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Newtown’s Teacher And Paraeducator Of The Year



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Jill Gonski, recently named Newtown Teacher of the Year, excited that her award highlights the district’s special education programming.

Gonski, who teaches at Newtown High School, was announced as Newtown’s Teacher of the Year and Dorothy Kelly, who works at Hawley Elementary School, was announced as Newtown’s Paraeducator of the Year at the end of June.

Gonski recently shared that she was teaching a class when she was surprised by a group representing the Teacher of the Year selection committee who entered her classroom and shared the news with Gonski in front of her students.

“They were really happy. They were really sweet,” Gonski said of how the students responded.

The 2021-22 school year will be Gonski’s 20th year teaching at Newtown High School, and she has been teaching special education for 25 years. She was first inspired to work in special education after working at a McDonald’s.

When she worked there, the owner hired employees with special needs and Gonski witnessed how they were supported. It impressed her, and she in turn wanted to help make a difference in someone else’s life, just like her boss did.

As a local resident, Gonski said, earning the title of Newtown Teacher of the Year “really means a lot to me.”

“This is my town. Coming from my town it means so much more,” said Gonski, adding that she raised her children here.

Above all, Gonski said the award means so much because it focuses on the district’s special education programming. She said she plans to highlight special education when she delivers a speech at the upcoming convocation ceremony to welcome district teachers for the 2021-22 school year.

In a release following the announcement, Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue said, “Jill Gonski is an exemplary teacher and she has modeled and sustained the Tools for Living classes at Newtown High School, which provides her students with important life skills for the future. I am pleased that she will represent Newtown in the Connecticut Teacher of the Year Program.”

Kelly was also surprised with the news that she is the chosen Newtown Paraeducator of the Year while she was in her classroom. Kelly predominately works in Hawley fourth grade teacher Michael Poeltl’s classroom, and her job responsibilities range. She started working as a paraeducator roughly 21 years ago.

Dr Rodrigue, in the release, said “[Kelly] is kind, patient, and beloved by students and staff. I am pleased that she will represent Newtown in the Connecticut Anne Marie Murphy Paraeducator of the Year Program.”

Kelly has worked at Hawley for ten years; she worked at Sandy Hook Elementary School for 11 years before that, both as a paraeducator. Kelly explained her job is to help students be as independent as possible.

“You want them to feel like they are no different than any of the other students,” Kelly said of the students she works with.

At one early point in her career, Kelly said she was working as a camp counselor, and the camp wanted her to work with students with special needs. It was her first introduction to what she has been doing for just over the last two decades.

Her job has changed over time, Kelly said.

“Now you are doing modification, you are working with behaviors, you are actually being the second teacher in the classroom,” Kelly explained. She often helps keep students stay on task and feels there is more responsibility now. “But you do grow with the position, and there is so much of it you really can’t learn from a book.”

The job, she said, needs people to be hands-on and make connections with students to bring out what they are good at and to show them they can accomplish it.

Reflecting on being named the district’s paraeducator of the year, Kelly said that sometimes she does not know how much she helps students until she sees them years later and they remember her and thank her.

“I just think that it is amazing that I was chosen for this particular thing, when you think of all the people involved in the school system and people have decided I should be the person receiving this,” Kelly said “I’m really happy that people think that way.”

Late, Kelly said, “I just love working with the kids and it is a gratifying thing to feel you are part of someone’s life and you helped someone get ahead.”

Education Reporter Eliza Hallabeck can be reached at eliza@thebee.com.

Newtown’s Teacher of the Year, Jill Gonski, center, stands with some of her students. —Bee Photo, Hallabeck
Dorothy Kelly and former student Matthew Vigneau stand together in 2004.
Jill Gonksi is Newtown’s Teacher of the Year. —Bee Photo, Hallabeck
Dorothy Kelly is Newtown’s Paraeducator of the Year.
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