

The Rochester Teachers Association member’s leadership in social emotional learning is, in part, why he was named the 2024 New York State Teacher of the Year by the state Board of Regents. His consistent, proactive work to understand and remove existing barriers for students goes above and beyond the vibrant music education he provides in the classroom.

In 2021, Arenz got Flower City School designated as a “Grief-Sensitive School” by the New York Life Foundation as part of the national Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative. With grant money from the initiative, Arenz was able to develop a music enrichment program for students experiencing grief and purchase ukeleles that are displayed on the back wall of his classroom.

Across from the four-stringed instruments, students can help themselves to the community closet Arenz created. He’s worked to build an impressive collection of winter coats, socks and underwear, shirts and pants, dental care items, deodorant, and body wash and towels, for children to take whenever they need.

Zachary Arenz teaching a class how to play the bongo drums
A wall of ukeleles is displayed behind NYS Teacher of the Year Zachary Arenz. The music educator purchased the instruments for his school through a grant to help students experiencing grief.

“Sometimes, families in our community need to make a choice at home between buying food and other necessities,” Arenz explained. “In order for kids to have what they need, their school community needs to come together and help provide some of those basic necessities.”

A pained look flashes across Arenz’s face as he recalls a time when his community closet helped provide for a young child who was not yet enrolled in school.

“It was a really, really cold winter day, but it was raining. A little 3-year-old boy just walked up to our building after school, and we found him on the sidewalk. I mean he was cold, he was wet, he was dirty from sloshing through the slush, and he didn’t even know his name. I was able to bring him up here and get him into a new outfit as we helped get him home,” Arenz said.

Colleagues say Arenz provides kids with more than lessons, clean clothing and toiletries; he gives them his time and attention.

“He just has a very compassionate ear,” said fifth-grade teacher and fellow RTA member Chris Shanley. “They want to be heard, they have a story to tell, and they would like someone to recognize them. Zach’s that man. He does a really good job of it.”

Zachary Arenz portrait; New York State 2024 Teacher of the Year logo

Added school librarian Kim Lee, “he’s patient, he watches, he listens, and then he figures out how he’s going to help.”

Before coming to Flower City, the Long Island native started his teaching career in 2012 just outside Stockholm, Sweden, where he taught music in a bilingual high school. Studying languages continues to be a passion for Arenz, who jokes that he is obsessed with keeping his Duolingo streak. He started taking Spanish lessons outside of school to learn some of his students’ first language and get to know them better, and recently he learned enough Arabic to say a few words to his students who celebrated Ramadan.

“They had huge smiles and asked me, ‘Mr. Arenz, how’d you know?’ And I told them, ‘Because it’s something I know is important to you, and I wanted to make sure you knew that I knew.’”

Arenz says some of those kids then came up to his classroom during lunch, so they didn’t have to sit in the cafeteria while fasting. “It was fun, and I got to learn more about the holiday from their perspective and what it means for them and their family.”

Whether it’s car rides to work listening to a language-learning podcast or sharing the universal language of music in his classroom, Arenz is always seeking to form deeper connections with his students to help them thrive. And while neither he, nor any teacher, may ever know what invisible weight a child may be carrying with them to school on any given day, Arenz says he follows two guiding principles: don’t make any assumptions — get to know who your students are and allow them to see themselves in their learning; and go with the flow.

“In all that craziness is where I find my rhythm. Teaching is kind of like an improv set; you have your plan, a basic outline of what your day might look like, but then the students set the groove. It’s exhaustingly fun.”