A Legacy of Learning: Faculty Mentorship on the Hilltop

Ask any member of the Hackley community, and they are likely to tell you that people are what make Hackley, well, Hackley. Throughout its storied 123-year history, the students, alumni, families, staff, administrators, coaches, and faculty have made this institution what it is today. It is those same people who continue to champion Hackley’s legacy. 
The concept of “legacy” is interesting to explore, particularly as it relates to a place. How does one build and maintain the legacy of an institution? In this piece, we explore how several iconic and beloved Hackley faculty have preserved the legacy of exceptional teaching and coaching that was imparted to them by several iconic and beloved Hackley faculty who walked the Hilltop before them.


Upper School science teacher Tessa Johnson met Andy Retzloff her first year at Hackley. At the time, he was a Lower School science teacher. “He liked the outdoors, and he was very friendly. So over the next few years, our friendship grew. And then he moved into the Middle School and we started teaching forest ecology together. … Basically, he started taking me into the woods and teaching me pretty much everything I know, because my background at the time was marine biology.

So, I could tell you about every single invertebrate in the tide pool, but I barely knew the difference between my oaks and maples.”

“You know, she may call me a mentor, but it was really both ways for sure,” remembered Andy Retzloff, who taught at Hackley for 31 years before retiring in 2016. “I think she [more so] mentored me than the other way around,” he laughed. “But I think that I made her more comfortable outside and helped fuel that piece, too. I know she spends a lot of time teaching outdoors now with her ecology kids, where maybe it was more of a lecture before when she was teaching it.”

Tessa also credits Andy for helping her become more flexible and fun in her teaching. “A lot of learning can happen just in the process of being outdoors and inspiring kids to be comfortable outdoors. So you don’t have to spend all of your time teaching—part of it is just being. I feel like that’s something that Andy really taught me in so many ways. Like, that’s the magic part of teaching.”

And while Andy’s influence and mentorship are evident in the ways that Tessa approaches her science classes, as times change and technology evolves, the ways in which students consume information also change. One way in which Tessa has adapted her teaching to keep students engaged is by incorporating videos that students can watch and take notes on rather than taking notes directly out in the field. This began as an adaptation for distance learning during COVID, but she has continued to use it as part of her curriculum. 

“Andy used to keep all the facts that he compiled in a red binder about the different plants on campus. During COVID, I didn’t know if we were going to be here, so I started incorporating them into movies,” Tessa explained. “So that’s how I have a video on about 60 different plant species we have on campus. And now I have the community record their voices—I have people read scripts and I put them in the videos…and it’s really neat.”

For about 50 or 60 years, students have been making natural history binders for ecology class—“It’s both a beloved and hated tradition,” Tessa laughed. Students used to take notes in the field, which made it more challenging to be able to take in all their surroundings as they worked outside. Now, Tessa takes them out to collect leaves and tells them about the nature around them. For homework, students watch the videos and take notes, then they have plant taping days where they press their leaves and tape them into the binders. “So, I’d say that works better for this generation of kids than what we used to do.”

When it comes to their friendship outside the classroom, both Tessa and Andy mentioned how much they enjoy each other’s company and how much they make each other laugh. “Even now, when I don’t know something, the first thing I do is text Andy,” Tessa said. 

“We’ve become lifelong friends, and she still comes out to visit me here [in the Adirondacks] and we just laugh until our belly hurts,” added Andy.


“I don’t think John would’ve said overtly in 1998 that he was taking me under his wing, but I think looking back 25 years later, it is pretty evident that’s what happened,” said Director of the Upper School Andy King about his mentor John Van Leer ’65, Hackley alumnus, parent, and long-time Upper School history teacher who retired in 2014 after 39 years of teaching on the Hilltop.

Andy began his teaching career at Hackley in July 1998 as a history teacher and part of the Admissions Office. At the time, John’s son Ed ’99 was a senior. “Ed was Community Council president, and I was the 22-year-old teacher who didn’t know how to say no to anything,” Andy noted. “I grew pretty close to Ed, but even before that,…JVL came into my orbit.”

“[Andy] had this great attitude,” John recalled. “He’d ask questions, and he’d listen. He’s a fast learner.” When asked if he ever considered himself to be Andy’s mentor, John’s response was an emphatic “No!” 

“I never saw it that way,” he elaborated. “You have a lot of give and take with a lot of different colleagues. … We did a lot of things together and we were in the History Department together. He was one of these people who you came to respect because he’s in for the long haul. He’s not mailing it in—this guy is doing it. And that’s the other thing, he didn’t just pull out after three or four years; he didn’t just use it as a springboard.”

