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Groton's Teacher of the Year brings creativity into the classroom

Groton — Northeast Academy Arts Magnet School fifth grade teacher Ryan O’Connell is the epitome of why children look forward to going to school each day — and what parents look for in their child’s teacher, Principal Ryan Chaney said.

O’Connell makes learning fun, engaging and meaningful and really gets to know his students. He understands what makes them “tick” and works really hard to reach all of his students individually, Chaney said.

“He really truly fosters a love of learning for all kids,” Chaney added.

O’Connell was announced as Groton’s Teacher of the Year at Monday’s Board of Education meeting.

Chaney said in an interview held via Zoom that O’Connell stands out in how he inspires creativity in the classroom.

“It is true, focused engagement in his room and when you witness his instruction and the level of detail he puts into his craft, it comes out in student performance,” Chaney said. “The kids are engaged in complex tasks: true, real life problem-solving.”

O’Connell said he tries to bring creativity into the classroom and share some of his own interests with the students.

Each year, students in O’Connell’s classroom engage in a series of different animation projects, from creating the phases of the moon to book trailers and short sequences from stories read in class, he said.

Last year, they adapted a scene from Gary Paulsen’s book "Hatchet" as a stop-motion animated short — a project that earned him the 2020 elementary educator award from the Connecticut Educators Computer Association.

This year, the class is working on a book trailer for Kate Milford’s "Greenglass House," after having a Zoom book discussion with Milford this winter.

Students also learn science and civics during a unit called Project Earth, in which the students have a three-tiered plexiglass game board that simulates a town, he said. The students are given a number of scenarios and they have to research, debate and decide how to resolve them to leave their town as good or better than they found it.

When planning a lesson, he often contemplates how he is going to take a skill and make it fun for the students to learn.

His biggest driver is to make a difference in the life of a child, he said. While routine and consistency are always important for children, this year those things were especially important, so he strove to provide consistency so children knew what exactly to expect when they walked into the classroom in the morning — as well as the next day.

With both virtual and in-person lessons, he said there were not only opportunities for students to engage virtually with each other, but he also tried to take lessons offline as much as possible with more hands-on, outdoor projects.

O’Connell, who grew up in Gales Ferry, said he always enjoyed working with children and knew he wanted to have a career that would make a meaningful difference in the world. He sees education as one of the most impactful professions, in that educators can immediately see the difference their work is making with a child.

“I see myself as standing on the shoulders of many of the teachers that I have had over the years, and no teacher has made a greater impact on me than my own third and fourth grade teacher Mrs. Kathy Uschmann, who taught me to pay it forward, and I hope that in this profession I can continue to do that,” he said.

He said the recognition helps affirm the work that all educators have been doing this year but, as he tells his students, "Regardless of how great a day receiving that award was, the next day that door quietly clicks shut and we go right back to it because the journey is the destination.”

Administrators also on Monday announced student leadership awards from the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education: Melanie Fleming and Wellington (Ricky) Thompson from Groton Middle School and Nanayaa Asantewa Ali and Hayden Kowalski of Fitch High School. Poet Laureate Janell Payumo of Fitch High School also was recognized.

Administrators also announced outstanding educators for each school within the district: Cheryl Beaulieu (Catherine Kolnaski), Steve Schneider (Charles Barnum), Amanda Card (Claude Chester), Kelsey Davidson (Mary Morrisson), Julie Field (S.B. Butler), Jessica Panucci (Groton Middle School), Anthony Quatroche (Fitch High School) and O’Connell (Northeast Academy).

Outstanding support personnel were recognized: Kate McCaffery (Catherine Kolnaski), Wendell Reed (Charles Barnum), Maria Marques (Claude Chester), Robin Shaw (Mary Morrisson), Ronda Dutra (S.B. Butler), Lisa Teixeira (Groton Middle School), Luisa Medina (Fitch High School), and Susan Chappell (Northeast Academy).

The entire maintenance staff was recognized for their work during the coronavirus pandemic and David Zurzuski was announced as the Maintenance Worker of the Year.

k.drelich@theday.com

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