By Andreas Yilma, Staff Writer
NAUGATUCK — Shelby Adams knew as a child she wanted a career where she could help people, but she didn’t know exactly what that career would be.
Adams flirted with pursuing veterinarian medicine due to her love of animals, but said ultimately she could never put an animal down. Instead, she chose another compassionate career — teaching.
“The pride and joy of just being in the classroom with them (students) and just being able to have that experience of touching lives,” Adams said about the fulfillment she gets from being a teacher.
Adams, 34, was born and raised in the borough and went through Naugatuck Public Schools. After graduating from Naugatuck High School, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Eastern Connecticut State University and a master’s degree in secondary education from the University of Bridgeport. She is working on her sixth-year certificate in educational technology through the Dominican University of California’s online program.
Her career path brought her back to the borough 10 years ago when she started teaching seventh-grade language arts at City Hill Middle School — a position she still holds.
Three years ago she took on more duties as a English and civics teacher for Naugatuck Adult Education.
Adams said the thought of teaching adult ed terrified her at first because of the challenge of going from a classroom of middle school students to one with adults sitting behind the desks. She decided venturing out of her comfort zone would help her grow professionally, though. After a few classes, she realized teaching adult ed was amazing.
“Knowing that my adult students come from different countries to better themselves and their families is such a huge life-changing event. Their brave actions really helped me to put things into perspective,” Adams said. “Me being nervous to teach adults is nothing compared to the feeling they must have when it came to leaving their home countries to come to the United States.”
Adams said she learns just has much from her adult students as they do from her.
“I truly feel that there’s so much that I learn from them with their dedication, their commitment. They teach me about their countries, they teach their language, they teach me all about their cultures,” said Adams, who has picked up a little Portuguese during her time teaching adult ed. “I really feel we learn both ways. Everybody is learning.”
Adams was named a 2020 Educator of the Year by the Connecticut Association of Adult and Continuing Education for her work with adult ed. She is one of three winners of the award. The others are Jamie Rainville, a teacher with the state Department of Corrections, and Denise Spellman, an educator with New London Adult Education.
Winners are chosen by three CAACE judges based of their knowledge, expertise and contributions to their programs. Naugatuck Adult Education Director Heather Pelletier nominated Adams.
CAACE Awards Co-Chairman Sarah Mulvehill said it wasn’t hard to choose Adams.
“She goes above and beyond every day for her students. She is also very willing to help her fellow teachers,” Mulvehill said. “It’s very easy to work with her. It was an easy decision to nominate her.”
On a regular day, Adams arrives at City Hill Middle School at 7:20 a.m. and heads home to Meriden at around 3:30 p.m. On the days she teaches adult ed — Mondays and Tuesdays — she returns to the borough at about 6 p.m. for her 6:30 p.m. adult ed class and gets home at about 9 p.m.
Her adult ed classes can have students ranging from 18 to 60 years old. The lessons vary including how to talk to doctors, build a resume, or apply for a job or citizenship.
As tired as she may feel on those long days, driving back to Naugatuck to teach adults rejuvenates her, Adams said.
“It gives me so much energy knowing that when my students walk in the classroom, they’re so excited to be there and they want to learn,” Adams said. “They are so committed and dedicated. They’re such hard workers, that it makes me work even harder for them, especially to give them what they need, not just any old lesson.”
Adams said she was shocked when she learned earlier this year she had been named a 2020 Educator of the Year. She found out in an email and thought officials made a mistake or it might have been a scam.
Adams said there are thousands of amazing adult educators and teachers in the state who put tremendous effort into their work.
“It’s very rewarding and it’s an honor,” Adams said. “Sometimes I still don’t believe it.”
Adams admitted being a teacher is challenging some days, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and she sometimes questions why she does it. But, in the end, being a teacher fills her with pride.
“When you hear from your students what a difference you’re making, when you don’t even realize you’re making that difference, that’s what matter the most because you never know the lives that you’re impacting by the most simple things that you’re doing each day,” Adams said.