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Stonington names Noreen Elliott its teacher of the year

Stonington _ Two weeks ago Mystic Middle School teacher Noreen Elliott headed outside onto the school grounds for what she thought would be a presentation to sixth graders about the school's popular enrichment classes.

Instead she was met by students, fellow teachers, school officials and family members who surprised her with the announcement that she had been named the town's teacher of the year for 2021-22. 

"It was very overwhelming. It's such an honor," she said last week in her classroom after school had ended.

It was so overwhelming in fact, that she said she forgot to thank her family during her impromptu remarks to the crowd.

Elliott, who teaches language arts at the school, was nominated by fellow teachers Marika Heughins and Tim Flanagan.

In the nomination, Heughins wrote that when Elliott sees a strength in a child, "she encourages this strength and pushes the child to show their talents. Students feel safe with Noreen, and are willing to take risks due to environment she creates in her classroom. Most importantly, Noreen makes learning fun!!!! Students bounce into her room ready to learn with a smile on their face!"

She added that Elliott is always asked to be a leader whenever an opportunity comes up and this year she brought up the idea of having conversations about race by using the book "Promise of Change." It was part of the long running "Book in a Day" program she first led at Pawcatuck Middle School and now at Stonington Middle School.

"She created beautiful lessons to go along with the book, and helped teachers feel comfortable bringing up such a tough topic during a heated time in our world. I know that that experience set our school off on the right foot and made conversations about race a part of our culture," wrote Heughins.

Flanagan wrote that he wished he had Elliott as a middle school student.

"She has a way of building self-esteem that is so vital for this age group. Noreen's methods do not draw a lot of attention because she interacts with students in such a calm and quiet manner. Every student in Noreen's class feels valued because she takes the time to listen to them individually and puts forth a lot of effort to get to know them," he wrote.

Elliott, a native of the San Francisco Bay area of California, initially taught for seven years in the same district there where she attended middle and high school. She moved here in 2001 with her husband, a Ledyard native. She first taught at Pawcatuck Middle School and West Broad Street School before moving to Stonington Middle School when Pawcatuck and Mystic middle schools merged in 2019.

As a teacher she said she has always strived to establish an environment in the classrom in which students feel safe that they can take a risk and share ideas without worrying about getting criticized. This involves establishing rules and routines to make that happen.

Elliott said she does not allow students to say "I can't do this" or "it's too hard." Instead she has them add the word "yet"  to the end of their sentence.

Colorful posters made by her students that have sayings such as "This may take some time" and "There is always a Plan B" are displayed on one wall of the classroom.

Elliott said she always tries to make learning relevant so students understand the purpose of knowing certain material. She also tries to make it fun such as turning the task of learning new vocabulary into a game show.

Elliott said that while the COVID-19 pandemic posed the challenge of keeping students engaged when half were in class and half were home, she said there was a silver lining to the school year. She said she learned things about technology she had been putting off, found new ways to engage students and heard from families about how they appreciated the work being done by teachers. 

As the town's teacher of the year, Elliott will not only enter the state Teacher of the Year competition but will address the entire Stonington faculty before the start of school in September.

"I look forward to hearing that speech every year. It's always inspiring to hear someone working in the classroom speak to us. When I hear it, 'I think what woud I say?'" she said. "I've already started a draft in my head."

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