It’s easy to pick out Brian Sztabnik among the students and staff at Miller Place High School. The 6-foot, 8-inch English teacher and boys varsity basketball coach is a towering figure not just physically, but as a molder of minds in and out of the classroom, serving as a role model for students and faculty in the district for the past 10 years. And New York state recently took notice.
Sztabnik, 39, who has taught AP English Literature and Composition and English 12 at the high school since 2007, was the runner-up for 2018 New York State Teacher of the Year. The award, issued by Albany-based New York State United Teachers union through a lengthy application process, honors exemplary educators who go above and beyond what’s expected of them.
As a College Board advisor for AP English Literature; a speaker on behalf of English education on the state and national levels; the creator of “Talks with Teachers,” a top iTunes podcast aimed at inspiring teachers; a published author and the person school administrators turn to for advice, it makes sense why Sztabnik was chosen as one of five finalists out of hundreds in the running.
“Brian is a once-in-a-career type of teacher,” said Kevin Slavin, Miller Place High School principal, before presenting Sztabnik with a certificate for his achievements during the Sept. 27 board of education meeting. Slavin, alongside dean of students Diana Tufaro, nominated Sztabnik for the award last October. “He’s somebody that sees things in a way I could never envision myself. The impact he has on a daily basis is tremendous. Our librarian said it best — when you walk into his classroom, ‘students are invited to learn, not expected to learn.’ We are beyond lucky to have him.”
Slavin said, as protocol during the application process, two previous recipients of the state award observed Sztabnik in the classroom. In May, the pair paid a visit to Miller Place and were impressed to say the least, the principal said.
“The New York state guys said they had never seen a classroom like that — they were in absolute awe,” Slavin said.
Sztabnik consistently provides innovative and immersive curriculum for students, such as “wacky Wednesdays,” a weekly experimental approach to lessons, “Shakespearean musical chairs” and competitive trivia games revolving around novels, poems and works studied in the class.
“School shouldn’t just be sitting at a desk listening to someone talk. It should be about students interacting, moving around and working together to create a unified body of knowledge.”
— Brian Sztabnik
“School shouldn’t just be sitting at a desk listening to someone talk,” Sztabnik said. “It should be about students interacting, moving around and working together to create a unified body of knowledge.”
His wife, Jessica, a fellow English teacher, said she’s pleasantly surprised by his recognition, but not too surprised.
“He works very hard and is such a creative person, so that translates in the classroom,” she said. “He also found a district that really supports him and allows him to use that creativity. Miller Place has been great to Brian.”
Sztabnik, who grew up in Mastic and graduated from William Floyd High School in 1996, has been teaching English, as well as creative writing and public speaking, for 13 years. His career in education began at the Frederick Douglass Academy in West Harlem in a classroom overlooking the original Yankee Stadium, where he taught sixth- and seventh-graders and coached basketball. He then spent a year each at St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School in West Islip and Islip School District before settling in at Miller Place.
After receiving his undergraduate degree in communications from New York University and pursuing a career in journalism for two years, Sztabnik was inspired by his wife to get his master’s degree in English education from Stony Brook University in 2002.
While he is grateful for any accolade he gets, Sztabnik said he first and foremost teaches to make a difference in young people’s lives.
“I love being in the classroom and having that interaction with the students,” Sztabnik said. “I’m just fascinated by how they think and I constantly want to hear how they think. I think that’s what makes English so cool — everyone can have an opinion and as long as they can back it up from the text we can have really varied and diverse discussions from which we can learn about each other.”
Part of his goal in the classroom is to push students to think critically, a skill he said transfers beyond English.
“It’s such an important skill in life,” he said. “I want them to notice the small things and be equipped to respond to those things. If you put learning in the foreground, the grades take care of themselves, but the opposite is not always true.”
Jake Angelo, a senior in Sztabnik’s AP Literature class, said his teacher encourages students to learn and take action.
“He doesn’t prepare us; he teaches us how to prepare ourselves for the future,” Angelo said, saying something like studying Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice” becomes a theatrical production under Sztabnik’s tutelage. “He had us act out the play, giving us props while teaching the impact of every symbol and character. He makes it interesting.”
Former AP student Brianne Ledda, who graduated last year and attends Stony Brook University, said Sztabnik deserves all the recognition he gets.
“His teaching style depended very much on student interaction and the class was always engaged and active,” Ledda said. “I appreciated that he valued our input as students, and I loved that we were given more freedom of choice in our reading.”
At the end of the board meeting, Slavin joked that sooner or later, “Somebody in the larger state is going to steal Mr. Sztabnik away from us,” so Miller Place needed to get as much out of him as it could as long as he’s there.
Sztabnik’s response sent a sigh of relief over the room.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said with a smile. “I think, and this is also true of Miller Place, the best is still yet to come.”