(This story was first published in the March 1, 2014 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
The Gyra family, from left, Theresa Bivins, Katherine Infante, Barbara Kaiser, Mike Gyra, Mrs. Beatrice Gyra, Paul Gyra, Maureen Steiner, Mary-Frances Gleason and Eileen Gyra Pornelos.
By Virginia Dean, Standard Correspondent
The prestigious Kennedy Center/ Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award for 2014 has been awarded to Woodstock native Mike Gyra, currently a physical science teacher at Barnstable High School on Cape Cod.
Gyra is one of eight children of the late Francis J. Gyra Jr., who was a teacher in the Woodstock school system for more than 30 years, and Beatrice A. Vincent Gyra who presently resides in Woodstock. Frank Jr. passed away in 2007 at the age of 93.
All eight children, who now reside all over the world, are graduates of the Woodstock Union High School spanning the mid-1970s to the early ‘80s. Mike Gyra received his diploma in 1977.
The award, created in honor of American composer and lyricist Sondheim’s 80th birthday in 2010, recognizes American teachers each year by highlighting their impact on the lives of students.
There were five other teachers who were also recipients of the national award that comes with a $10,000 stipend.
“It made my day,” said Gyra in a recent interview. “Quietly, in my heart, it just made me feel good.”
Inspired by the phrase, “service to others is the rent we pay for being alive,” Gyra said the most significant aspect of the award was his former student, Russell Brillant, with whom he connected and admired for his attitude and hard work. Brillant nominated Gyra for the award.
“He had a real soulfulness and mindfulness,” Gyra said of Brillant who is now a sophomore at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.
Brillant had enrolled in Gyra’s Astronomy class and was so impressed with Gyra that he submitted a 500-word nomination essay. Brillant said that, in addition to the subject matter at hand, he also learned about the importance of community service, among other ideals, from his former teacher.
Barnstable High School Principal Patrick Clark mentioned that Gyra is a “phenomenal, inspirational teacher who uses the classroom as a workshop into the world.”
One of Gyra’s sisters, Theresa Bevins, agreed.
“Congratulations Mike!” Theresa wrote her brother recently. “You work tirelessly each day aware of time running out to teach not only the curriculum in the classroom but about the giving of yourself through your time treasure and talents. Individually and collectively you challenge bright and vibrant minds to not only see beyond the stars but to the needs of their neighbor standing next to them. Rock on Pal…” Brother Paul noted that Mike is “truly a dedicated teacher who has an unwavering passion for education and sharing his practical insights and values with his high school students.”
“Michael is an outstanding and humble individual and, indeed, a role model to the many students he has taught, coached and supported over the years,” Paul said. “His genius is his love of challenging students to develop themselves, ensuring they do not take themselves too seriously, and encouraging them to give back to their communities by serving others. Similar to our father, Michael was also awarded the ‘teacher of the year’ designation in prior years, and with a family legacy associated with teaching students, we remain proud of Michael’s accomplishments, including the Sondheim award and this well deserved recognition.”
Sister Maureen Steiner related that Mike’s work with his students and his service to the community is not just a job or even career.
“It is a mission he is passionate about,” said Steiner. “He leads and teaches by example.”
Sister Eileen Gyra Pornelos relayed that she is “thrilled and proud” of her brother.
“As a teacher, Mike loves his students and puts an incredible amount of energy into exploring the universe with them and continues to follow many of them even after their graduation,” said Pornelos. Sister Barbara Kaiser’s reaction to the news was “pure joy.”
“Mike has been such a positive force in the lives of so many students on many different levels,” said Kaiser. “He gets you inspired, thinking, feeling, and a good deal of the time, laughing. I am so very proud of all his accomplishments but, most importantly, that he is an individual who cares deeply for others, seeks to serve quietly, and is committed to enriching his students’ lives beyond the classroom.”
Sister Katherine Infante was also elated.
“When I heard that Mike had won the prestigious award, I was thrilled that his hard work and dedication to teaching had garnered such well deserved recognition,” Infante said. “I am proud to have a brother who has selflessly devoted his life to the greater good of his students, his school and community. He humbly shares his love of kids, passion for teaching, thirst for knowledge and infectious enthusiasm with all who encounter him. With a work ethic that just doesn’t quit, I hope Mike will take a moment to bask in this fabulous honor.”
Mary-Frances Gleason, sister, expressed her delight in her brother’s accomplishment.
“I am so proud of my brother, Mike,” Gleason said. “He is a genuine, compassionate human being who cares deeply for helping the youth of today.”
Gyra’s mother, Beatrice, expressed her pleasure at her son’s recent recognition.
“It was an honor for him,” said Beatrice. “He didn’t expect it. Anything he does, he gives his all. When he gets into something, he really gets into it.”
“It made my day.
Quietly, in my heart, it just made me feel good.”
Growing up in a family of seven siblings and parents who were both teachers, Gyra graduated from Keene State College in 1982 with a degree in biology and chemistry and attended the University of North Texas graduate school before joining the US Army. He was stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia, where he earned his master of education degree through Georgia Southern University.
“The university sent its professors to our barracks,” said Gyra. “I loved it. There were no frills. It was about the love of learning. It showed that you can learn in a cardboard box if need be.”
After the army, Gyra visited a close friend in Barnstable, and met his future wife, Mary Cafazzo, an English teacher at the local high school where he took a subbing job. On the weekends, he worked at the Latham School in Brewster, Massachusetts, which he recalled taught him patience and insight into human nature.
He also volunteered to coach basketball, a sport about which he had been passionate at WUHS.
“That was my escape as a kid growing up,” said Gyra. “Coming from such a large family, you had to learn how to entertain yourself. I was always in motion. Basketball just cost you a pair of sneakers. I just loved dancing with the ball.”
His love of and dedication to hard work came from local summer jobs in addition to his family.
“I worked with a paint crew during the summers in high school,” said Gyra. “I’ll never forget them. They knew how to have a good time and laugh, but when they worked their craft, they focused with a great attention to detail. They took pride in the work they did. The rock ‘n roll in the background created a rhythm. Their focus was razor sharp and got the job done and done right.”
Gyra took that experience along with his family model and applied them to his own passion in science, eventually accepting a position as a physical science teacher at Barnstable.
For the last several years, Gyra has also been instrumental in creating the school’s Cobb Astro Park and hosting Star Parties for students to learn more about the universe. He is currently in the process of transforming the Barnstable United Elementary school courtyard.
In response to his nomination for the Sondheim award, Gyra was asked to submit a 50-word essay explaining why he became a teacher.
“Serving students by playing a role in their ‘Eureka!’ moments, those crystallizing moments that may resonate with them at a crossroads and help redefine their thinking, makes teaching an honor and privilege,” wrote Gyra.