Parents, students showed tremendous appreciation for educators

Few professions have a direct and meaningful impact on the lives of everyone to the level teachers do. There are many great teachers in the region, but according to respondents of The Citizen Chronicle‘s call for nominations for our inaugural Teacher of the Year recognition, Anthony Healy and Kristine Hougaard are at the head of the class.

In a matter of five days, The Citizen Chronicle received nearly 70 nominations for Teacher of the Year. A significant portion of those nominations, including some tremendous words of appreciation, were dedicated solely to Healy and Hougaard, educators at Brookfield Elementary School and Burgess Elementary School, respectively.

Five finalists were named, including Healy, Hougaard, Lindsay Castonguay of Oxford High School, Cynthia Keane of West Street School in Southbridge, and Jill Sheldon of Brimfield Elementary School.

Castonguay, the Oxford High School librarian who holds several other positions in the school, was nominated for her efforts during remote learning.

“She always kept the senior class in the loop about what was going on. As a senior having the end of the year most people look forward to ruined, Ms. Castonguay was the one who always made sure things would be the best they could given the situation,” one respondent explained. “With not much word from administration through the whole online schooling time period, everyone knew to look to her for whatever they needed. She has given her heart and soul to Oxford students ever since she started. She is someone you can always learn from and Oxford is definitely very lucky to have her.”

Keane, a veteran of the Southbridge Public Schools, was recognized for her passion both for her students and the material she teaches.

“She is an amazing teacher. Cindy loves all her students and she sees the best in every child. She is also very passionate about the material she teaches and plans methodically on how to break down the material so all her learners can access the material,” explained one parent. “On top of that, she is the kindest and most caring teacher!”

Sheldon, a first grade teacher, was singled out for her work during the COVID-19 school building closures.

“Mrs. Sheldon has gone above and beyond through these unprecedented times to make sure her students were accessing the curriculum as well as maintaining as much consistency for them as possible. She held two zoom meetings each day where she would teach a lesson and assign follow up work. The students also had ‘chat time’ twice a week after the academic instruction so they could talk to one another,” said one parent. “Each week Mrs. Sheldon invited ‘mystery readers’ as well as all of the specialist teachers to her zoom meetings every week so the students still had specials and were able to see other staff members . Mrs. Sheldon also drove around town and delivered packets to the students each week and collected the previous weeks work. My daughter looked forward to seeing her every week (from a distance). This was also a great motivation for her to complete her work! We can’t thank Mrs. Sheldon enough for making this such a positive experience for our first grader!”

In order to determine finalists and winners, The Citizen Chronicle used a series of qualitative and quantitative data points. Our publication does not have access to personnel records and administrative observations, and we didn’t have the ability to pop into classrooms and observe these teachers working their craft. Instead, we were heavily reliant on the information provided by parents, educators, and students who made the nominations themselves. Healy and Hougaard received roughly one-quarter of the nominations submitted in our week-long solicitation.

In recognition of their efforts, Healy and Hougaard will each receive one of two gift cards donated by B.T.’s Smokehouse and Sturbridge Coffee House, each of which are located on Main Street in Sturbridge.

Healy a “caring” teacher who shows “kindness”

Many parents and respondents offered a series of affirmations of Healy’s work in the classroom, both in person and during the digital distance learning period that wrapped up the 2019-2020 school year.

Kim Welton-Pulsifer said Healy’s students “really look up to” him and that “He is understanding and caring.”

She added: “He works with the children to help them achieve their best.”

“Mr. Healy went above and beyond for our children! Everything from daily check ins just about how there day was going to always being available for questions regarding schoolwork. The children were extremely stressed at points he not only reassured them but let them know he was always there and could contact with any issues or even to share news about getting a new puppy!” exclaimed Ana Afton. “My children have been in the district 15 years we have encountered many wonderful teachers but Mr. Healy stands out among them all he truly cares and loves each and every child!”

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It is that effort to work with each and every child that resonated with Deborah Lukes as well.

“Mr. Healy is a wonderful teacher. He makes sure that each student receives the best education he can provide,” Lukes said. “He takes the time to know every student and personalize their educational needs. He loves his job and it shows. He always goes the extra mile.”

Lisa Hanrahan described Healy as a teacher who was “always going above and beyond for his students” and “always making learning fun.”

She added: “He’s very creative. Kids love him, even those who weren’t his students.”

Heather Lemieux said Healy “takes educating to the next level and truly cares about all his students.”

One respondent, who wished to remain anonymous, said Healy’s work helped “to make our kids school year the best yet.”

The parent continued: “He is kind and caring and just has a way about him that you don’t find with many teachers. My child stayed engaged throughout the entire year because she wanted to make him proud.”

Another respondent, Debbie, shared similar sentiments, describing Healy as a “caring yet professional teacher who always puts his students first.”

Debbie added: “His dedication and willingness to go above and beyond to make his students feel comfortable during this COVID crisis is beyond words.”

I would like to send out a sincere thank you to all of my students and families. These past few months of distance learning have not been easy, but I am beyond grateful for having the opportunity to be your teacher.

Anthony Healy

Multiple respondents credited Healy with creating The Kindness Club, which worked not only to instill kindness in the school, but outside of its walls as well.

