Teacher Appreciation Week is May 7 to May 11, and we're taking the opportunity to celebrate and spotlight a handful of the district's dedicated core of instructors. These professionals are on the front lines of the Cherry Creek School District's most important work, and we're grateful for all they do! Today's featured teacher is Smoky Hill High School's Andy Colella.
Andy Colella has worn plenty of figurative hats since he started teaching at Smoky Hill High School 14 years ago.
Colella refers to himself as a science teacher, but that only hints at the myriad roles he's played at the school. Since coming to Smoky Hill in 2004 after kicking off his teaching career in Loveland, Colella has taught biology, chemistry, geology and every other scientific subject offered at the school. He's taught classes for freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors; he's served as a soccer coach and a track and field coach. He currently works as the school's science department coordinator, and he's betting he'll find even more roles to play in the future.
"In terms of my science background knowledge, I feel comfortable in all the disciplines," Colella said. "I'm kind of like a utility infielder. I'm flexible – over the years I've bounced around."
According to Colella, Smoky Hill's culture perfectly matches his across-the-board approach to education. The school is all about options for students of every background, every interest and every skill set. Whether it's a matter of academics, activities or student support services, Smoky Hill has its students covered.
"There are as many programs here as you can imagine. There is something for everybody here," Colella said. "The culture of the building – that's the adults and the students – is something special. I try to communicate that to people whenever I can. Smoky Hill is a jewel, it's an unbelievably positive environment for kids of all types. We're talking every walk of life."
It's an environment that's proven to be a perfect fit for Colella, who spent the first leg of his academic career convinced that he'd go on to be a doctor. Indeed, after graduating from Thompson Valley High School, Colella went onto pre-med studies in college and even got as far as applying and interviewing with medical schools.
He realized that a future career as a doctor wasn't the right fit, however, and it was only after working with students as a volunteer at a Colorado High School Activities Association leadership campus that his true professional path began to come into focus. He worked as a security guard at Thompson Valley during the day while he earned his teaching license at night, and eventually went to work as a science teacher at his alma mater.
Colella wanted to "spread his wings," and when the opportunity to interview for a teaching position at Smoky Hill arose, he jumped at the chance, driving to Aurora from a camping trip in the mountains.
He got the job, and the posting proved to be the perfect professional and personal fit.
"I fell into a district and a building that was the best possible scenario for me. I'm raising a family in the district, I've got young kids. We've made a home here," he said. "It's an environment where all are welcome, all are encouraged. All means all, and Smoky Hill embraces that as much as anybody."
The school's inclusive mission has helped Colella connect with students of all specialties and all backgrounds. It's made him a better educator, and connected him even more directly with the best parts of being a teacher.
"I truly enjoy building relationships with my students, finding the ways to connect with them that I think are foundational to learning. I think even kids who are reluctant, who are skeptical – if I can connect with them and provide interesting, relevant and exciting opportunities in my class, I can see the growth.
"It makes the tough days less tough and it makes the good days better. It's what drives me," he added.
Check out our past profiles of CCSD teachers from across the district.
Shannon Lopez, Liberty Middle School
Learning to write well can carry important lessons about broader life skills.
Shannon Lopez, an English teacher at Liberty Middle School, works hard to show her seventh-grade students just how the mechanics of quality writing echo other important skills. It's about clarity, purpose and meaning. It's about making your point concisely and convincingly. It's about being willing to make multiple drafts, to revisit your work and keep polishing until you've reached your greatest potential.
All of these lessons apply to all kinds of disciplines, and whether a student is bound to pursue language and literature or science and mathematics, mastering these basic truths can make a big difference in future success.
"Writing is so cyclical. We are always working on coming back to the same skills and assessing the same skills, on making improvements for the next time. We focus on mechanics, sentence structure, all of those things," said Lopez, who's been teaching at Liberty for a decade. "I think the most rewarding part of being a seventh-grade teacher is that I'm able to watch my students grow up and figure these things out."
