By Tatyana Southerland
He is one of the best teachers in the country, but when Rafal Olechowski was awarded a prestigious grant last Thursday, his face was one of utter shock.
“I don’t believe this,” said Olechowski, who teaches English at Townsend Harris High School, at 149-11 Melbourne Ave. in Flushing.
Nicknamed “Mr. O” by his students, he appeared flabbergasted when he was surprised with a $25,000 check in front of an audience of students, faculty and Department of Education dignitaries by the Milken Family Foundation, an organization that rewards educators for outstanding educational leadership both inside and outside the classroom.
Olechowski was at home recuperating from an operation when he was called in by city Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott for what he believed was a congratulatory ceremony to honor the school for winning a Columbia Scholastics Association award for The Phoenix, a literary magazine he runs with his students.
Instead Olechowski was called in front of the audience by Dr. Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Family Foundation, to receive the prestigious Milken Educator Award for teaching. The coveted award is known as the Oscar of teaching.
“Mr. O is one who emulates all the criteria we are looking for in our Milken Educator awards … he not only sets an example for his students, but he is also setting an example for his profession as well,” Foley said.
“What struck me is he didn’t have a clue and two, how humble he is,” Walcott said.
The Milken Foundation selects award candidates through a confidential and highly-selective process that recognizes educators in participating states. They do not accept nominations or applications and all award recipients are surprised at their schools.
Olechowski was the only New York recipient this year.
“I’m really proud of him. He’s been through a lot, and he inspires me,” said Jonathan Apana, 17, a senior at Townsend Harris.
Apana has been taught by Olechowski in both his humanities and English literature classes. He said Olechowski took notice last year when he was not performing well in English literature and helped him with his school work.
He also wrote a college recommendation for Apana.
In addition to heading The Phoenix and teaching English to grades 9-12 at Townsend Harris, Olechowski also organizes a club outside of school called the MALcontents Club, with “MAL” an acronym for “music, art and literature.”
The club takes students on educational excursions around New York City and goes to a new museum every month. In the past they have visited the Guggenheim, the Whitney and the Met. They go together by public transportation and travel like real New Yorkers, according to Olechowski.
“Real New Yorkers don’t ride the cheese bus,” he said, referring to school buses.
Navigating through the city is part of the program. After visiting the exhibitions, the students have pizza and discuss what they have seen.
“Many students have never been outside of Queens; they are very sheltered. So I really want to extend their horizons. Manhattan is not that far — it’s only a river away — but mentally it is for some of the students,” Olechowski said.