A third grade teacher, a Pre-K teacher, and an elementary school physical education teacher were announced Tuesday as the finalists for 2023 West Hartford Teacher of the Year.
By Ronni Newton
Tuesday was Teacher Appreciation Day – which falls midway through Teacher Appreciation Week – and it’s also the traditional time the 2023 finalists for West Hartford Teacher of the Year are announced to the Board of Education.
The three finalists this year include Eric Feeney, a third grade teacher at Wolcott Elementary School; Dylan Geisler, a physical education teacher at Smith STEM School; and Emily McMurray, a Pre-K teacher at Charter Oak International Academy.
The rigorous Teacher of the Year program is “entirely teacher-driven, teacher led,” Superintendent Paul Vicinus told the Board of Education. The process begins with nominations from their colleagues, submission of a resume and an essay, recommendation letters, and having a lesson videotaped. A committee of teachers narrows the pool to three, who are then formally interviewed by a Teacher of the Year committee.
Feeney is in his 10th year teaching at Wolcott, and while he is currently teaching third grade he’s also taught second and fifth grades. Before joining West Hartford Public Schools, he taught for nine years in Waterbury. He has a bachelor’s in sociology from Southern Connecticut State University and has his master’s in education and sixth year degree from the University of Bridgeport.
Feeney said he was nominated for Teacher of the Year in 2020, but this is his first time as a finalist.
When asked why he thought he was nominated, Feeney said, “I’m a team player, working hard. I love everyone at the school and I care about my students in and out of the classroom,” he said.
“I love to get the kids up and moving, and create fun and engaging lessons,” Feeney said. He also focuses on having a strong relationship with parents, and building rapport with his students and their families.
And of course there’s Friends of Feeney, a nonprofit that Feeney started in 2016 initially to help two Wolcott families who were dealing with tragedy. The organization has since expanded its mission throughout West Hartford spreading the “#BeAGoodFriend” message through its now ubiquitous magnets and stickers and even a mural on the side of an Elmwood building.
“He’s sometimes known simply as ‘Feeney,’ which I think is a throwback to his military experience,” Vicinus said when announcing the Teacher of the Year finalists, which he was careful to note was done in alphabetical order.
He noted that Wolcott Principal Scott Dunn said, “You cannot find a person with a bigger heart,” and Feeney’s passion and commitment to his nonprofit has been noticed throughout the community, including in his being the honoree for this year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. It’s been said that he “clears paths by removing barriers, and he is also a culture catalyst” who has been a national presenter at a national conference on the future of education technology.
Feeney is a cheerleader for and has immeasurable pride in Wolcott, Vicinus said, earning him cult status at the school where he is engaged well beyond the classroom. “To borrow your own turn of phrase, I hope we can all be counted as ‘Friends of Feeney,'” Vicinus said.
While teaching at Wolcott, Feeney also noted that he was so fortunate to have his twin daughters – who are now freshmen at Conard – attend the school where he works.
Geisler has been teaching at Smith STEM for five years, but he’s been in the district for 10 years.
“This is my seventh school,” Geisler said, noting that he started off part-time as a 0.5 FTE, and has traveled between schools and taught physical education at Wolcott, Aiken, Bugbee, Whiting Lane, and Webster Hill elementary schools (the latter of which he attended), as well as at Conard High School (where he is a 2007 graduate).
He has a master’s in education in physical education with a concentration in adventure education from Plymouth State University and a bachelor’s from Central Connecticut State University.
When he was nominated for Teacher of the Year in the past, he wasn’t eligible because at the time he was still part-time. “I think I’m very visible at school – even when I was part-time,” he said.
Some of the programs at Smith that Geisler has launched include two STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) PM programs, family engagement “parent’s play” nights where English-speaking families and families who speak other languages were combined on teams to engage in games that don’t require language for collaboration or connection, and walk- and bike-to-school days. He’s also been a celebrity scooper, and participated in the art teacher’s paint night and spring fairs.
Vicinus said that Smith STEM Principal Teresa Giolito calls Geisler “our resident rockstar.” Quoting Giolito, Vicinus said, “Dylan knows every student, and every student knows Dylan.”
His colleagues praise the trusting and meaningful relationships that he forms with families and noted that “Dylan is a presence on the campus but he doesn’t want the attention on himself. He’s a relationship builder and a true collaborator.” Vicinus said, “Dylan, you may not want the attention but as the resident rockstar we applaud your greatest hits and we hope you’ll take a bow.”
“I believe it’s really important to have a partnership with parents, staff, and students,” Geisler said when asked by We-Ha.com why he thought he had been nominated. “I think my passion comes out, too. … I love PE, it’s a huge part of me.”
McMurray has been teaching Pre-K at Charter Oak International Academy since the new building opened in 2016. Before that, she taught either kindergarten or first grade at West Hartford’s Norfeldt, Whiting Lane, and Wolcott elementary schools.
She has a master’s from the University of Saint Joseph and a bachelor’s in early childhood development from East Tennessee State University.
This is McMurray’s first time being nominated for Teacher of the Year, and said she doesn’t know what led to the nomination, but said, “I’m deeply invested in my students and families, the school and the community.”
Vicinus, in announcing McMurray’s nomination, shared plenty of reasons about why she has been recognized.
The Charter Oak leadership team says that “the relationship that Emily forms with students and families is simply unparalleled,” he said. “They describe her classroom as magical and say that her greatest strength is the personalization of instruction.”
She creates a culturally responsive environment that is reflected in her physical classroom, incorporates the Charter Oak theme of “global citizenship and the district focus on social justice into Pre-K,” Vicinus said, and her instruction is focused on the student voice – an approach she has shared at the state and national level.
“Emily is described as the perfect pick for students and families as they begin their educational careers,” Vicinus said, known for her collaboration and teamwork. She asks students how they can make a difference, he said, and “without question she has made a difference in our district, the school community, and the lives of the children she inspires every day.”
“We all work really, really hard. I appreciate the opportunity and it’s great to get Pre-K noticed and recognized. Teaching West Hartford’s youngest learners is an honor,” McMurray said.
All three finalists received certificates from Vicinus on Tuesday night. The name of the person ultimately chosen as Teacher of the Year award is kept embargoed until May 19, when the recipient will be formally recognized.
Smith STEM first grade teacher Michele Haggerty was the 2022 Teacher of the Year.
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