GCHS teacher Hahn honored at former student’s college graduation 

— Photo from Mitch Hahn 
Guilderland High School English teacher Mitch Hahn, left, and Leonard Bopp, who graduated from Guilderland in 2015, share a laugh at Williams College’s graduation weekend in June. Hahn was there to accept an award for which Bopp had nominated him: an Olmsted Award for teachers who played an influential role in the lives of Williams seniors.

GUILDERLAND —Guilderland High School English teacher Mitch Hahn helps all of his students — no matter what their learning level or learning style — to become better writers and better communicators. 

So says former student Leonard Bopp, a 2015 graduate of Guilderland and 2019 graduate of Williams College, who stood onstage with Hahn in early June during a ceremony at graduation weekend as Hahn was feted by Williams College with an Olmsted Prize.

Williams seniors can nominate a teacher who has influenced their lives and their learning, and winners — typically from a pool of 25 to 50 nominations each year — are chosen by a committee of faculty, staff, and students. The winning teachers — Williams chose four this year, including one from a high school in California — receive $3,000, while their schools receive $5,000. 

Guilderland’s $5,000 will be used to support activities in the English department, said district Superintendent Marie Wiles, including a possible speaker series, support for continued discussions around diversity, and materials to enhance classroom libraries.

Wiles also noted that Hahn has been asked by three different graduating classes to serve as commencement speaker.

At Williams, Bopp completed a double-major in English and music. He is a conductor, trumpet player, and composer, and is headed in the fall to the University of Michigan School of Music to begin a master’s program in conducting. 

“What’s wonderful about Mr. Hahn, I think,” Bopp said by phone, “is how invested he was in all of his students and how much he believed that our education — our writing and reading and critical-thinking ability — mattered. He believes all his students can have an impact on their communities.” 

Bopp has observed Hahn talking with students who are not in Advanced Placement English, as he was, but who are in other levels — Honors, Regents, or Focus classes — and he takes exactly the same approach with them, Bopp said. “He met them where they were at. He really stressed that education is about making progress. He would meet us at the level where we were at, but would push us.” 

Bopp wrote in his nomination, “[W]e went through a meticulous and thorough revision process for each assignment, during which every student, no matter their individual skill or the quality of their original work, was expected to dramatically improve their writing. Behind all of this was a conviction that he imparted on us throughout the year: words matter, and words have power.” 

By teaching his students that their words mattered, Bopp said, “[A]ll his student left empowered.” 

Hahn explained, “In all of my 11th-grade classes, not just AP, my focus is: I want students to come out of my classroom better readers, better writers, better thinkers than when they walked in.” 

Writing is important for everybody, Hahn said, and students will need to write things in the future, whether an invoice, letter of complaint, or publishable argument.  

“Writing is hard, writing is messy, writing demands attention,” Hahn said. “If you want to do it well, you have to go through a revising process, to help the audience understand your purpose.” 

The purpose — whether to inform, persuade, or entertain — needs to be clear, he said. 

Listening is also an important element of communication, Hahn believes, and he teaches students to listen “not just to respond, but to understand, even if they don’t agree.” 

He emphasizes that discussion is different from debate. In debate, he said, there’s a winner. 

Hahn teaches a skill he calls “civil conversation,” and encourages students to develop better speaking and listening skills while discussing topics that include “anything you could possibly think of,” he said, naming as examples issues related to race, standardized testing, immigration, or sitting on the stage at graduation — “whatever is on kids’ minds.” 

A new club formed at the high school this year. It’s called Civil Conversation. Three students started it, Hahn said, and asked him to be the advisor. 

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.