Area educators applauded in nominations for Teacher of the Year

The Citizen Chronicle will announce two winners on Wednesday morning

Last week, The Citizen Chronicle put out a call for locals to nominate teachers from across the area to be recognized as the Teacher of the Year. The response was strong and a great reminder of the impact teachers have on the lives of children everywhere.

In a matter of days, roughly 70 nominations were officially put forward, with many parents providing tremendous feedback on the work put forth by teachers. At no grade level was the impact felt greater than in elementary schools, which are home to the vast majority of the nominees put forth by readers of The Citizen Chronicle.

The five finalists for The Citizen Chronicle‘s inaugural Teacher of the Year recognition are Lindsay Castonguay of Oxford High School, Anthony Healy of Brookfield Elementary School, Kristine Hougaard of Burgess Elementary School in Sturbridge, Cynthia Keane of West Street School in Southbridge, and Jill Sheldon of Brimfield Elementary School. The comments offered in support and appreciation of these teachers, and many others, are worth sharing with the readers of The Citizen Chronicle.

Auburn Middle School, Auburn

Grade 6 science teacher Emily Wildgrube was nominated in recognition of “her overwhelming desire and willingness to educate not only her students but other pupils with the desire for extra curriculum.”

“She dedicates her days and weeks to her goals of getting more students the help they need,” said one respondent. “She realizes the struggles that are taking place in many homes during this unsure time and capitalizes on the opportunity to reach out to endless families offering her support and time to helping children across the county.”

Brimfield Elementary School, Brimfield

Shannon Field, a first grade teacher at Brimfield Elementary School, “amazed” one parent “day in and day out.”

“Her methods for keeping the children engaged in online learning were nothing short of a miracle. She dropped off assignments personally so she could wave hello. She visited homes (keeping with safe distance practice) so she could sit in lawn chairs outdoors and read with her students. She made an effort to talk to each child every day,” affirmed one parent. “Her students looked forward to their online meetings twice/day. So much in fact that they’d sign in early just to see and chat with one another. The kids were still actively participating in their class with wipe boards and dry erase markers, hand signals, etc. I’m incredibly grateful she was my son’s first grade teacher during these quarantine months. I can’t say enough about what a remarkable job she’s done for her students.”

Grade 1 teacher Jill Sheldon was among the many who were specifically recognized for their efforts throughout the remote learning period forced by COVID-19.

“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!”

Preschool educator Shelley Winiarski was feted for going “above and beyond this year, let alone during quarantine,” said one appreciative parent.

“Mrs. Winiarski always made sure the kids were feeling as comfortable as possible as well as knew they were bright and loved. She dropped off plants so the kids were able to grow things during quarantine. Set up individual zoom meetings with students as needed along with weekly Zoom chats with the class so the kids could continue to see the new friends they had made. My daughter loved getting together weekly to sing and read with friends,” said one parent. “My daughter loves school and is extremely sad to not have Mrs. Winiarski again next year. She was a great teacher to start our school experience and deserves so much for all she has done to help my daughter as well as the rest of her class this year.”

Brookfield Elementary School, Brookfield

A kindergarten teacher at Brookfield Elementary School, Mary Casey was honored by one parent for her dedication.

“She gives countless hours running after school program and showing up to students’ games and activities outside of school. She makes every kid ‘her own’ and never forgets them,” said one parent. “She instills a love of learning and makes it fun. Kids who had her ten years ago still recall the moments in her classroom.”

Anthony Healy, a Grade 4 teacher at Brookfield Elementary, was nominated for his efforts, particularly during the COVID-19 school building closures.

“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,” explained one parent.

Bryn Mawr Elementary School, Auburn

Erin Boulet is a kindergarten teacher at Bryn Mawr in Auburn.

“She was amazing and her love and devotion she went above and beyond,” explained one parent.

Burgess Elementary School, Sturbridge

Lisa Cave, an “amazing” Grade 4 teacher at Burgess Elementary School, was recognized for, among other things, holding regular “office hours” via Zoom during the COVID-19 school building closures.

“Mrs. Cave’s dedication to her students is unparalleled,” explained a parent. “She worked thru this difficult time with grace and kindness.”

