It was different.
It was scary.
“It was fun,” said Mark Veteto, co-founder of the Veteto Foundation, which since 2007 has annually celebrated the work of five Hobbs schools educators with its Excellence in Teaching Award.
Normally, foundation members would make school visits in April and hold an in-class presentation for each recipient. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mark Veteto, who often makes the initial announcement to each winner, did so this year with his wife, Patti, next to him from their home via Zoom.
The Vetetos joined into the daily staff Zoom meetings at each school, made their presentations, and offered virtual hugs while sharing real tears.
This year’s winners are Brandi Fisher, a Tech teacher at Houston Middle School; Melanie Kjerimi, a first-grade teacher at Coronado Elementary; Regina Rich, a Special Education teacher at Will Rogers Elementary; Michelle Curtis, a third-grade teacher at College Lane and Debbie Dean, a Science teacher at Hobbs High School.
“It’s an honor and privilege to be able to recognize a teacher, especially in these times,” Veteto said.
In a normal year, there would be a banquet around this time for the recipients and past winners. Along with the great food, there would be Mark Veteto reading off the letters and recommendations that led the foundation’s selection committee to choose each winner. There would be a short video of each winner in their element, with interviews from teaching peers and students. Then came the award presentation, a $5,000 check from the foundation, to be spent however the winner chooses, a crystal apple award and other gifts.
This year no banquet will take place, however the $5,000 check, a crystal apple and other gifts are expected to be delivered next week. And on Tuesday, Veteto got to do one of his favorite things, read the recommendation letters.
“As a teacher, she is loving and understanding with all of her students,” said Veteto reading one of several letters recommending Kjerimi. “If she sees a need, she finds a way to address it. Guiding students to find their strengths and using them to excel in different areas is one of her greatest attributes. She is able to create a rapport with each student in her classroom. For her, they are not just her students, they become her kids.”
Kjerimi said while she was listening she kept guessing if Veteto was talking about her.
“I was like, ‘is that me?’” Kjerimi said during her acceptance speech. “‘No, no, that is this other teacher he’s talking about.’ Oh my goodness, thank you so much. I feel so special.”
About 10 minutes later the Vetetos jumped into another Zoom meeting, at College Lane for Curtis’ presentation.
“SHE IS ONE OF THE MOST positive people we have on our staff,” Veteto read from a recommendation letter. “She never has a negative word to say, she handles even the most delicate and challenging situations with positivity and grace. She has been a mentor for other teachers and long-term substitutes who comes to our school needing help. She gives (her students) a safe place to fail. By this she gives (her students) room to try new things and to learn from their mistakes in a safe, loving environment.”
Curtis said she was a bit in shock when it came time for her to speak.
“Thank you so much,” Curtis said.
“I wish we were there with you, we’d give you a hug,” Patti Veteto said to Curtis.
“I’d give you some hugs right now,” Curtis said.
Next up was Fisher’s announcement at Houston Middle School.
“A teacher wrote, I’ve had the opportunity to get to work along side her for about nine years,” Veteto read. “In this time I have been able to witness, over and over again, the way that she cares for and works on behalf of her students. In the over 16 years that I have been a teacher, I have seen others come and go. She is one individual that I have worked with who uniquely stands out in every aspect of the profession.”
Like the previous teachers, Fisher was also quick with her words.
“I just want to say thank you,” Fisher said. “I am honored and I work with great co-workers. I am just in shock.”
Viewers who knew of Rich’s selection, could tell it took about two or three recommendation letters to be convinced that she was a 2020 recipient.
“She has a gift for kindness,” Veteto read. “Whether student, parent or peer, she addresses everyone with a warm, genuine smile that we can’t help but return. Truly remarkable is how she can do this, and mean it, to students who have spewed the most vile insults to her, even the day before. Not only does she bring them a smile the next day, she redoubles her efforts with new action plans and strategies to reach each of her kids in any way she can.”
Before Rich could unmute her Zoom microphone, she was greeted with accolades and congratulations from her teaching peers.
“Well, I appreciate all of the kind words,” Rich said while holding back her tears, “because what we do, especially as a special ed teacher, you feel like it’s all in vain, but in the end, it is all worth it. Because you see the outcome. I have had students I had 20 years ago come up to me and just thank me for everything that I have done for them. We are all one, big team and I appreciate each and everyone one of you guys.”
IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG for Hobbs High School educators to recognize that Dean, the school’s former head swimming coach and current Science Olympiad coach, was their school’s recipient. Veteto’s first recommendation letter from Dean’s student teacher left no doubt.
“I could tell right from the start, as a student teacher, that she would do very well in the teaching field and she has not let me down,” Veteto read. “She has done an outstanding job in all of the positions she had held over the past 19 years in the Hobbs School District. She has earned her doctorate of philosophy, has received national board certified teacher status in science, she has been chosen swim coach of the year several times and she has been chosen by several students as their inspirational educator.”
“I think I gave her away just then,” Veteto quipped.
Dean, who was centered on each of the educators’ Zoom screens during Veteto’s presentation, said she kept getting messages from teachers about the issue and she tried to fix the view. School principal Zeke Kaney fessed up to putting Dean front and center for everyone to see.
“Thank you so much,” Dean said during her acceptance speech. “The Hobbs schools is the only place I have ever worked and I just can’t even imagine going anywhere else. Hobbs stayed with me through all of my degrees. Then supported me through my doctoral work. They encouraged me through my dissertation to finish that PhD off and then to receive all my extra licensures. Go through my internship with the Hobbs schools to get my administration degree and they had to work around all of my weird schedules and committments. This just means so much. My co-teachers are just 100 percent, and have supported me and put up with me all of these years.”
Before each presentation, Hobbs Superintendent TJ Parks remarked to each school’s staff about the community support the school district receives from a variety of foundation and organizations, including the Veteto Foundation.
“Mark and Patti Veteto have been presenting information to our community, for our teachers, for over 13 years,” said Parks. “And I can tell you it is a priviledge that we share and hold very near and dear to our heart.”
Todd Bailey can be reached at .