‘It’s so rewarding’: New Milford woman named Teacher of the Year for Region 12 schools

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Betsy O'Neill, named Teacher of the Year 2021-22 for Region 12 schools in CT.

Betsy O'Neill, named Teacher of the Year 2021-22 for Region 12 schools in CT.

Betsy O'Neill / Contributed

WASHINGTON — Betsy O’Neill said she considers all her students as her own kids. That’s part of why O’Neill, who has been selected Teacher of the Year for Region 12 Schools for the 2021-22 school year, said she has always loved her job.

O’Neill has worked as a special education teacher for Region 12 — which includes the towns of Bridgewater, Washington and Roxbury — for 34 years. She graduated from Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, and previously worked at the primary and middle schools within Region 12. Currently, she is coordinator transition consultant at Shepaug Valley Partnership, a three-year-old program she helped create.

The program, which is based at Washington Town Hall, enables special education students who have met their requirements for academics to remain in the school system until age 22, and learn vocational and independent living skills, and work ethics.

Before the program was created, those students were sent out to life skills programs in other school districts.

“We started our own program so that we can keep our kids in-house,” said O’Neill, 58, a mother of two from New Milford.

“My first group of kids who pioneered the program will be leaving me in October and November,” she said, adding they will then connect with adult services through the state of Connecticut, to go to an adult program.

As part of the program, O’Neill takes students on trips around town, where they learn how to perform such skills as making withdrawals at the bank and purchasing items at the grocery store.

She also finds jobs for her students within the school, such as returning books to the library, cleaning the art room and washing and folding laundry. She taught interviewing and communications skills as well.

Additionally, she sets up work experiences and job shadows for students.

“I would make contacts with various businesses, explain who I was and would they be interested in having a student come out and observe,” she said. “The students would go to these different places and be part of the work crew, and get paid a stipend. The kids would be hired a lot of the time.”

During the pandemic, O’Neill said she needed to get creative and switch up the curriculum. Instead of going out to the grocery store, she and other teachers came up with our own store, in-house, and taught students that way.

“We brought in food and priced it,” she said.

Bridgewater resident Cheri Crossley, who has three daughters enrolled in Region 12 schools, said, “Betsy is one of those dynamic individuals who does a masterful job balancing content with fun and motivational activities.”

O’Neill has worked with Crossley’s daughter, Alisha, for 10 years and her daughter, Taryn, for four years.

Crossley said O’Neill does lots of creative projects with her students, such as teach them how to make mug cakes, which are single-serving meals made inside a mug.

“She discovered the jackpot of mug cake recipes,” Crossley said, adding students made such meals as macaroni and cheese and pizza mug cakes. “It was such a creative, innovate product students can do independently at home with minimal supervision.”

Regional School District 12 Superintendent Megan Bennett said she’s very proud of O’Neill as the choice for Teacher of the Year.

“Her energy and love for students are evident to anyone who has ever been in her presence. Four years ago, Betsy was identified by the director of pupil personnel services to pioneer the Shepaug Valley Partnership because of her ability to always see what is possible,” Bennett said. “Betsy’s efforts have resulted in our students being prepared with the necessary skills as they transition out of high school.”

O’Neill said she views the title of Teacher of the Year as a way of giving back to the community.

“It’s an honor to be recognized by your peers as someone that truly loves working with children,” she said.

She plans to stay at Shepaug Valley Partnership until she’s ready to retire, and said she enjoys playing an important role at this time in her students’ lives.

“You are taking a life and you’re molding it,” she said. “It’s so rewarding to watch them go from a kid that’s so dependent to flying on their own, is amazing. I love this job.”

sfox@milfordmirror.com