Don’t tell him the odds: Stamford educator semifinalist for Connecticut Teacher of the Year
STAMFORD — When flying, one doesn’t usually think of the math behind it. But for Connecticut Teacher of the Year semifinalist Vincent Urbanowski, that’s how he makes the content real, or visible, for his students.
At the end of every academic year, Urbanowski, a mathematics and engineering teacher at the Academy of Information Technology and Engineering in Stamford, takes students to a grassy airfield. Each is given a soaring lesson from a pilot in a small airplane as it glides through the air, suspended from a rope. He said this is where some of his proudest teaching moments have occurred, as the students better understand the physics of a flying object after experiencing it firsthand.
“Being proud of being a teacher is being proud of something a student learned,” Urbanowski said. “All the best things in the world are invisible, and mathematics makes certain invisible things visible.”
Urbanowski will travel to Hartford on Friday for his semifinalist interview. After he was chosen as Stamford Teacher of the Year, he applied to be the Connecticut Teacher of the Year.
Only 15 teachers in the state were chosen for the competition and three of the semifinalists will advance to the next round. Despite being a math teacher, Urbanowski doesn’t want to speculate the odds. For him, it’s all part of the job.
“The title ‘teacher of the year’ sounds like it’s a crown to honor a designation,” he said. “But it’s really a job. It’s a job of articulating what it means to be a teacher and to speak for other teachers whenever that’s necessary.”
Urbanowski regularly compares math and art: he said both take those invisible entities — gravity and love, for example — and create something from them. Math, like art, tells a story. The story of a falling object, for instance, makes for an equation, he said.
“Both are ways to talk about these invisibilities that make up the basic experience of being human,” he said.
In high school, Urbanowski loved the arts. He wanted to be a writer and was a musician. In fact, he still builds and tunes pianos in his spare time. What he didn’t love, though, was math.
“As an artist, I thought it would hurt my soul, somehow, to be good at math,” he joked.
Instead, he dabbled in “nerdy” things that eventually led him to math — building model airplanes and working on pipe organs. He “did everything that future engineers would do growing up besides the math.”
“The good thing about pipe organs and pianos is that, if you look, you can see how it works and there’s a certain amount of intuition you can bring that’s both mechanical and intellectual,” he said. “I just loved that so much. I loved working on instruments even more than playing them.”
This motivated him to go Norwalk Community College, then called Norwalk State Technical College, to get an associate’s degree in electrical engineering. After graduating, he started working at a factory in Norwalk, but he didn’t enjoy the job.
“What’s funny about life is that I remember that as a happy time, but when I think about it, I remember being really unhappy there, because it was a factory and there would be days where I was in a corner just testing things,” he said.
Urbanowski wanted something more. He left the factory and began working in advertising until he had a son and realized he wanted to become a teacher. He went back to school for his bachelor’s in electrical engineering at Fairfield University and master’s in education at the University of Bridgeport.
He has been a teacher at AITE for 10 years and says it’s the most emotionally and physically demanding — but also rewarding — job he’s had.
“If you’ve ever thrown a party for kids and you think of all the planning it takes to plan that two-hour birthday party, imagine throwing a five-hour party and having learning requirements as part of that and supervisors who care about what you do,” he said.
However, what he loves about teaching trumps any of the tiring demands of the job. For starters, teaching gives him more freedom compared to his early careers in engineering and advertising.
“You bring the best of yourself to the profession,” he said. “Not only are you allowed to, but you really must. The best you can be is your true authentic self,” he said. “That means that the content will be authentic and the students will understand the authenticity.”
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