“Along with this he created the kindness club which he continued during this pandemic by showing all the children kindness is the answer and with kindness we can all get along,” wrote Afton. “He also organized to have the kindness club send letters and drawings to Quaboag on the Common nursing home to try to bring their spirits up as well!”

Lemieux added that in addition to his work with the Kindness Club, Healy regularly “shows up to the kids athletic games, and his students adore him.”

Healy demonstrated kindness during the distance learning period, sending a care package with a personalized note home to accompany each student’s personal belongings, explained Kimberly Hurlbrink.

“He is a very caring and compassionate teacher and puts his students first,” she affirmed.

When notified of his recognition of being nominated, and ultimately being named one of the two winners of the inaugural The Citizen Chronicle Teacher of the Year, Healy thanked his students and their families for their support.

“Thank you all so much for nominating me to be The Citizen Chronicle‘s Teacher of the Year! I feel honored and humbled to be accepting this great award. I would like to send out a sincere thank you to all of my students and families,” he said. “These past few months of distance learning have not been easy, but I am beyond grateful for having the opportunity to be your teacher.”

Hougaard is “THAT teacher” and “one of a kind”

Hougaard, affectionately called “Mrs. Houg” by her students, demonstrated love and support for each pupil in her classroom, respondents affirmed.

“Mrs. Houg treats each student with incredible respect and dignity. During our remote learning experience, she welcomed parents into the daily learning routines, she modified work for students, listened to feedback and continued to make the children feel safe during an uncertain time,” Meagan Rice said. “My son, always looking forward to her scheduled video meets, joined her Disney art club because he loves her spirit and attitude. He worries, in this time, will I ever see Mrs. Houg again? She reassured him, anytime you want, stop by and say hi!”

Ana Dougherty described Hougaard as a “one of a kind” educator who is “loving, fun, creative, engaging, and loves all her kids.”

“Mrs. Houg provides a loving safe work space for her kids to learn in every day. She went above and beyond to make sure her first grade class stayed on track during the distant learning months; providing all necessary tools they would need,” attested respondent Stephanie Fiorucci. “She was in constant contact making communication with her effortless. She always has a smile on her face and loves each and every one of her students.”

Allison Cowden took the accolades to another level, insisting Hougaard “is an actual angel walking around on earth disguised as an elementary school teacher.”

She said Hougaard “is the most kind, patient and intuitive individual who is also firm and concise in her teaching methods,” and a perfect fit for Cowden’s first grader.

“My son has separation anxiety from me, some learning delays and a speech impediment. However, the first day of 1st grade, my son came home and declared that his teacher was just so KIND,” Cowden continued. “I was confident every day of the school year that my son was in her capable hands.”

She added her son is eager for a return to normalcy at Burgess Elementary School so he can get a final hug from Hougaard, one the abrupt COVID-19 school building closures prevented from taking place this spring. That hug is so desired, Cowden said, because Hougaard is “THAT teacher.”

I feel truly blessed to watch these students grow, both socially and academically, throughout the year sharing in their successes along the way. As the year goes on we become a family and I grow to love each one as my own. These students forever become ‘my kids.’ I want to thank all the families who have shared their children with me over the years and allowed me the chance to truly know their child.

Kristine Hougaard

Shelli Fairbrother described Hougaard as “a true role model and leader” who always focuses on the needs of her students.

“She stepped up so much for the kids and families this year,” Fairbrother said, pointing out Hougaard’s efforts during the COVID-19 school building closures. “She communicated with is all daily — went above and beyond what she needed to and made sure all of “her kids” were well taken care of.”

Added Sarah Webb: “She did such a great job with the distance learning portion of 1st grade.”

Miranda Desplaines also applauded Hougaard’s performance during the pandemic.

“She has gone above and beyond to make sure our first graders were staying on track to become the best second graders they can be,” Desplaines explained. “She was also absolutely amazing with us parents who had no idea at the beginning how to teach our kids at home. Hands down the best teacher.”

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Added a parent wishing to remain anonymous: “She worked so hard to provide quality educational opportunities for her students. From videos, to live meetings and links to other resources, she put together amazing lesson plans. She is also so warm and her love for her students shines through. For example, she remembered birthdays and important things going on in her students’ lives. We are going to miss her!”

Throughout the final months of the school year, Sarah Michalak said Hougaard’s excellence was evident.

“She continued to be amazing and never skipped a beat through it all,” Michalak affirmed.

Cowden added: “When the quarantine spun everyone on their heels, Mrs. Houg never missed a beat — even making two personal deliveries of materials to all the kids in her class.”

When notified of her recognition of being nominated, and ultimately being named one of the two winners of the inaugural The Citizen Chronicle Teacher of the Year, Hougaard’s reaction was the same as her efforts in the classroom — completely student-centered.

“Each year I am granted the opportunity to get to know a brand new group of students each with their own unique personality and learning style.   I feel truly blessed to watch these students grow, both socially and academically, throughout the year sharing in their successes along the way. As the year goes on we become a family and I grow to love each one as my own. These students forever become ‘my kids,'” Hougaard said. “I want to thank all the families who have shared their children with me over the years and allowed me the chance to truly know their child. I am overwhelmed with gratitude to the families who took the time to honor me with this recognition. I am truly humbled and thank you so very much from the bottom of my heart.”

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