[ Teaching & Learning ]

A happy note for Rochester music teacher

colorful musical note illustration

t’s a sunny August afternoon when elementary-aged children would typically be playing outside and soaking up the final days of summer break before heading back to school.

Zachary Arenz smiles wearing a patterned floral button up shirt and standing in front of the Flower City School No. 54; New York State 2024 Teacher of the Year badge

2024 New York State Teacher of the Year Zachary Arenz, Rochester TA. Students at Flower City School No. 54, below right, are drawn to the safe space created in his classroom.

Instead, a half dozen kids are not only willingly, but happily sitting inside a classroom at Flower City School Number 54 playing their instruments with Zach Arenz.

“The students always want to be with him,” said school Principal Demitria Lawton-Greggs. “He brings that sense of warmth and love.”

Arenz, who has taught vocal, general and instrumental music to students from elementary to high school in Rochester city schools since 2013, was named the 2024 New York State Teacher of the Year by the state Board of Regents.

“Zach has earned the respect of his fellow teachers and the affection of his students,” said Rochester Teachers Association president Adam Urbanski. “He represents the excellence and dedication of so many other teachers in our district and throughout our state. We are so very proud to be his colleagues.”

Over the years, his classroom has become known by students and colleagues alike as a safe place where children can go when they need to talk, manage emotions or just take a break in a judgement-free zone.

“Everybody loves Mr. Arenz,” said Chris Shanley, a fifth-grade teacher whose classroom is just up the hall from Arenz’s room. “He’s the guy that a lot of my kids, when they’re having a hard time, will say, ‘Can I go sit with Mr. Arenz for a while?’”

As a leader in the school’s shift toward restorative practices and the creator of his school’s music enrichment program for students experiencing grief, Arenz offers daily check-ins with students as he welcomes them off the bus each morning.

“If you are having a bad day, that’s fine,” Arenz explained. “I can’t expect 180 good days from you. It’s okay, you’re a human. And if I’m entitled to my feelings, then so are you.”

Arenz’s former principal LaShara Evans acknowledges just how vital those mental-health checks are.

“A kid can’t learn when they’re worried about where their next meal is going to come from; a kid can’t learn when the day before their house was hit with stray bullets; a kid can’t learn when they saw a loved one being arrested the day before,” Evans said. “So those check-ins with kids to see how they’re doing before they even start the school day is important, and he does that.”

Zachary Arenz smiles brightly in a photo with his students, they all stand in a colorful classroom with walls decorated with small guitars and pictures of instruments

Arenz says he has learned that “deliberate, hard and consistent work to support social and emotional well-being is a critical foundation for a well-rounded and rigorous academic culture” and sums up his teaching philosophy as “establishing places were folks feel safe, communication is encouraged and anyone is welcome to express their truest self.”

Within his classroom, students can find a considerable collection of books with characters and stories that reflect aspects of their own unique identities. Arenz also keeps a closet stocked with clean clothes, winter coats and toiletries that students can access whenever they need.

“Zach exemplifies the life-changing work our teachers do every day, whether that’s guiding children and families through restorative practices, turning his classroom into a refuge where students feel supported or ensuring parents have the resources to engage with their kids’ learning,” said NYSUT President Melinda Person. “The mark he is leaving in Rochester is inarguable proof that emphasizing the whole child is key to healthy students, public schools and communities.”

“One of the things that I remember being told when I first started teaching was to imagine the phrase ‘I can’t learn until I know that you know who I am first,’” Arenz recalled.

“So, the very foundation of my classroom is built on knowing who my students are.”

For more, visit nysut.cc/arenz.