Jennifer Creelman was a new addition as an integration aide at Burgess, and “stepped up in big ways during the pandemic.”

“She is enthusiastic to teach children whether online or in the classroom. She continues to help out her colleagues as if she has worked them her entire life,” explained one parent. “Thoughtful, heroic, essential and loved by all. Mrs. Creelman is a valuable asset to education and we are ever so fortunate she landed at Burgess.”

Kindergarten teacher Lori Czech and fourth grade educator Ashley Grout were recognized by one woman for the work done with her grandchildren.

“Both of these teachers worked endless hours to make sure their students received all the material through computers so their students would continue with their education. They sent many videos to teach the children as if they were in class They were so professional when dealing with the parents/Grandparents. They were patient and informative on how to home school through remote learning,” said the grandparent. “They sent mail and emails to keep the children feeling that they were there for them and still connected. Both teachers have small children to care for all the while making sure their class at all times new they still were there for them. I feel they did an incredible job and I am so proud of both of them and I am thankful to have such dedicated teachers for my grandchildren.”

Physical education teacher Bill Emrich is a well known man about town, and was recognized for his contributions to the school community.

“He is involved in children’s lives from the time they go to elementary till the time he coaches those same children as head coach of the high school girls basketball team. He recently retired from the school after 37 years. The amazing response of a town parade (with police and fire trucks included) shows how many lives he has touched past and present,” explained one respondent. “As a town recreation counselor in the early eighties, he is a big reason I joined and fought for my country in the United States Army. He filled my days as a ‘Rec kid’ with stories of his time in the Marines while showing me how to become an athlete, a young man and a contributing member of the local community. In short, the nomination of Bill Emrich would be the perfect ending to the career of an amazing human being!”

Grade 1 teacher Kristine Hougaard, also known as Mrs. Houg, was described by one parent as “hands down the best teacher,” who, another said, “treats each student with incredible respect and dignity.”

“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,” said one parent. “She is also so warm and her love for her students shines through.”

Preschool teacher Claire Johnson was applauded for her efforts this year as well.

“Claire taught four preschool classes twice a week for 10 weeks, with special education and supported her staff along the way; she persevered with never teaching remotely before, and making each class fun and educational while supporting families who needed extra support,” explained one respondent. “She held extra yoga classes before class for anyone who wanted to join! And we had staff meetings to collaborate and get the technical kinks out-so that the overall experience could be enjoyable to the students and their supportive parents-it takes a village to educate our children and she definitely was the leader we all needed!”

Jessica McGarry, a first grade teacher, was described by one parent as a being “truly a blessing.”

“Mrs. McGarry made my daughter and many of her students feel loved and special,” the parent continued. “During the pandemic she drove to everyone’s house multiple times to drop off some gifts and also helpful items to help them learn.”

Lynn Menard, a Grade 1 teacher at Burgess, was given kudos for her efforts.

“She works hard to make every student feel like they are special,” said one respondent. “She works hard and is very caring.”

Those who are in the school building, but not necessarily in the classrooms themselves, can also be recognized for their hard work and devotion. This was evident in the case of school nurse Lisa Meunier.

“Lisa Meunier is our school nurse at Burgess. We have over 900 students that Lisa and her staff oversee everyday. When schools were closed back in March due to COVID-19, Lisa stepped up to the plate and was in contact with all the students she saw on a daily basis. She would make phone calls, do Google Meets and even wish them a Happy Birthday,” explained one respondent. “She is also involved with the Board of Health and also helps out with distribution of meals to students who signed up. Just before Christmas, Lisa and her team work on getting donations from Saint John Paul food pantry, Rotary Club, and more to help over 40 Burgess Families for the Christmas Holidays. Lisa is very involved in our community and is always there with a smile ready to help.”

Jennifer Mullin was recognized by one parent who has multiple children pass through her third grade classroom at Burgess. While her work has been exemplary, especially in recent months.

“She went above and beyond to listen to each students during their Zoom meetings and made time for individual personalized chats and help if needed,” explained one parent. “To say she cares about each of her students would be a huge understatement. Mrs. Mullin definitely made this difficult time of remote learning not so remote.”

Krista Starr was singled out by one colleague as “by and far the most exceptional Kindergarten teacher I know.”

