The great teacher Socrates once said, “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.” There is an award-winning, California Distinguished Teacher at Albany High School who agrees with that. His name is Richard Ventura Uhsmann.
Ventura Uhsmann, also known as Mr. U, was born in Queens, New York, then he moved to Long Island. In those days, Long Island was all potato fields.
“I like going back because now it is all lush. In the old photos, fields were dry and barren, now all you see are lush green trees,” he said.
Mr. U’s mother worked as a teacher’s assistant when he was growing up. She believed strongly in the importance of education. He received a bachelor’s degree in Special Education from Geneseo State College in New York, and a master’s degree in Special Education from San Francisco State.
In high school, Mr. U volunteered in a program for young adults with special needs. He spent time going to dances and volunteering time with them.
“Volunteering changed me,” he said. “I realized at a very young age that this was what I wanted to do in life.”
Mr. U has worked at Albany for 11 years. Most of his teaching experience has been with AHS in the same classroom. It has been a very rewarding experience for him.
“I hope to leave a long and lasting legacy through my work with students,” he said.
He added that he wants AHS to remain AHS. “It is a school whose culture is focused on, and dedicated to the enrichment of students, both academically and socially. The teachers here are professional and respectful of all students.” Mr. U also feels lucky to work alongside an amazing group of para-educators.
Mr. U started the AHS “Best Buddies” program. This is an international organization founded by Anthony Shriver of the Kennedy-Shriver families. Its mission is to foster friendships between general and special education students, and to, “establish a global volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for individuals with special needs.”
At AHS, Best Buddies holds monthly parties. “We are a friendship club so we do a lot of fun events throughout the school year. My best memories involve some of our annual traditional events like the Best Buddies Annual Thanksgiving Day Potluck and Movie Day,” stated Mr. U.
Mr. U also has written and published a book under the pen name Austin Stack, called (Not Just) Your Everyday Stretch Book. It is about the importance of stretching prior to exercise but also advocates exercise as a lifelong pursuit. He wrote it because he realized that he had something unique to share with others. He hopes to write a companion piece specifically about working out with weights.
Mr. U has been politically active in his life as well. For Mr. U, political activism was one of the most significant and life changing experiences of his life. He was involved with ACT UP in the 1980s. The group focused on street demonstrations to educate the public, while putting pressure on the government to provide social services and health resources to people living with HIV and AIDS.
“We followed the principles of Ghandi and Martin Luther King while fighting for our civil rights,” he said.
“We all became overwhelmed emotionally and physically from the experience after about five years of political action. AIDS became a medical issue and less of a civil rights issue as it started to impact other groups of people as well. By the 1990’s, society as a whole had a better understanding of the disease.”
Mr. U has travelled every summer for the past ten years. He originally went to Italy, and immediately felt a connection with the people, the history, the culture, the language, and the food.
He has also been to Dublin, Cork, Athens, Paris, London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Tel Aviv, the island of Mykonos, and Barcelona just to name a few.
He recently got married to his husband, Rodrigo. They met in Rome and went to Rodrigo’s home country of Brazil for their honeymoon last summer. They recently celebrated their first anniversary.
Mr. U’s teaching philosophy focuses on self-directed learning.
“If someone comes to me with a question and is not sure about what to do, my first response is to give the question back to them and ask, ‘What do you think should be the first thing you do?’” he said.
“Then, I guide them from that question and work it out. I think it’s very important that everyone can think for themselves and make decisions for themselves.”
Mr. U said, “it is important that we recognize and embrace each others’ differences. It makes the world a better place. If young people have positive experiences with people who are different from themselves whether it is about having a disability or having a different skin color or coming from a different culture then we can begin to break down barriers and stereotypes.”
“I want all of my students to believe in themselves and in their potential,” he concluded. It’s no wonder Mr. U received the distinguished teacher award.