Teaching Outside the Box

by Jun 3, 2021Education, South Brunswick

Cedar Grove Middle School teacher Betsy O’Hara Hybrid Remote Teacher of the Year.

Betsy O’Hara considers interacting with students in the classroom one of the most rewarding roles of a teacher, but she faced a challenge when COVID-19 entered the picture. In March 2020 teachers in Brunswick County Schools were mandated to teach from home via the computer.

“I didn’t have a lot of interaction or student engagement,” O’Hara says. “I asked myself what I could do differently to make my math curriculum more engaging.”

In her sixth year of teaching math to eighth graders at Cedar Grove Middle School, O’Hara investigated the possibilities. When school resumed in August 2020, classes were 100 percent virtual. Despite the adjustments she had to make, she enjoyed the interaction with her students. September introduced hybrid learning, and O’Hara was prepared.

“It’s really like one class,” she says. “You can see the interaction with the virtual kids and the kids here at school.”

Teacher of The Year Hybrid Remote

Southeast Education Alliance understood the modifications teachers had to make, and to recognize those who made exceptional adaptations, they created two new awards in remote learning and hybrid remote. O’Hara won the 2021 Hybrid Remote Teacher of the Year award.

“This honor was well deserved,” says Justin Hayes, principal of Cedar Grove Middle School. “She’s an exemplary teacher. The remote environment has only exemplified what we’re already seen over the past years visiting her classroom.”

Hayes explains that O’Hara was frustrated with remote learning when the school year ended in 2020 and how she was determined to find ways to make math come alive to virtual students.

“She’s always looking for ways to improve her instruction,” he says. “She researched over the summer and looked into ways to present math in a virtual and a hybrid setting. Implementing them in the classroom was the key to her success this year.”

O’Hara says the hardest part of adjusting to remote learning was giving her virtual students the attention she gives to in-class students.

“I really try to make connections with my students,” she says. “I knew I had to make my lessons more engaging this year so students would want to show up for virtual learning.”

She sought out interactive computer programs and created lessons, games and quizzes so virtual students could answer and react as if they were in the classroom.

“We always ask our math students to think outside the box, so I had to think outside the box,” she says. “I saw what was working with my students and went with it.”

Acacia Dixon, BCS director of digital learning and school library programs, says that two of the things O’Hara excels at in a hybrid classroom is being able to engage her virtual students and her ability to keep track of all her students.

“She manages what’s going on and provides students with feedback whether they’re sitting in her classroom or at their computer at home,” Dixon says.

O’Hara didn’t plan to be a teacher when she was growing up along with her twin brother, Travis, and four other siblings in Mount Upton, New York. Veterinary medicine attracted her attention but so did numbers, so she switched her interest to accounting. At the same time, she was an accomplished athlete and played basketball, softball and soccer in high school.

Remote Teacher of The Year

As a freshman at Utica College in New York, she took accounting courses but she realized that wasn’t what she wanted. She changed her majors to psychology and elementary education and continued her interest in sports, playing on the basketball, soccer and lacrosse teams.

After graduation, she moved to Huntington Beach, California, and held “fun jobs.” A year later, she visited a friend in Florida and decided that was the place she wanted to live. She landed a job as a first-grade teacher in Fort Walton and stayed four years.

She missed her family, but didn’t want to return to the cold North, so accepted a position closer to New York —— at Harnett Central Middle School in Angier, North Carolina. She was named its Teacher of the Year in 2015.

Cedar Grove Middle School offered her an opportunity to coach, so now besides teaching math, she coaches both boys’ and girls’ soccer and girls’ basketball. She is also assistant coach of girls’ lacrosse at West Brunswick High school.

“I love coaching,” she says. “Math and sports are my two passions.”

Another passion is her long-haired dachshund, 11-year-old Pippa.

“We’re incredibly proud of Ms. O’Hara and what she does in the classroom,” Dixon says. “She cares about her students. She goes the extra mile no matter the delivery system to make sure they’re getting what they need.”

O’Hara says she considers her specialty “making math fun for the kids. I want students to love math as much as I do.”

She believes she can accomplish that when all students are in front of her.

“If I had to choose, I would teach in-person even though I won this award,” O’Hara says. “I am so humbled by this and honored, but my style of teaching is having the kids in the classroom. I look forward to having all the kids back and starting the year like we normally do.”