“Each and every student that walks through her door she treats as they they were her own. She gets to know each child, their unique personality and learning style and spends countless hours making sure that each child learns in the way that best suits him/her. When the COVID-19 crisis hit, she immediately began researching and learning about the best resources online to continue to meet the needs of her students in the most effective way possible. She hand delivered essential learning tools, spent long days and nights recording content, offered extra live help sessions, created online learning packets from scratch, and stayed in constant contact with families,” a coworker attested. “What’s more, Mrs. Starr made all of her work available to her entire team, provided support and mentorship a substitute teacher who was covering a maternity leave, and was an active member of several other committees. To say that Mrs. Starr consistently goes above and beyond is an understatement. Mrs. Starr is the teacher every student should have and every teacher should aspire to be more like.”

Charlton Elementary School, Charlton

Lisa Procopio, a kindergarten teacher at Charlton Elementary, “cares for each and every student and makes them all feel important.”

“She recognizes each child’s individual personality and needs. During this pandemic, she has provided great remote learning activities and combined it with fun activities to keep them engaged and has tried to keep things as normal as possible for the kids,” noted one parent. “She provided different types of learning for us to choose which works best for our family.”

Charlton Middle School, Charlton

Jill Aberle, said one parent, is “an amazing speech therapist because she makes learning fun.”

“Her class was never boring and I always wanted to be there,” continued on parent. “She has helped me and many others get through hard things. Even during remote learning, she made sure we stayed on track and that learning was fun.”

Charlton Street School, Southbridge

Melyssa Cournoyer is a second grade teacher at Charlton Street School, who was described by one parent as “the most loving and supportive teacher any of my children have ever had.”

Heritage School, Charlton

Katie Burtt, a special education teacher at Heritage School, “is one of the best,” and exhibits the “patience of an angel,” offered one parent.

“She has been there for teaching and support for my son and our family,” explained one parent. “She is a caring person and goes above and beyond her duty — and she deserves recognition.”

Holland Elementary School, Holland

Amy Sweet is a literacy specialist at Holland Elementary School.

“She was attentive, organized and made sure my child was engaged and completing his work,” said one parent. “She worked with him daily to ensure his success. She went so far above and beyond during this time, and it was so appreciated!”

Millbury High School, Millbury

Andrea Green, a health and fitness education teacher at Millbury High School, was recognized for always being “committed to the students she serves.”

“She always puts the children’s needs before her own. She understands the challenges that her students and their families face. She has been active in securing opportunities for her students by putting in her own time to develop and going the extra distance for her students,” offered one respondent. “She tries to make her classes interesting and looks for ways to motivate her students to enjoy school especially the students who may need that extra attention. I feel that Ms. Green takes her role as a teacher seriously to help every student she teaches.”

North Brookfield Elementary School, North Brookfield

Nicole Sutka is “an amazing special education pre-kindergarten teacher who has gone above and beyond,” said one respondent.

“She cares for her students and their well-being. She works tirelessly to make sure everyone needs are met,” said one colleague. “I have become a better person by being able to work with her.”

Oxford High School, Oxford

Oxford High School librarian Lindsay Castonguay, who serves in a number of other roles, 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.”

Park Avenue Elementary School, Webster

Carol Daly, a Grade 3 teacher at Park Ave in Webster, was recognized for always showing “kindness and caring for her students.”

Saint Joseph School, Webster

Samantha Sampaio, a Grade 1 teacher at Saint Joseph School, was applauded for her efforts.

“Ms. Sampaio’s dedication to her students and creativity in keeping first graders engaged and learning during ‘distance learning’ has been amazing,” offered one respondent. “She goes above and beyond and is always available for both parents and students.”

Shepherd Hill Regional High School, Dudley

A well-known face in the show choir community, Shepherd Hill’s Becky Bussiere was described by one respondent as “an exemplary educator” who stepped it up even more during remote learning.

“She followed up with individual students personally to check in and make sure they had everything they needed – not just school materials, but also personal items — and continued to reach out to students and their families who were sick,” said one respondent. “She spearheaded a parade with the rest of the extracurricular chorus staff to honor the graduating show choir and show band students, as their senior banquet and awards ceremonies were cancelled, delivering the seniors’ banners, their superlatives, and other awards. Over the course of a four hour drive between Dudley, Charlton, Webster, and Thompson, Conn., she made sure every member of the senior class received recognition and a round of applause for their participation.”

