Spotlight: 10 Questions for Andrew Franz (NY '17)March 14, 2018
Special education teacher Andrew Franz (NY ’17) was inspired by his mother’s leadership in community fundraising and awareness events: “Little did she know that she was instilling in me the process of taking an idea and making it grow into something bigger than imagined.” He won the Milken Award at Buffalo’s Hamlin Park Claude and Ouida Clapp Academy #74 on October 16, 2017.
1. What went through your mind when you heard your name called at your surprise notification?
Andrew Franz: It was completely unexpected. I had spent the majority of that day dealing with behavioral issues and was really blindsided by the announcement. I thought I was attending an assembly to celebrate the school for our accomplishments in raising our test scores. I was a little suspicious when Dr. Foley [Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards] started expounding about the virtues of a good teacher, but I think I was too tired to process and I started looking around at other teachers who I thought might get the Award. When the truth set in, I was overwhelmed.
2. How did your students respond to your Milken Award? What impact has it had on them?
Andrew: The students in the building have been very proud and have responded very well. They continuously ask me if I have spent all my money yet. The students in my room have had a different reaction. We work with a very high-needs population and my students cannot really relate to receiving an award.
3. How did you end up in education?
Andrew: I started my college career in chemical engineering, which really didn’t pique my interest. I did some soul-searching, decided that I wanted to write, and planned to switch to a bachelor’s degree in English. My father told me that I could teach and write, but not write and teach. Through some early coaching opportunities, working in Respite, group homes, as an aide and assistant for students with disabilities, etc., my wife steered me toward special education.
4. Who are your role models as an educator?
Andrew: My mother is a counselor in schools and has been providing community and wraparound services for years. Her ambition inspires me as she is constantly organizing additional programming beyond her normal job requirements, such as fundraisers, volunteer work, and awareness-building events.
One of the biggest events in my hometown was the 24-hour relay, in which teams of 10 take turns running a mile for 24 hours. All proceeds went to drug and alcohol services for teens. This event was massive and my mother ran the whole thing. I was there when she presented the idea at a conference in Boston. Little did she know that she was instilling in me the process of taking an idea and making it grow into something bigger than imagined.
5. What memories stand out from your first year of teaching?
Andrew: My first year of teaching was at the Cantalician Center for Learning [an educational center for people with developmental and physical disabilities in Buffalo]. I had a 6:1:3 class with two additional one-on-one aides. We had six adults and six students in a room that could not have been more than 15 by 15 feet. Our students were high-needs, aggressive, and perseverative, and they were not having their needs met. We spent a lot of time in physical interventions in the first few months in the school while we continuously took data and tried to figure out what students needed, what they could tolerate, and what motivated them. All the while, we taught life skills, managed personal hygiene, developed speech skills, developed occupational and physical skills, and got to know each student on an individual basis.
Only one of our students was able to communicate on a peer-to-peer level with any coherence or sophistication, and he gave me a day that I will never forget. This teenager was less than five feet tall but weighed close to 300 pounds. He would frequently dictate poems to my wife about me, praising me when he was happy with me, chiding me when he wasn’t. He would only eat chicken nuggets, pizza, or fish sticks (as long as you called them chicken). On days that the cafeteria did not serve these things, he would eat Cheerios. We made this student responsible for his lunch. He was approaching graduation age and we figured if he went to a day habilitation program, he would need to bring his own lunch anyway. If he forgot his box of Cheerios, he would have to wait until a staff member could go back with him. Normally, he was happy to comply.
One day, he forgot his box. We said nothing and started our feeding duties, figuring he would wait like normal. That day, however, a fire was lit inside of this student, and he swatted a spoon out of my hand. I turned back and he was staring at me. I told him that wasn’t very nice. He called me a name and flipped the entire table over—an aide and I caught before it fell on someone. My staff knew the drill and evacuated the other students quickly and quietly while an aide and I went through our crisis protocol. There were a few minor physical interventions to stop him from hurting himself or from hitting me, but mostly we were just talking as his fists were balled in frustration.
Eventually we came to the crux of the problem. “Calm down? Calm down!?” he shouted. “But Mr. Andrew! You don’t understand! Cheerios are very important to me!” These last words were screamed. I laughed, and then he looked at me funny and laughed too. “I want you to have Cheerios,” I responded. The student’s eyes beamed; he sat down and folded his hands. We progressed in this way, reinforcing that this is the behavior that gets Cheerios, etc.
I will never forget this moment. He was right. I didn’t understand and was not addressing his needs enough. It made me ever aware of trying to address the needs of the child. He was normally okay with waiting if he forgot to do his job, but he needed assurance every time. It was a big lesson to learn early in my career.
6. What are students most likely to remember about their time in your class?
Andrew: My students like the hands-on activities that we work on, and most come back and talk about the field trips that we have taken.
7. What’s your biggest challenge in the classroom?
Andrew: Currently, my biggest challenges are mental illness, behavior issues, and work avoidance.
8. How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Andrew: I am definitely getting my driveway redone, but I will probably sit on the rest. My wife has not been to Disney World in a while—perhaps we will take a vacation.
9. What would you say to a student who expresses interest in a career in education?
Andrew: I believe it is a great career that can bring personal, professional and monetary reward. Fulfilling the lives of others is unique. It is constantly evolving and challenging in a positive way. I would recommend going for it, especially if you are motivated by bringing positive change to future generations.
10. What’s your definition of success?
Andrew: I believe success comes from within and is personalized. Attaining personal goals, or even approaching personal goals, is the essence of success. As a special educator, we make goals for our students that are unattainable for that particular student in the time frame that we are given. However, there are benchmarks that an individual can meet—even without attaining the ultimate goal—that show how eventually this student will be able to perform this skill.
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