Gaby Czarnik's Nomination of Sydney Neukirch

I was looking at the prompt for this nomination essay—“Be specific! Include as many actual conversations and moments as you can.” I’ve tried to come up with anecdotes that detail this past semester, but there were just countless examples of her kindness and empowerment to choose from. So from fear of being disorganized, I’ve compiled an outline: 16 ways Mrs. Sydney Neukirch has proven to be a valuable educator for disabled students.

She’s discreet, but not ignorant. The best thing a teacher can do for a student with Tourette’s is not to pretend it’s not happening—it’s to understand the struggles the student may face and accommodate accordingly.

She recognizes that she can’t know everyone’s experiences. Mrs. Neukirch is able to realize that there are some things she will just never fully understand, as there are experiences she has not gone through. This applies not only to me and my difficulties regarding disability, but also her entire diverse group of students. Mrs. Neukirch gives value to different perspectives and leaves open the opportunity to share things from our point of view.

She’s flexible. Mrs. Neukirch goes out of her way to make sure I have equal opportunities to show her my knowledge. There was a time that I couldn’t participate in a class discussion because of a stressful and active tic day. Mrs. Neukirch made an effort and took the time to sit down with me and have the discussion with just the two of us.

She follows by example. Mrs. Neukirch takes her cues off of me in response to my tics. She laughs when I laugh, and she turns the other way when I’m embarrassed. There have been too many instances where I’ve had to argue with someone else that a painful tic isn’t funny; I’ve never had to have that sort of conversation with Mrs. Neukirch.

She leads by example. Mrs. Neukirch is always careful to act in a completely appropriate manner, and she has never treated me with anything but respect. These and other qualities are some that I hope her peers can learn from her.

She gives the opportunity to advocate. Mrs. Neukirch is never one to silence mine or anyone else’s independent voice. She gives me the space to explain to her how to best support me, and she listens to what I say and does everything she can to help me be successful and to advocate for me on a higher level.

She doesn’t take advantage. Certain tics of mine allow just enough room for another person involved to jump into a blameless assault—and I can’t say that no teacher has done this. But I know I can trust myself around Mrs. Neukirch because she has done the exact opposite and proven that she respects my control and my body.

She educates herself. It is clear that Mrs. Neukirch always maintains a desire to grow. She takes the time to learn how to best support me, and that is something I appreciate beyond words—something that many others are unwilling to do.

She offers privacy. No questions asked, Mrs. Neukirch allows me to be flexible with my time and workload. Incredibly stressful situations have arisen for me this past semester, and Mrs. Neukirch gives me the freedom to share whatever details I want with her, when I want to. In turn, I share more with her because I trust her—a trust that was established by not forcing me into anything and genuinely earning my respect.

She encourages strengths. Mrs. Neukirch understands that one positive comment can go a long way. She praises not just me but all of her students upon receiving good work, and it can be a huge motivator to be keeping up with those expectations—especially with ADHD, doing work not for just the sake of doing it can be the difference between a successful and failing student.

She knows how to handle sensitive situations. Tourette’s can put a student in plenty of embarrassing or uncomfortable situations. Mrs. Neukirch is practically a master of handling these issues without drawing attention and in the most deferential way possible. Her courtesy makes me feel safer and more comfortable in class and in school.

She knows when to make a big deal. And more importantly, she knows when not to.

She gives me space. Mrs. Neukirch doesn’t push (at least not in the wrong way). Without demanding some sort of answer or excuse, she allows me to tell her what I need, and then she gives it to me; it’s a delicate pairing, because one is not helpful without the other.

She does everything within her power. I remember a time where I was struggling with a homework assignment simply because I couldn’t hear the video (due to hearing loss). Mrs. Neukirch toggled with the website until she found a way to turn on closed captions, even being willing to go get IT support just to help me be successful in her class.

She asks for help. If she has a relevant question, she doesn’t just guess, nor does she disregard it entirely—she asks me. It’s impossible to help someone learn about a unique situation if they don’t express what they don’t know yet. Mrs. Neukirch does exactly that and as a result has been able to grow in her own perspective.

And finally,

She knows me by my name. It’s unbelievable how many people see me as simply “the girl with Tourette’s”. Teachers I’ve had for a full year will remember nothing about me other than my disability—to them, that’s what defines me. Mrs. Neukirch recognizes that my Tourette’s is only a small but noticeable part of me.

Not only has Mrs. Neukirch earned my respect, but she has earned my gratitude, and what better way to honor her than to express that?

"I want my students to see themselves as people who are capable and strong and can achieve the lives they want for themselves, and to be positive forces for changes in their own world around them.”


Sydney Neukirch

For Gaby Czarnik, a high school senior, going to school has its challenges. She has Tourette Syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by motor and vocal tics. Tourette’s is often accompanied by associated disorders such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, all of which can impact a person’s life. Individuals with these diagnoses often find it difficult to concentrate, remain still, or remain quiet. The tics can be painful at times, embarrassing, and exhausting. Even for those with mild Tourette’s, the disorder can overshadow the individual.

Gaby has faced students and teachers who are ill-informed as to the nature of Tourette’s, see only that aspect of her personality, and fail to acknowledge and accommodate classroom difficulties and coursework limitations. In many cases, she says, people know her only as “the girl who has Tourette’s.”

That changed during the first semester of her senior year when she walked into Ms. Sydney Neukirch’s government classroom.

