Former Hartford student is named city's teacher of the year
Hartford Courant. Vanessa de la Torre. May 26, 2017.

Sonia Turner, a sixth-grade literacy teacher at Annie Fisher STEM Magnet School who overcame her own childhood struggles with reading, has been named the city school system's teacher of the year.

Turner, 42, has been a mainstay at Annie Fisher for nearly 19 years, using her experience as a product of Hartford schools to become the type of educator that long-ago students, now grown, are still eager to visit to share wedding news and other life milestones.

Gary Lotreck, the city's top teacher last year, announced Turner as the 2017 winner at the district's annual awards ceremony Thursday night.

"It was pure surprise," Turner said Friday. For a second, she wondered if she had misheard her name. "I'm normally one who stands in the background to do what I need to do. It was just an amazing moment."

Decades ago, Turner personified the kind of student she would want to help. She was a quiet grade-schooler with low self-esteem, who tested poorly in reading and math and was placed in special education. It wasn't until sixth grade when a Hartford teacher, Ms. Cody, whom Turner recalled as "firm but fair," began to coax her out of her shell.

"I guess she saw something that I couldn't see in myself, and she just really moved me forward," Turner recounted. Then in seventh grade at Naylor School, her special education teacher seemed perplexed that Turner had been tracked into special ed, asking, "Why are you in here?" Turner was transitioned into mainstream classes after that.

But at Bulkeley High School, Turner suffered a blow to her confidence that was almost life-altering. Her guidance counselor, unimpressed with her SAT scores, suggested that college was a pipe dream: Enlist in the military or take up a trade, Turner was told.

If not for her parents, who insisted that she try college anyway, and if not for her sixth- and seventh-grade teachers who saw the spark in her, Turner said, "I would not be where I am today."

"When I look at my students, I see myself, because I grew up in Hartford and I went to Hartford schools, and know the positives that I had and I know the negatives," she said. "That made me want to become a teacher."

After graduating from Bulkeley in 1992, Turner went on to the University of Hartford for her bachelor's degree in elementary education and later earned her master's in remedial reading and language arts from Central Connecticut State University.

She began teaching at Annie Fisher in her early 20s, before the northwest Hartford school became an integrated regional magnet program under the Sheff v. O'Neill agreement. Back then, she still lived on Kent Street in the Blue Hills neighborhood, close enough to walk.

During her tenure, Turner, who now lives in Windsor, has been a classroom teacher, literacy coach and reading interventionist who gets results.

"Students describe her as tough, as strict, but as inspiring and never boring," Annie Fisher STEM Principal Sheri Tanner said in a video testimonial. "Teaching is everything to her. She is truly a worker bee. ... She cares so much about their success."

Turner also is a mother of two children at the school, including an autistic son whose uniqueness has inspired her as an educator when she works with special-needs students.

"I really hone in on their strengths, and I do not allow them to use any of their disabilities as an excuse," she said. "I'd want someone to do the same thing for my son."

Turner has brought that no-excuses approach to all her sixth-graders, who begin to believe her when she says, "We are going to move mountains" — a reminder to reach for their best selves. Last year, she said, 80 percent of her students tested proficient in reading on the Smarter Balanced standardized exam. Students know their teacher speaks from lifelong experience when she says it can take three or four tries to understand a complicated text.

As Hartford's teacher of the year, Turner pledges to be an advocate for the city's schoolchildren and "give them a voice for what they need and what they deserve. Our students are an investment and we can't neglect them, whether it's with money or resources. They should not be the ones who are neglected. I'm going to fight for our children, our students, to get the things that they need."

William Conroy, who works with English language learners at McDonough Expeditionary Learning School, and Katelin Jacobs, a kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Breakthrough II Magnet, were the two other finalists for this year's award.

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