Burton Saxon made the grade yesterday.

At a ceremony at James Hillhouse High School, Saxon, a Yale professor and New Haven public school teacher, was named Connecticut’s 2005 Teacher of the Year by the Connecticut State Department of Education. Saxon, a 34-year veteran of the Connecticut educational system, was honored Thursday morning at the high school where he has taught for 25 years. Selected from among 48,000 public school teachers in Connecticut, he will be later recognized with other state winners at a White House reception.

Saxon, who teaches educational psychology part-time at Yale and at Connecticut State University, said he was happily surprised at receiving the award.

“I never expected to receive this type of recognition for being a teacher,” he said.

His new title was presented by State Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg. Sternberg said a statewide selection committee carefully reviews teachers’ applications, which outline their philosophies of education and their professional contributions, and conducts on-site interviews of students and faculty members.

Sternberg said Saxon stood out because he identified “being a mentor” as the greatest accomplishment of his career. She said many students referred to Saxon as their “friend” in their interviews.

“What came forward was the personal connection recognized by him and the kids,” she said.

Saxon has also been prominent participant in the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, a forum for professionals wishing to continue their own learning and advance student achievement in New Haven. Josiah H. Brown, associate director of the institute, said Saxon has contributed by teaching seminars and producing educational material. Hillhouse principal Lonnie Garris Jr. said Saxon is always eager to discuss educational issues.

Saxon’s wife Myra said her husband reads constantly to keep himself informed about current developments in education and introduced the first Advanced Placement U.S. History and Psychology courses at the school.

“He doesn’t do it to get paid,” she said. “He just loves what he does and wants to improve.”

In his short acceptance remarks, Saxon thanked his wife and his family — but gave most of the credit to his colleagues and students in the audience.

“What makes a great teacher are great kids,” he said.

Saxon said about 60 of his former students have followed his example to become teachers. Gary Highsmith, Saxon’s first student to become a high school principal, said Saxon’s approach to teaching differentiated him from all of Highsmith’s other teachers.

“One of the primary things which makes him special is that he is very liberal in his outlook, but he does not lower his expectations,” Highsmith said. “He was more concerned about his students’ welfare that his own.”

Marcella Flake, a former student who now teaches for the Talented and Gifted Program in New Haven, said Saxon gave his students individual attention.

“He was the one who went the extra mile,” she said. “He was the one who took me for my college interview. He went through my whole application process. The school day just didn’t end for him.”

Hillhouse principal Lonnie Garris Jr. said Saxon’s role as a teacher extends outside the classroom. He said Saxon pursues each student’s potential, regularly attending debates, mock trials and sports games in which his students participate.

“Anyone can teach the academically gifted,” he said. “But he takes the marginal and causes them to strive for excellence.”