Local teacher chosen as Middle School Teacher of the Year
OAKLAND COUNTY — Each year, Oakland Schools recognizes three teachers for excellence — one at the elementary school level, one at the middle school level, and one at the high school level.
This year, the award for Oakland County Middle School Teacher of the Year goes to Hadeel Azzo, of West Bloomfield, a math and language arts teacher for the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at John Page Middle School in the Lamphere district of Madison Heights.
At 4, Azzo moved from Iraq to the United States. As immigrants, she said, her family struggled a bit at times, but all things considered, they had it good.
Azzo herself, who speaks with no discernible accent, enjoyed an all-American education that had no gaps. Her family, meanwhile, spoke Chaldean and Arabic around the house, keeping their Middle Eastern heritage alive.
Now Azzo, a 2003 graduate of Lamphere High in Madison Heights, is back in the district as a teacher at the middle school she attended. As an ESL teacher, she finds herself helping students who, like her, came to America from the Middle East.
But their circumstances are very different: The Lamphere district has a large refugee population from war-torn Iraq. Some of these children have seen people injured or killed, possibly family and friends, and they suffer post-traumatic stress symptoms. Many of them had significant delays in their education, as well, since their families had to put schooling on hold as they fled to neighboring countries before moving to the U.S.
Now they’re proverbial fish out of water, unaccustomed to American ways and still learning the English language — all of this, on top of the usual struggles of adolescence.
“In order for me to succeed in teaching these students, I have to provide a comfortable environment where they’re able to talk to me about other issues,” Azzo said. “Comfortable and safe — it’s important for them to feel safe because they haven’t felt safe in other lands, and here they can finally trust someone in school.”
It could be a matter of Azzo speaking in her students’ native tongue to explain to them concepts like locker combinations or common courtesy in American culture. Or it could be calming them down during a fire drill — even though Azzo said she explains to them it’s only practice, many panic at the sound of the alarm since it brings back memories of things they heard in their homeland.
Azzo makes herself available to her students and their families at all hours, and she goes out of her way to accompany her students down the hall or check in on them when they’re in other classes. For extra guidance, she’ll assign student mentors to new students, ones who can speak their language, as well.
But Azzo doesn’t stop at helping the students to understand America; she makes an effort to help the rest of the school’s staff understand the refugee children, as well.
Toward this end, she arranges a special luncheon around Thanksgiving where refugee students share their immigration stories with the other teachers. She also helps guide Page’s Cultural Fair each year, nurturing a deeper appreciation for the ethnic diversity that continues to grow in the Lamphere district.
In addition, Azzo participates in Page’s annual Families in Need program around the holidays, and volunteers with Forgotten Harvest, translating for families.
She’s had to cut back a bit on her weekend volunteer hours, though. At press time, Azzo was 38 weeks pregnant. This, coupled with the surprise announcement of her selection as Oakland County Middle School Teacher of the Year, was a bit overwhelming.
“There was not only the surprise of receiving the award, but also the huge group of people who showed up in my classroom with flowers and balloons and pictures galore,” Azzo said with a laugh. “I was in the back of the room with a student and I see all these people come in, my mom and my husband and school board members and administrators, and someone with a sign that read, ‘Teacher of the Year,’ with my name on it, and I read it 15 times, thinking, ‘Are you sure?’
“Then I felt my baby moving and kicking, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, am I going into labor? My due date is right around the corner!’ It’s all exciting, it’s all good stuff, but sometimes, it’s too exciting!”
Azzo was selected by committee from a pool of 18 finalists, who were evaluated in such areas as engaging students, meeting individual needs of students, demonstrating knowledge of subject area, demonstrating classroom management, relating to parents and colleagues, demonstrating citizenship and leadership in the school community, and support statements from colleagues, parents and students.
Teachers must have five years under their belts to be eligible for the award. This is the first year Azzo has been eligible. For winning, Azzo receives a $2,000 check. The program is sponsored by the Oakland Schools Education Foundation, with funding from sponsors, including Health Alliance Plan (HAP). This is the fifth straight year HAP has donated significant funds to the cause.
Tina Davis, assistant principal at Page and one of Azzo’s nominators, said the award is well-deserved.
“The students adore her,” Davis said. “Hadeel is very much their rock and who they look to for help navigating this new world that they’ve been dropped into.
“Another great thing about Hadeel is her mentorship to the parents, who are also new to the U.S.,” she said. “She helps them to support their children and what they should understand about expectations in the American school system.
“When I was told Hadeel won, it was one of the highlights of my year here at Page,” Davis said. “I’m extremely proud of her and happy for her. It’s the true indicator of a master educator. She has all of the skills necessary to make her students feel comfortable and happy here.”