REGION 16 — Deb Flaherty didn’t think her career path would lead to the classroom after earning her undergraduate degree in family studies from the University of Connecticut.
“I never thought I wanted to be a teacher,” said Flaherty, who wanted to go into social work or psychology after college.
However, the classroom is exactly where the soon-to-be-43-year-old Prospect resident and social studies teacher at Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls finds herself today. If Flaherty needs any validation that she made the right choice, it came this year.
Flaherty has been named the 2013-14 teacher of the year in Region 16.
“I was surprised and I was pleasantly surprised,” said Flaherty about receiving the honor.
Flaherty said it’s a little overwhelming knowing that she has been chosen by her peers, many of whom are deserving of being teacher of the year themselves.
“I think there are so many other people that could be standing where I was who hadn’t been nominated,” she said.
With that thought in mind, Flaherty decided to forego the traditional speech nominees give when being interviewed for the award. Instead, she put together a video montage of Region 16 students talking about who is their teacher of the year.
“Everybody is teacher of the year to somebody. It does mean a lot. But, I work with incredible people, incredible people taught my kids,” Flaherty said.
The honor is one that seemed farfetched while Flaherty was working as a social worker at the Wheeler Clinic in Plainville after graduating from UConn. As part of her job, Flaherty would work in schools as a liaison between the school, parents and the clinic. She would often tutor children as well and found that she was good at it.
It wasn’t until she returned to school for a master’s degree though that it hit Flaherty teaching was her calling.
Flaherty recalled she was taking a course at the UConn branch in West Hartford towards her master’s in social work. But, she said, the course just wasn’t grabbing her.
At the suggestion of a friend, Flaherty decided to enroll in a master’s course — instructional curriculum — at the University of St. Joseph.
“It just did it for me, and I said, ‘Where was this all through undergrad,’” Flaherty said.
So, she changed course and got her master’s in special education and has since received numerous education certifications.
Flaherty taught special education for nine years in East Hartford and South Windsor public schools before the birth of her first child led her to find a job closer to home. In 2002, she accepted a job at Woodland as the teacher for the school’s life skills class, a course that teaches students with intellectual disabilities using a curriculum based around every day life skills. She would go on to continue working with students with behavioral and learning disabilities in Woodland’s resource room before shifting gears to become a full-time social studies teacher.
It was in this position, where Flaherty and fellow teacher Lisa Olivere co-founded Woodland for Women Worldwide four years ago. The group is a school-based, non-profit organization of students, teachers, parents and community members with a mission to advance the rights of women and girls within the community and around the world through events such as the annual Run For a Revolution. This year’s run is Oct. 12.
As the region’s teacher of the year, Flaherty is automatically in the running for Connecticut Teacher of the Year. And making a run she is.
Flaherty is one of 15 semifinalists for the state award and still has the voice mail on her cell phone to prove it.
With nearly 200 school districts in Connecticut, Flaherty said she really didn’t think she had a chance while she was filling out the application. Flaherty’s interview for the state award was Sept. 18. School officials announced Sept. 25 that she is one of the final four candidates for Connecticut Teacher of the Year.
“I was really surprised and I was really psyched,” Flaherty said prior to her interview Sept. 18. “I don’t really have words for it. I’m nervous and I’m excited and I’m honored.”
Flaherty was honored by the Board of Education during a Sept. 11 ceremony prior to the board’s regular meeting.
“I have a whole list of adjectives that describe Deb and what she means to our students, to our staff and to our whole school community. And just from all of our hearts we congratulate you and wish you the very best in the next level of the competition,” Superintendent of Schools Tim James said. “But honestly that’s just icing on the cake. We’re just thrilled that we have someone of your caliber working with our student’s every day.”
For Flaherty, winning Connecticut Teacher of the Year would be nice but she’s more than content simply being in a position to influence the lives of her students.
“It’s a very challenging profession,” she said about teaching. “But it’s a really fun profession, and I don’t know many other jobs where you can walk away and say, ‘I know for a fact I made an impact on that person. Something that’s going to possibly impact their future lives.’ That’s pretty powerful.”