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NYS Teacher of the Year and Batavia resident wants your vote for America's Favorite Teacher

By Joanne Beck
Zach Arenz with students
Batavia resident and Flower City music teacher Zach Arenz, with some of his ukulele band musicians, is competing for America's Favorite Teacher and a $25,000 prize.
Submitted Photo

In the days, weeks and months after the COVID pandemic protocols settled down and kids were able to return to school after all of that isolation, an odd phenomenon occurred, and many struggled with the desire to return.

For Batavia resident and Flower City School teacher Zach Arenz, he was able to spark student interest through the magic of music.

“I just think at the core of teaching, it's so important for kids to feel connected. And in a world where I think we're increasingly disconnected from one another, it's important to grow those relationships at the school, with their teachers, and get the kids excited to be at school each day,” Arenz says. You know, we're four years post the beginning of the pandemic … but attendance is still a big issue in schools; getting kids to want to come to school is a struggle for a lot of them. And I had one kid recently tell me that the reason he came to school that day was because he had band with me. And, I mean, in the days that I feel most stressed, and I just feel like am I doing it the right way? You hear something like that and you're like, wow, the teachers make such a huge difference in our kids’ lives.”

His work with students as a music teacher and efforts to establish a school-based Community Closet for donations at Flower City School in Rochester has earned Arenz a 2024 New York State Teacher of the Year Award and a Top Two spot so far in his group for a Readers Digest online contest that will award the final winner a $25,000 prize.

Not to boil down school absenteeism all to COVID, but a large reason was the aftermath of pandemic shutdowns and the resulting psychological and social effects, as noted by school experts, that online learning, removal of face-to-face friendships and classroom learning caused to kids. 

Add to that a school with demographics of pervasive poverty for students of color, and there are attendance obstacles, said Arenz, who has been a music teacher at Flower City since 2013. In the same way that he first became attached to an instrument — the clarinet in fourth grade and bassoon in college and now in the Genesee Valley Wind Ensemble — Arenz has been helping his students connect with music through general music and instrumental music, modern band, a garage band type model, and a ukulele band for students in grades kindergarten through six.

“Just a lot like my kids, there was a teacher who was brave enough and gave me a clarinet. And from that moment forward, my life has circled around music. I just I always find that it's the comforting spot for me to be, it's where I feel most connected,” Arenz said.  

There are certainly other needs, which Arenz has not let go unfilled. He first began to notice a student coming to school in the same white T-shirt, getting dingier day after day after day, he said. He then saw sweatshirts on clearance at a Big Box and thought, ‘I can buy one’ for this student.' Then he bought five. And then he put out a call for donations on his social media site. 

The Community Closet grew out of those simple and caring steps to fulfill students’ basic needs five years ago. The response was “more than I could have imagined,” he said.

“Because, if I could at least give them a clean shirt to feel comfortable in for the day, that's fine, I can do that. And then that has spawned into this community closet that I started at school, where I bring in donations from the community, and people will bring their trash bags and their spring cleaning. So there's all this stuff that we don't need anymore, and I have a whole closet and a portable closet rack that houses the clothes that the kids need," he said. "And the moment a kid sees me in the hallway, it may be, ‘I don't have any clean clothes at home anymore.’ But sometimes it's something just like, ‘Oh, I spilled my apple juice all over my pants. Can I have a new pair of pants?’ It's so easy now for me to just say yes, we have those things. And if it's something little like that, I can also run a load of laundry at school because there's a washer and dryer across the hallway from me. So it's doing stuff like that. It just makes the kids feel proud.”

An array of clothing filled the closet for students and their families. Then, several items were donated, including toiletries for personal hygiene. It became about more than just providing for someone in need, Arenz said; it was about providing for anyone in need at the moment. Most anyone could use a squirt of hand lotion at some point, right?

He said there hasn’t been an issue with kids being too proud to accept the goods because of the way the closet is set up. There can be, but he has instead seen “the gratefulness” that develops.

“It’s not something I hide; it’s not something I do in secret. The community closet is immediately when you walk into my door, it is to your right. So there are things that are out, and kids will get first,” he said. “And you know, I think by increasing visibility, you also increase accessibility. I will get interrupted in the middle of class (by a student asking for something). It’s not a big deal; I try to make it as shameless as possible. I also teach the difference between taking something because it’s there and it’s free or taking something because you need it.”

A transplant from Long Island, Arenz, 36, settled into Batavia as a comfy midway point between Buffalo and Rochester after Fredonia State College pulled him closer to Western New York. He first taught music for a middle school class in Sweden (the country) for a year before landing the Rochester job.

A believer in supporting local business, Arenz is no stranger to the Downtown Batavia and Genesee County trivia circuit and considers Eli Fish one of his home bases to hang out. He will proudly wear a Charles Men’s Shop tux to his New York State Teacher of the Year Award dinner at the White House on May 2.

The Board of Regents named Arenz for the 2024 honor based on his being “an exceptionally skilled and passionate educator.” He will also serve as an ambassador for the state teachers and become a nominee for the National Teacher of the Year program.

“Zachary Arenz is the embodiment of a dedicated and inspirational teacher. His ability to engage with students and inspire and ignite a passion for lifelong learning through music is exceptional,” Commissioner Betty A. Rosa said. “His determination to help all students achieve success by providing them with a safe and supportive environment is a model for all schools across the state.”

For Arenz, “It was the dream job I never knew I wanted,” he said. 

“I went in growing up in the suburbs, unsure what it was going to be like,” he said. “But my first school, I fell in love with my colleagues, I fell in love with my students. I’m very lucky to have the job that I have. It’s not a position that I take for granted ever.”

When he more recently came across an advertisement for the America’s Favorite Teacher contest and, more notably, the $25,000 prize, he thought, “I could effect some change with that money.” 

“I would love to be able to pour money into building up a sustainable classroom or not even just a classroom closet, but a true community space where it's not just in my classroom, it's not something that's mine, I think one for my school," he said. "I think what I would dream of is having a space that is more central, something that is more accessible, not just by the kids, but also a community space, a sort of, if I was dreaming, maybe it's a space that includes a food pantry, maybe it's a space that includes a shopping experience sort of thing, where we do have a variety of donations that are available to anybody. So when I do my spring cleaning, I would love to return my stuff to the school.”

Voting for this round ends at 7 p.m. Thursday before the next level goes on to compete. Arenz is hoping to continue with the support of everyone’s vote. To do that, and for more information, including about the Teach For America fund and boosting your votes even more, go to America's Favorite Teacher.

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