It's no wonder that Lopez sees a great deal of importance in her role as a middle-school English teacher. The subject is the gateway to future academic success for students, no matter what specific focus they choose. Whether they're bound for careers in engineering or the arts, students will benefit from developing a clear voice and learning to express themselves eloquently.
That's why Lopez is so dedicated to helping her seventh-graders find and develop their budding voices. Lopez wants her students to take risks in their writing; she wants to see them move out of their comfort zones and reach a higher level. Achieving these goals means developing creativity and critical thinking skills, assets that will come in handy in all stages of their academic and professional careers.
"In terms of content, it's really important for students to feel like they can take risks," Lopez said. "I think that comes from building a close-knitted and positive classroom culture, where students feel comfortable. It starts with the ideas."
For Lopez, creating that kind of classroom culture at Liberty has been a joy, thanks in part to a supportive crew of fellow teachers and administrators. There's a reason why Lopez has called the school a home base for a decade, and it has everything to do with the people.
"I really enjoy Liberty and the Cherry Creek School District for the feeling of home," she said. "I have wonderful colleagues and a wonderful administration that's always been supportive in personal and professional endeavors. I love the parent community; we've been able to forge some special relationships."
This special network of professional peers and community members helps Lopez realize her professional goals, which have everything to do with the students. The biggest rewards of her job, Lopez says, comes when students draw on the medium of class to convey their sentiments of appreciation and gratitude.
"Around this time of year, it's always so uplifting to have students write you notes and be recognized through their words," she said. "On a daily basis, I feel like I'm able to walk away and make a difference. It's rewarding."
Bryan Porter, Aspen Crossing Elementary School
Bryan Porter isn't interested in having all the answers or winning all of the acclaim.
Porter, an art teacher at Aspen Crossing Elementary, is happy to let his students take the spotlight instead. Porter's job, he insists, is to properly illustrate the importance of self-expression; he works to properly convey the power of the creative spark.
"I don't want to be the best artist in the room or know everything," Porter said. "I want my students to be eager to surpass me and become the next leaders with the great questions and amazing work, and the drive to try new things.
"They inspire me to do the same," he added.
Porter has been pursuing that mission in the Cherry Creek School District since 2001 and at Aspen Crossing since the school opened in 2005. Porter came to teaching after a successful career as a freelance artist and designer, a path he thought he'd pursue for life after earning his first college degree in art.
Although he'd found inspiration working with students through Parks and Recreation programs while in high school and college, Porter was overwhelmed at the prospect of formally pursuing a career in education. Working as a Special Ed Para in Lake County after college changed his outlook.
"I realized that teaching was a calling," Porter said. "I realized I didn't need to have all the answers, just the ability to ask good questions and inspire people to search out the answers. I like to learn along with the students."
He returned to school to earn his teaching license, and has been dedicated to the craft of teaching ever since. As an art teacher, Porter works to inspire creativity in all students, no matter their specific area of interest. The same well of personal invention and inspiration drives the work of artists and scientists alike, Porter notes, and a good art teacher has important lessons to convey to every single student.
"These students are going to be creative problem solvers," Porter said, adding that he incorporates lessons from his own continuing work as an active artist. "We have kids in so many avenues and it's fun to see them all disperse and become leaders."
Being at Aspen Crossing Elementary for more than a decade has offered Porter a unique degree of consistency as he's worked to spread that message of inspiration to hundreds of students. The school opened with a specific mission in mind in 2005, and the staff has kept focused on those ideals every year. The core values at Aspen Crossing and in the Cherry Creek School District have been a highlight of Porter's career as a teacher.
"Our vision since we first started is still the same. It's about building curiosity and creativity and character; it's always been about kids," Porter said, adding that his son, a first-grader at the school, is just beginning that journey. "We're fortunate in elementary school to watch their first experiences in school and try to build that as we send them on their way to middle school."