Monday, June 23, 2008

Platt’s teacher of year more than that

By Pamela McLoughlin
Register Staff
— After graduating from Eli Whitney Techncal High School back in the day, Ralph W. Salemme followed his dream and started a plumbing business.
That was just where he wanted to be in life, but when his former shop teacher fell ill and asked Salemme to substitute teach his classes for a while, he couldn’t say no.
It would not turn out to be a dream job exposed.
"After four or five weeks I said, ‘I’ll never do this again,"’ Salemme said. "It was horrific."
He happily resumed full-time plumbing, but a few years later, the dreaded teaching thing came up again when, while attending his niece’s graduation, Salemme ran into a former guidance counselor who implored him to join the teaching staff.
Salemme finally agreed at the last minute — still stinging from his substitute gig years earlier — and, now 21 years later, he’s proven that a "horrific" experience can indeed turn into a terrific one.
Salemme recently was named Teacher of the Year at Platt Technical High School, where he’s not only a popular and well-respected teacher — who mentors other teachers — but also the head of the plumbing and heating department
"The ultimate thing for me is the kids. I like working with the kids," Salemme said. "I didn’t picture myself as a teacher, but it was the best move I’ve ever made."
Salemme, who lives in East Haven and grew up mostly in North Haven, was chosen Teacher of the Year by his peers and is now in the running to be given the title among teachers in the state’s entire 17-school technical system.
Not only do Salemme’s peers love him, so do the students. They say he’s funny, easygoing, knowledgable and doesn’t let them forget his favorite saying, "Work plus effort equals success."
"He doesn’t teach us just about shop work; he actually teaches us life skills too," said Jessica Wrightington, 17, of West Haven. "He’s a teacher, but at the same time he can be a friend, although he always knows where to draw the line."
Salemme has kept his Salemme Plumbing & Heating business, although he’s scaled it down, so he can stay sharp in the field and keep up with changes in the industry to inform his students. He also brings the added expertise of how to run a business to his students.
"He’s a nice guy and he always puts you on the right path in life," said Zachary Manganella, 15, of Milford. "He always helps everyone out — even the person who makes him mad."
Salemme has three children of his own, two of them adults, including a son, Bert, 33, who is a plumber, and a daughter, Trinity, 29. His youngest son, Salvatore, 17, was a 2008 Register Youth of the Year.
He is active in the community, his church and has volunteered his skills for Habitat for Humanity. To encourage students to give back to the community, he offers extra class credit for community service.
Salemme operates like a natural in the classroom.
One recent day he was reviewing a few techniques with the freshman class that has chosen his shop as its major. Salemme is showing students how to cut a laminated counter top with a circular saw.
His practical advice to students: "If this is a lady’s counter top and you chip it up, that’s not a good thing."
Without missing a beat, as if the sentence was connected, he tells a student to shut off the radio in his office. "I don’t want to hear Elton John while we’re doing this."
Then he resumes sawing and uses questions to get the students to think. He regales them with real-life stories of belted sanders taking off when left plugged in and warns them on one type of cut that if their saw is on an angle, "You might be missing some body parts when you’re done."
Even though it was end of year party day, he left them with an assignment: "I want everybody to make a cut today. By the end of the day I want a piece of wood with your name on it."
"They look at him like a brother or a dad. ... One day a kid said to him, ‘I wish you were my dad’ and Ralph said, ‘I wish you were my son,’" said colleague Tony Tom, an English teacher at Platt. "This is what he should be doing."

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