A teacher of many talents

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Region 16 taps Amato as teacher of the year

Woodland Regional High School English teacher James Amato was named Region 16’s 2018 teacher of the year. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

BEACON FALLS — Woodland Regional High School English teacher James Amato likes to maintain a mystique around his age within the halls of the school — some students think he’s 60, others lean closer to 30.

There’s no mystery though as to the impression he leaves on his students.

“He pushes students to work hard, learn as much as possible, and he helps everyone. No matter how busy he is, he takes time to help anyone. He has so many jobs in the school that it couldn’t function without him. But, he always has time for you,” wrote Taylor Amore, a member of the Woodland Class of 2017, in a form nominating Amato for teacher of the year.

Administrators agreed. Amato was named the 2018 teacher of the year in Region 16, which oversees schools in Beacon Falls and Prospect.

Amato, an Ansonia resident who is married with three children, said the award is more than just a culmination. The process for nominees requires writing a reflective essay, a step he found satisfying after a little more than two decades in education.

“Sometimes, I think as teachers we always move forward and we forget to look back on what we’ve done. That process for me was the most rewarding. To be recognized for some of those accomplishments, especially by the students, was humbling,” he said.

Amato wears many hats at Woodland and in the region. Aside from teaching English, Amato teaches journalism and is the adviser for Woodland’s media outlet, Hawk Headlines, and the yearbook. He is an instructional leader in the district and has coached volleyball at Woodland — the team won the Class M championship in 2013 under his guidance — since the school opened.

“Jim Amato works tirelessly to make Woodland a better place,” Woodland Principal Kurt Ogren said. “He arrives here early and he leaves late because he is involved in many activities that foster a positive culture and climate at Woodland.”

“In the classroom,” Ogren added, “Mr. Amato stands out as a creative and engaging teacher with a good sense of humor who sets high expectations. Mr. Amato is an outside-of-the-box thinker who teaches his students real world skills.”

Amato also takes the point when it comes to implementing and embracing new technology in schools. He created eduTech, a community-based technology support group for teachers.

“Technology is just technology. Without a good philosophy behind it, then it’s just software,” Amato said. “Really, it should have some enhancement to the educational process where kids are able to acquire, analyze and apply what we’re teaching them.”

The career path Amato took to teaching wasn’t exactly a straight one.

Amato grew up on Pleasant Avenue in Naugatuck and graduated from Emmett O’Brien Technical High School in Ansonia. After high school, he went to the Greater New Haven State Technical College, but didn’t do so well there. A professor, who was also an adjunct professor at Southern Connecticut State University, told him he didn’t belong at the technical college. So, he ended up transferring to Southern.

“That’s where I learned what I was supposed to do,” Amato said.

But, he didn’t learn it right away.

At first, he studied creative writing, but that required four semesters of a romance language, and French proved to be a tough hurdle to clear for Amato.

Amato’s adviser suggested he change his major to education so he could write in the summer and still be able to feed himself. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in education and added a master’s degree in instruction technology and curriculum design from American Intercontinental University.

Amato got his start student teaching at Naugatuck High School in the early 1990s, and that turned into a full-time job teaching English, journalism and theater at NHS. Naugatuck High was also where Amato got his start coaching volleyball as an assistant under former coach Fred Scheithe.

When Woodland opened in 2001, Amato jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the school’s founding faculty.

“You never get a chance to start a new school. Sure, sometimes they build a new building, but there’s not many times when they start a new school — curriculums, traditions, everything. It’s an exciting opportunity,” he said.

Some 16 years later, that excitement hasn’t waned for Amato, who seamlessly weaves wit with reflection in conversations.

“Because I haven’t won the lottery yet,” joked Amato about what motivates him every day to come to work before pausing for a few seconds and adding, “Or maybe I have by being lucky enough to be here. There’s just something about Woodland that I look forward to coming to every day because the environment I’m going to be in. I’m surrounded by people, students and teachers who are risk-takers and want to try what’s next and are willing to be involved with the students.”

Having that kind of culture in place drives Amato to want to continue supporting and building it.

“If [students] have an idea, I want to support it,” he said. “I’m always surprised at what ideas they’re going to bring. That’s what gets me coming to school every day: what’s next.”