Zach Rittner ’12 was about to give a unit test in his environmental science class when his principal walked into the classroom to announce that he’d just taken a phone call from a dean at Union College.
“What is about to happen?” Rittner recalls thinking. “Are they going to rescind my degree? I thought I paid my tuition.”
The call was better than that.
Dean of Faculty Strom Thacker had called to inform the principal at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School in New Jersey that Rittner was needed in Schenectady for Founders Day on Feb. 20. He was to receive the Gideon Hawley Teacher Recognition Award, which honors high school teachers who have had a continuing influence on the academic life of Union students.
Rittner, one of the few alumni to receive the award, was nominated by Maryam Ramjohn ’23, an environmental science major who said, “Mr. Rittner was an amazing teacher who learned from the best.”
She cited her teacher’s passion for field trips as a way of helping students understand the real-world applications of classroom topics.
And it was Rittner who encouraged his students to learn from the same professors who taught him.
“All the faculty are really incredible— experts in their field and great teachers— but it was the biology department that blew me away,” Rittner said.
It was classes, labs and field trips with the likes of Steven Rice, Barbara Pytel, Kathleen LoGiudice, Scott Kirkton and Robert Lauzon that “laid the very foundation of my educational career and personal pedagogy,” he said. “They are all legends who set the bar for what excellence in education looks like and they inspired me to go above and beyond for my students just as they did for me.”
Rittner recalls early-morning field trips for plant ecology with Rice, something that served as a model for a forestry study he does with students to understand trees and calculate biomass and CO sequestration.
While at Union, he took a term to study environmental science in Australia and New Zealand. That and many field trips from campus were “not just relevant to the classroom, they were opportunities of a lifetime.”
Rittner was joined at Founders Day by his parents, Andrew and Mary Rittner; and his brother, Jesse.
Rittner has been teaching at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School since 2014. In 2016, he developed and taught the school’s first environmental science program. He holds an MAT from Mont- clair (N.J.) State University and is pursuing a master’s in environmental science from Montana State University in Bozeman.
The Gideon Hawley Award is named for the 1809 graduate of Union College who was New York State’s first superintendent of public education.