Southbridge High School, Southbridge

Christina Colello, a math teacher at Southbridge High School, was nominated by one of her students. A colleague added that “Ms. Colello truly wants the best for her students. She worked extra hard on remote learning, making sure students could master the material. She loved taking part in school spirit days.”

Luci Gonzalez, in her first year as an English teacher at Southbridge High, was also nominated.

“Ms. Gonzalez, as a new teacher, fit right in and held students to high standards,” said one respondent. “She was always willing to work with students to make sure they would graduate.”

A veteran of SHS, English teacher Kelly Landine was described by one parent as “the absolute best of the best.”

“She gives everything she has to her students — in school and out. She loves those kids as much as she loves her own,” explained the parent. “She is the epitome of what an amazing teacher encompasses.”

Trinity Catholic Academy, Southbridge

Colleen Casey, a veteran eighth grade teacher at Trinity Catholic Academy, was applauded for going “above and beyond” for her students.

“This year, due to COVID-19, she reorganized special rite-of-passage events that the graduating students were missing, such as organizing a ‘home’ version of their retreat, where she had dinner delivered to each student and prepared special bags of activities for them to enjoy as together as they could be on Zoom; to organizing personal delivery of each students sign and cap and gown,” said one parent. “But even outside of COVID-19 circumstances she cares so much for each one of her students on an individual basis, she works to reach and recognizes the unique qualities of each student and encourages them to do their best.”

Lori Primavera, a Grade 4 teacher at Trinity, was applauded for her work during remote learning.

“From the moment schools closed due to COVID-19, Mrs Primavera made sure her students didn’t miss a beat. Holding Zoom meetings several times a week was just the support her fourth graders needed to help them continue with their learning from a distance. She kept it fun while keeping the fourth graders on track for the adventure in fifth grade. She even arranged Zoom get-together so the kids could log on and catch up with their classmates about life at home and what they were doing to keep busy,” said one parent. “When I felt like I felt like I wasn’t doing enough to help my daughter along with her work due to working full time myself, she gave me the encouragement to not throw in the towel and assured me I was doing a great job. It was clear my child missed and craved the structure of Mrs. Primavera’s classroom and instruction. Her encouragement brought me to tears, and I felt blessed that my daughter had the opportunity to learn from such a strong female educator, someone she can reflect back on as a role model.”

Warren Community Elementary School, Warren

Tammy Bourgoyne-Cieslak was recognized for her patience as a second grade teacher at Warren Community Elementary School.

Daniel Howe, a Grade 6 teacher at Warren Community Elementary School, was applauded “because he truly loves his students and does everything humanly possible to make them succeed.” One parent said their child was “devastated” by missing the latter portion of the school year with Mr. Howe due to the COVID-19 school building closures. “He truly goes above and beyond and loves his students.”

West Street School, Southbridge

Cynthia 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!”

Also at West Street School is third grade teacher Susan McDowell, who was applauded for “Amazing work, above and beyond.”

“Since day one of the school year, she has been amazing with the kids. She cares about her students and is always in touch,” offered one parent. “When the pandemic started, she worked very hard to stay in touch and keep parents and students updated on what was going on and also providing school work for her students.”

Debra Sergel was another West Street teacher honored by a nomination.

“She works hard to make her students feel safe,” said one respondent. “She works harder to make her students learn and keep up with curriculum.”

Wire Village School, Spencer

Tara Strand Balunis, a first grade teacher at Wire Village School, was described as a “wonderful teacher” by one parent.

“She shows she cares for all her students. During the COVID virus she has gone above and beyond to make sure her students were getting the materials and encouragement they needed. She wrote notes to the students and always asked if we needed anything more,” explained one parent. “Mrs. Balunis also made us feel like she was always there for us if we need her. We got weekly emails and sometimes she would be in contact with us a few times a week. We also did zoom meeting so the kids could still interact and learn different things. She always brought a sense of comfort and encouragement to our child and he looked forward to all his Zoom classes and classes throughout the year.”


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