Every year, every semester, teachers meet new students, each one unique in personality, dreams, and backgrounds, including many who are part of diverse and disabled communities. Because Ms. Neukirch recognizes and values these differences, a belief her parents instilled in her, she creates a classroom setting that is an inviting and open space where students can be themselves and share their viewpoints. A setting format she learned from her childhood teacher, Mr. Ward, and had the opportunity to experience firsthand.

For Neukirch, choosing a career in teaching was a natural progression from growing up in a family of seven and the child of teachers. Her father was the first in his family to go to college, and her mother was one of very few female students to attend MIT in the late sixties and early seventies. Her parents had tremendous respect for education and educators and made learning a part of the family’s everyday life. Math and logic games kept them entertained and sparked curiosity.

Her teaching career began when she was six years old and pulled out the chalkboard slate to play school with her younger brother. The details of her instruction aren’t clear, but she believes it involved math equations that were a bit too advanced for her three-year-old brother. After graduating from her makeshift classroom, she taught dance classes and tutored. For the last fourteen years, she has been teaching at the high school level, seven of those at Metea High School where she met Gaby.

“Gaby struck me immediately as a tremendous student,” Neukirch says. “Gaby was a student who took her work and autonomy extremely seriouslyshe completed assignments quickly and very well, but was always open and receptive to feedback, and would go back and revise assignmentsnot for a grade, but because she knew she could improve.”

“Students really do become part of your heart and helping individual students becomes very natural.”


Sydney Neukirch

In the years Neukirch has been teaching high school, Gaby is the first student she’s had with Tourette’s. And while Gaby’s mother did provide her with background about the disorder and how it affects her daughter, Neukirch sought additional information to educate herself in ways she could help her student succeed and thrive.

“It is clear that Ms. Neukirch always maintains a desire to grow,” Gaby says. “She takes the time to learn how best to support me, and that is something I appreciate beyond words—something that many others are unwilling to do.”

Never being complacent is a goal Neukirch has for herself as a teacher, and for others. She works with freshmen government students to develop future leaders and encourages all students to take academic risks letting them know they will always be supported and valued. When asked how this relates to goals for her students she says:

“I want my students to grow their self-confidence and sense of self-worth and efficacy. I want my students to see themselves as people who are capable and strong and can achieve the lives they want for themselves, and to be positive forces for changes in their own world around them.”

Gaby is not the only person at the school impacted by Ms. Neukirch. Her classrooms are filled with students who benefit from her kindness, teaching style, and willingness to help them through struggles. She is a positive member of the Metea Valley staff, the department liaison, and a mentor for other teachers.

“She puts together weekly memos about our department and their families and sends them out to help build community in the department,” Dr. Darrell Echols, principal at Metea Valley High School, says.

Gaby thrived in Neukirch’s classroom structure and appreciated the opportunities she and other students had to express their needs. Gaby, herself, was open and honest, explaining the best ways for support, but her decision to share stressful situations or assignment problems was not a requirement. Ms. Neukirch values the student’s privacy. Gaby chose to include her teacher because she trusts and respects her. Neukirch credits her students for being advocates for themselves, but Gaby says it’s also her teacher’s flexibility that makes a difference.

“Ms. Neukirch goes out of her way to make sure I have equal opportunities to show her my knowledge.”

At times that means Neukirch advocating for her students on a higher level or taking time from her own schedule. On one occasion, Gaby was unable to participate in a class discussion because of an active tic day. Ms. Neukirch sat with her at a later time to have that conversation in a one-on-one environment. On another occasion, Gaby asked for help completing a homework assignment. Due to hearing loss, she was having difficulty understanding a video. She reached out to her teacher who in turn contacted the school’s IT Support. Because of Neukirch’s extra effort, Gaby was able to get the help she needed and complete the assignment.

“[Ms. Neukirch] takes the time to learn how best to support me, and that is something I appreciate beyond words."


Gaby Czarnik

Neukirch credits the treasure trove of information to be found at Metea High School, including other teachers who are willing to provide resources and ideas. She feels it is part of being a teacher.

“Students really do become part of your heart and helping individual students becomes very natural.”

It is this ability and willingness to learn and take cues from others that makes Neukirch stand out as a teacher and co-worker. She realizes she cannot fully understand another’s experiences because she has not experienced those herself. To help herself, she asks questions and says that Gaby taught her things that helped her serve all students. She introduces that into the classroom by following their examples. For Gaby, this means taking cues regarding her tics.

“She laughs when I laugh, and she turns the other way when I’m embarrassed.”

By understanding the needs of her students to the best of her ability, Neukirch is able to analyze situations. When it comes to Tourette’s, she doesn’t ignore the disorder, but discreetly redirects uncomfortable issues that may arise providing Gaby moments of relief and the ability to feel safe.

When Gaby decided to nominate Ms. Neukirch for this award, she listed sixteen ways her teacher has impacted her life and proven to be a valuable educator for disabled students. When asked what made the most difference to her as a student in Neukirch’s government class, Gaby said respect. For her, respect should be mutual. Whether you’re disabled, a student, or a teacher. And that is what Ms. Neukirch gives Gaby, her other students, and the staff at Metea Valley High School.

Neukirch is passionate about her students and the role she plays in their lives, an attribute she attributes to her parents and her former educators. She is in her element working alongside students and guiding them as she herself was guided growing up. She has taken those lessons of compassion for students and subjects and used them to create an environment where students can grow and succeed.

“What greater goal could a teacher have than to create a classroom space where integrity is valued, passion for lifelong learning is nurtured, building relationships is prioritized, and great things are expected of all students, while focusing on creating and expanding equity in all that we do.” Sydney Neukirch says.

Photography by Sally O'Donnell

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