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Wishing Teachers A ‘Happy New Year’



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With just days before the start of the 2019-20 school year, district educators and staff were welcomed on August 21 at Newtown High School for an annual convocation.

After breakfast, all attendees gathered in the school’s auditorium. Members of local boards, representatives of the Newtown Police Department, and other community leaders attended the event along with the educators and staff.

With the blow of a celebratory noise maker, Board of Education Chair Michelle Embree Ku exclaimed, “Happy new year everybody! Happy new year!”

“Two days that I really look forward to each year are convocation and high school graduation,” said Ms Ku. “They are both emblematic that it takes a community to raise a child and to support the growth of that child into adulthood.”

Both are days filled with energy and hope for the future, and days like that, she reflected, inspire her through life’s roadblocks.

“My hope is that you have meaningful days like those, ones that inspire you and help you put some of the day-to-day challenges into the context of what we are all here for — inspiring each and every child in the district to excel,” Ms Ku said.

Later, Ms Ku asked each attendee to make a “New Year’s resolution” to support and serve each other in the effort to inspire students to excel.

Assistant Superintendent Anne Uberti noted that while it was her seventh year in Newtown Public Schools, the 2019-20 school year will be her first as the new assistant superintendent. Before a slideshow of photos of new staff played, Ms Uberti said, “I welcome you, our new members, home to Newtown Public Schools.”

District educators and staff who have been working in Newtown for 25 years were also celebrated: Lisa Carpenter, Karen Colwell, Gene Hall, Jonathan Hull, Joe LaRosa, Jacqueline McMahon, Tina Murphy, Shari Oliver, Elena Powers, and Jonathan Pope.

Newtown’s 2019-20 Paraeducator of the Year Pamela Jackson and 2019-20 Teacher of the Year Kim Lowell were both given flowers at the event in acknowledgement of their awards, which were both announced near the end of the 2018-19 school year.

While Ms Lowell said she was humbled and grateful to speak at convocation, she said the public speaking opportunity was also “my nightmare.” So instead, she spoke about cardboard boats. Each year, some science students at NHS participate in a cardboard boat race. Groups work together to build boats from cardboard and packaging tape and then they race them across the NHS pool.

“Just like the proper lattice structure in a boat, the support I have here in Newtown has helped me become the teacher I am today,” she shared, adding that support comes from custodial staff, secretaries, administrators, and her colleagues. “... I am so blessed to work in Newtown because of this lattice structure that helps me stay afloat in this ever-changing educational world.”

Ms Lowell then shared videos of some of her former students, all who reflected on what they learned from building the cardboard boats.

NHS Class of 2017 graduate Simran Chand reflected that Newtown Public Schools had exactly the right amount of buoyant force so she could be pushed while learning to push herself the rest of the way.

“If it weren’t for Newtown schools, I would not be the person that I am today,” Simran said in the video.

Other former students shared that Newtown provided the materials for them to build their theoretical boats through teachers who offered guidance toward success.

Laughter and applause rippled through the auditorium when a video of NHS 2006 graduate and current teacher Brian Tenney began to play. He said the learning process often includes what is conventionally considered to be failure and its ensuing discomfort, ensuring students learn how to fall out of their own boats more often.

“We can’t promise them that the only time they sink will be in the shallow end of a swimming pool, but we can teach them how to swim and how to sail,” Mr Tenney said.

In his video, NHS 2010 graduate Anthony Vacaro joked, “it’s no wonder” Ms Lowell is teacher of the year, as she is “still getting me to do homework.” Newtown teachers, he added, helped him balance and steer his way through life, and “like any boat, they get you from one place to another. I personally wouldn’t be where I am today without the education I received from all of you.”

A Culture Of Caring

When he spoke, Newtown Federation of Teachers President Tom Kuroski said it is an exciting time for Newtown Public Schools. He thanked all of his fellow district union leaders for their efforts and shared his support for Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue’s efforts.

Dr Rodrigue then spoke to the district’s “culture of care,” saying it is a place where, “students feel safe and valued, where staff and the community is genuinely invested.”

Through collaborative and consistent efforts, Dr Rodrigue said she hopes everyone gathered works together toward the objective of a culture of care. It should incorporate, she continued, inclusive schools, student-centered practices, academic pathways that meet student needs, and respect. This summer, district leaders worked to reflect on values as part of an effort of continued improvement, Dr Rodrigue said, and the administrators eventually narrowed down six core concepts: Relationships, diversity, safety, continuing improvement, creativity, and kindness. Other focuses that stood out on reflection were students, academics, opportunities, environment, and support.

She asked teachers to take stock in the artifacts that reflect what has been and what is being accomplished daily in kindergarten through twelfth grade classrooms, like class projects and student programs.

“Our values and beliefs impact our teaching and learning,” Dr Rodrigue said, “and the ability [of] our students to take risks and feel empowered and experience success.”

After sharing a video of how one school is working to support the social/emotional needs of its students, Dr Rodrigue said, “My challenge to all of you this year is simple: Take notice of the artifacts that define our identity and represent our positive culture; the actions that define us; the practices that represent where we want to be; and the products that demonstrate learning.”

Dr Rodrigue said to keep “the endgame” of what the district wants students to be able to do by the time they graduate in mind.

“Each of you are the mosaic pieces of glass that come together to shape the beautiful image we call Newtown Public Schools,” Dr Rodrigue said. “Thank you for all you continue to do, and I wish you all the best in an outstanding new school year.”

District educators marking their 25th year in Newtown are honored at the August 21 convocation event. From left are Lisa Carpenter, Karen Colwell, Gene Hall, Jonathan Hull, Joe LaRosa, Jacqueline McMahon, Tina Murphy, Shari Oliver, and Jonathan Pope, as Board of Education Chair Michelle Embree Ku and Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue, right, applaud.—Bee Photos, Hallabeck
NHS science teacher Kim Lowell, Newtown’s 2019-20 Teacher of the Year, highlights how the Newtown Public Schools system is like the cardboard boats that her students build annually.
Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue speaks to the importance of a “culture of care” at the August 21 convocation.
Assistant Superintendent Anne Uberti speaks at the August 21 convocation.
Board of Education Chair Michelle Embree Ku welcomes attendees to the 2019-20 school year convocation for educators, staff, and community representatives.
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