By Jessica Chin
One teacher had him challenge the minds of the mathematicians Euler and Fermat in middle school. The other had an entire class excited about the Shakespeare tragedy “King Lear.”
Michele DeCicco and Alan Semerdjian’s passion and devotion to teaching so affected Herricks High School graduate Ben Pleat’s love for learning that he nominated them for the Harvard Club of Long Island’s “Distinguished Teachers of 2017” award — which they won.
Pleat, now a Harvard University senior, is among several students who nominated their former teachers for the award. Michelle Flannory and Eric Premisler of Sewanhaka Central High School District were also named winners.
Pleat had DeCicco for seventh grade honors algebra and Semerdjian for 12th grade Advanced Placement literature.
DeCicco teaches at Herricks Middle School and has been a mathematics teacher for 30 years. She is also the coach of Mathletes and a math research adviser.
Pleat said her class was “probably the hardest class I’ve taken in my life, definitely harder than anything I’ve taken at Harvard.”
She really pushed her students to excel, and Pleat probably would not have won a gold medal at the Long Island Math Fair without her constant pushing, he said.
“I remember I would always give her a draft, and she would say, ‘go further, go further,’ he said. “That approach at the time was extremely frustrating but looking back probably one of the most valuable things I could have gotten from an educator.”
DeCicco said she was “truly honored” to receive the award, especially because it was students she had a decade ago who nominated her.
“I’m really grateful they remembered how I touched their lives,” DeCicco said. “I hope that I have that same impact on many more students.”
Semerdjian teaches English at Herricks High School and has been a teacher for 20 years. He also advises several clubs, including the Literature Club, and is a professional poet and songwriter.
Pleat said Semerdjian’s passion showed through his teaching and reached his students.
His class also piqued Pleat’s interest in the liberal arts.
“That definitely influenced my decision to go to a liberal arts college, Harvard, and it really pushed me to continue taking literature, history and humanities courses that I probably wouldn’t have taken otherwise,” Pleat said.
Semerdjian also said he was honored to receive the award.
His teaching style, he said, allows students to be more engaged instead of listening and regurgitating information.
“I think we don’t really learn unless we’re invested or engaged in the content that we’re learning,” Semerdjian said. “You know I’m that way as a learner, so I always felt that I needed to create conditions for that as a teacher.”
Flannory teaches chemistry and science research at Elmont Memorial High School. She has taught both subjects for almost 20 years.
Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna, a Harvard freshman who was admitted to all eight Ivy League colleges last year, said she nominated her former science research teacher after she motivated her to reach “my potential, and pursue the unconventional.”
Uwamanzu-Nna describes Flannory as someone who is always giving her students 150 percent despite having two children of her own and teaching chemistry alongside science research, a course that is often taught on its own.
Coupled with the fact that Flannory used to live and commute from Brooklyn, “those factors together really make her a paragon for what the Harvard Club is looking for in teachers who have inspired high school students,” Uwamanzu-Nna said.
Premisler teaches in the history department at Sewanhaka High School. He has been teaching for 16 years. He developed a criminal justice course and a course that views American history through the lens of popular films.
Shahrukh Khan, a senior at Harvard who nominated Premisler, said his former teacher has a style that is “broadly funny and approachable.”
Premisler also valued academic excellence, Khan said; “even four-page research papers” involved “multiple drafts, all laced in red pen.”
The four teachers will be honored at the Harvard Club of Long Island’s annual University Relations Luncheon on April 30, along with eight other teachers from across Long Island.
One teacher will be named the Distinguished Teacher of 2017 at the ceremony and receive the “Harvard experience” at the Cambridge campus.
The experience will allow the teacher to sample the resources available to Harvard students, which include rare book archives, research laboratories and specialty museums.