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Chris Louis Sardella '93 wins the National Educator Award.

Ask Chris Louis Sardella ’93 what his favorite game was as a child, and he’d tell you it was “School.”

“He would actually put together lesson plans,” his sister, Hilary C. Heindl ’96, recently told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. “He corrected and everything.”

Not surprisingly Sardella went on to become a fifth grade teacher – a great one, too.

Recently, he won a $25,000 National Educator Award from the Milken Family Foundation, honoring exceptional teachers across the country. Of the 80 recipients, Sardella, who teaches at Marion E. Zeh Elementary School in Northborough, was the only winner from Massachusetts this year.

When Sardella was recognized at a surprise school assembly last October, the award came as a shock, in part because the nomination process is completely confidential.

“My colleagues had to push me off the bench to the front of the gymnasium when my name was called,” he said. “It was an amazing honor.”

Sardella was initially drawn to elementary school teaching because he believed young students didn’t have enough male role models. He also enjoys how inquisitive students that age are.

In the classroom, Sardella believes in hands-on learning and investigative thinking. He also connects students directly to what they’re learning. When he recently taught his fifth graders about Spanish missions in the New World, they read a primary-source document describing the duties of a Spanish priest rather than just the textbook.

He also leads many projects at the Zeh School. He recently wrote the annual fifth-grade play based on Johnny Tremain and created a learning garden outside his classroom so students can witness nature firsthand.

Though Sardella – the son of two educators – seemed destined for teaching, that wasn’t always his plan.

After majoring in botany at Connecticut College, he followed his interest in the subject to a job at the Massachusetts Audubon Society. There, he led field trips and school programs – and realized his love for teaching.

Since he started teaching 10 years ago, Sardella has adapted teaching styles from some of his favorite professors. They include William Niering, who taught botany, and Nancy Rash, who taught art history.

Niering inspired a passion for learning and sense of responsibility in each of his students, Sardella said, while Rash encouraged students to make thoughtful connections in all of their work. Sardella strives to follow their examples.

“My liberal arts education at Connecticut College was the perfect foundation for my career in teaching,” he said. “Teaching is the best career to share everything I learned during my time at Conn.”

Sardella will likely use his prize money to pursue an education doctorate this fall, but luckily for his students, he has no plans on going anywhere.

“I’m really happy with my job in the classroom right now,” he told The Times & Courier, “and for the next few years I will definitely continue to be a teacher.”

-Rachel Harrington

February 24, 2009