Teacher of the Year caught by surprise

File photo CELEBRITIES: Teacher of the Year Lori O’Neill is shown in 2011 with Christian Lopez, who became famous after he returned Derek Jeter’s home run ball.

File photo
CELEBRITIES: Teacher of the Year Lori O’Neill is shown in 2011 with Christian Lopez, who became famous after he returned Derek Jeter’s home run ball.

When the president of the Teachers Association came to see her, Miss O’Neill assumed that he wanted to talk about one of her ballplayers. Maybe someone needed encouragement to do better in the classroom. But that wasn’t the case.

The visitor, Danny Zayas, kept mentioning the Teacher of the Year Award. The coach listened politely, but didn’t make the connection — even when Mr. Zayas told her that she had been nominated.

Finally, the purpose of the visit became clear. “You mean I won?” Miss O’Neill asked in amazement. A week later the news was starting to register. “It’s still sinking in,” she admitted. “This is wonderful for the department. It validates everything we’ve been doing.”

Lori O’Neill teaches physical education in the high school and coaches girls junior varsity softball and basketball. She came here a dozen years ago after working at a Catholic School on Long Island.

She moved to be closer to home. And as she interviewed with districts in the Hudson Valley, her father (a well-known coach at Burke and, later, Monticello) kept giving her the same advice. “You want to be in Cornwall,” he told her.

And, today, the Teacher of the Year, agrees — citing the way different departments in the high school work together. A good example is the introduction of the IHT Spirit System that helps students get fit.

The teens wear a wrist band that uses a color code to reveal their heart rate. Red indicates the desired level of activity; blue means they have a ways to go; and flashing red is a warning to slow down. With the help of the technology people, the information is emailed to the students’ home. And with input from the science staff, the data becomes meaningful.

Miss O’Neill, who played varsity soccer and basketball at SUNY Oneonta, was nominated for her award by a colleague. “In my … years as a professional educator,” the individual said, “I have not encountered another colleague who has been as dedicated, hard-working and caring about her students and educational program as this teacher, She has been an exemplary role model and mentor to both students and faculty alike.”

Miss O’Neill never saw her nomination letter but she returned the compliment. “The teachers and kids here have been great,” she said.

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Ken Cashman