“[John] was clearly a grownup, and I was a kid in a shirt and tie pretending to be a teacher,” Andy reminisced about his first year at Hackley, noting that John was generous with his time, often offering support both in and out of the classroom. “Because my parents were two hours or a phone call away, sometimes the dad advice you needed was from John,” Andy recalled.

“I learned a lot from John, but one of the things I liked about him was you always knew in a classroom space that it was important for the kids to feel that it was a conversation, not a lecture,” Andy continued. “I think anybody who was paying attention to John’s message, it was about students first. Before we used phrases like ‘student-centered,’ that’s what John was about: ‘We’re here to support the kids.’”

Andy also credits John with being the “anchor” of Hackley’s U.S. history course, encouraging students to learn from many different voices and varying perspectives. “There’s something so fundamentally mission-centric about the way John taught history…and I don’t think I realized that until years removed and more so when I moved into this job,” he added.

Close to the end of John’s tenure on the Hilltop, Andy took on the role of Director of the Upper School. “I was like his biggest booster,” John said. “I said, the faculty respects him, the kids respect him, he understands how to deal with the parents—yeah, he would be great. … And he was terrific to work for. … He was in the trenches with us. So those people, you have a lot of respect for because they’re doing it every day. … Someone like that, you become close to because you respect them so much. It’s an honor to call them friends, it really is.”

“He was a monstrous presence here,” Andy noted about John, “and he is a hugely influential figure in my professional and personal life.”


Upper School history teacher and Girls’ Varsity Lacrosse coach Melissa Stanek ’90, met Dave Allison, lovingly referred to as Mr. A., when she came to Hackley in the sixth grade. Dave, who worked on the Hilltop for 30 years as a Lower School Physical Education teacher and coach for multiple sports before retiring in 2004, was her Middle School basketball coach and then later Upper School basketball, soccer, and lacrosse coach. “He really was the first coach I played for who I felt saw me as an athlete,” Melissa noted fondly. “And I think a lot of the girls who played for him will say that. We had coaches who we played for who we respected and we liked, but a lot of them probably just saw us as girls who were playing sports. He just first and foremost saw us as athletes.”

“He was very creative and innovative in his teaching,” added Francis Stanek, Lower School Physical Education teacher and coach for Middle School football and Varsity Wrestling. “I learned a lot through just watching him be creative with his classrooms. He had the time to do it, but he also had the energy and the want to do that.”

By the end of her time in the Upper School, Melissa knew she wanted to be a faculty-coach, “so I paid more attention to the coaches and teachers I had,” she said. “What I really appreciated then was that what [Mr. A.] valued in his teams was this sense of ‘team.’ And what he valued in his individual athletes was their heart and their effort above all.” Melissa noted that Dave had a tendency to spotlight the student-athlete on the team who he felt gave their all, regardless of skill level. This, in turn, encouraged his players to perform at their personal best. “You didn’t want to let him down, you didn’t want to disappoint him—and the only way to disappoint him was if you didn’t give everything you could give.” She has carried this ethos through to her own coaching. “Remembering to value each member of your team for what they contribute is something that I held onto.”

Melissa and Fran both highlighted Dave’s work ethic and the fact that he loved being outside and having fun. “At the end of the day, he was just so devoted to the kids,” added Fran. “That’s what mattered most to him. ‘Give me an open space and a bunch of children, and we’re going to have a blast’—that’s what he was all about.”

“He loved all kinds of different people and really found room for all kinds of different people in his life,” added Melissa.

The lessons taught and example set by Dave stand the test of time. “I think he was ahead of his time,” Melissa said, recalling a recent workshop she attended that focused on the shift to a more positive coaching model. “But A. was always about positive coaching,” she added with a smile. “He only wanted to lift up, and he got the most out of all of us by being creative and by reinforcing growth, not achievement. … He kind of didn’t see anything about who you were physically or where you came from, he just saw your potential as an individual. So, I think he actually was where everyone needed to be then, and people are catching up to him finally today.”

Sadly, Dave passed away in December 2004 after a long battle with cancer. Hackley’s cross country trails were named in his honor, and a Girls’ Varsity Soccer Dave Allison Memorial Game is played the evening before Alumni Day each year. 

“I definitely miss him,” said Fran, “but I’m so glad I met him and so glad I got to learn underneath him.”

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Whether it’s in the names that don the buildings or trails, a tradition of student-centric conversations, positive coaching, or a love of the outdoors, the legacy of those who walked the Hilltop over the decades lives on. It is a legacy that was passed on to them from those who came before—like Walter Schneller, Paul Szabo, and Art King, who John Van Leer and Andy Retzloff listed as their mentors—and one that continues to influence and impact the faculty making their own mark on the Hilltop today.

This story first appeared in the Hackley Review Summer 2023 edition. To see the full digital issue, click here.