WoFo’s Teacher Spotlight features awesome educators who are dedicated to teaching and inspiring young people everyday.
In this edition, WoFo features special education teacher and one of my oldest friends Kelly O’Neill. I would like to thank Kelly for her interview, for being a life-long friend and for her dedication to the teaching profession.
Find what clears your mind and try to do it everyday!
Besides being a teacher Kelly O’Neill is….
an aunt, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a marathon finisher, a live music lover, a reality TV binge watcher, a reader, a learner.
Where do you currently teach, what do you teach and for how long?
I’ve worked for the School District of Philadelphia for the past 14 years as a special education teacher. My first assignment was at the Edward T. Steel Elementary School in the Nicetown-Tioga section of the city, where I taught for 11 years. I taught a self-contained learning support class, grades 4-6. For the past 3 years, I’ve taught at the Samuel Powel Elementary School in the University City section. I co-teach 3rd and 4th grade math and reading. I have also been the Special Education Liaison at both schools (“head” of special ed services for the school) for the past 13 years.
What is your favorite lesson to teach and why?
A specific lesson doesn’t come to mind. But my most memorable unit was one I had planned for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. We spent weeks researching the Olympic games, the country of Russia, studying the culture, the land, the different sports, etc. For my inner city students who have never even left the city, it was a real eye opener. Every morning they would come in excited about what they had learned from watching the Olympics the night before. They got into sports they had never even heard of before. As a culminating activity we held classroom Olympics and I planned all these different events throughout the school, and students won elaborate medals I had made. I think it stands out for me because I was able to be totally creative in planning every aspect of the unit, and my class couldn’t have been more engaged in learning then they were for that 6 weeks.
If for one day you were in charge of your school what would you do?
I’d give the teachers time to talk to other teachers. Often we are flying solo in class all day, never able to interact with other adults because our focus in on the kids all the time. During prep class and lunch we are busy running copies, making calls, prepping materials for the next part of the day. Teachers can learn so much from each other, and I’d give them the chance to do that.
If you could write one quote on the board for your students what would it be?
Run when you can, walk if you need to, crawl if you must. But never, ever give up.
If you weren’t a teacher, what would you be?
I’d own a bed and breakfast, where I can meet different people and cook for them and make them feel welcome in my home.
What advice would you give to all new teachers?
Take time for yourself. This profession can be all consuming at times. There is always going to be a stack of papers to grade, lesson plans to write, decorations and posters to create, phone calls to make. I learned very early on in my career that if I didn’t take time for myself everyday, I’d be burnt out. For me, it is exercise. I try to give myself 45 mins-1 hour a day to turn off everything and sweat. No phone, no computer, no distractions! Find what clears your mind and try to do it everyday!
If the best thing about teaching is the students, what’s the second best thing?
The 2nd best thing about teaching is that every day is truly something new. You have to constantly be thinking on your feet and problem solving. I know a lot of people who go to their jobs, do what’s expected and go home- its just routine. You can’t do that in teaching. Your best-planned lessons will ultimately not go as planned, and your least planned days will be the best day of the week! I love that no 2 days are the same, and that I am consistently challenged.
Who inspires you?
My dad passed away almost 15 years ago, yet his impact is still felt daily in my life. I hope to one day have the influence on a person that he has had on me. He was a gentle giant who made everyone feel like family. He inspired me when he was with me, and he inspires me without being here physically.
My classroom superpower is…
the ability to connect to others because I know how important it is to have someone who cares about you and is a listening ear. My students often deal with things that, even as an adult, I’ve never had to deal with. Establishing and maintaining a connection is an invaluable power.
Kelly can be reached at Instagram: @kaboneill
Do you know an awesome educator dedicated to inspiring and teaching others? If so, please consider nominating them to be a part of WoFo’s Teacher Spotlight Series. You can send their contact information to email@example.com.
When I grow up I still want to see the world through childish eyes.
A few days after writing Advice from the Dead, Chase and I were in the car together. I’m driving, he’s tucked in the backseat and it’s raining.
Of course it’s raining.
Stories like this are almost always punctuated by weather.
With the windshield wipers on full tilt, a rumble of thunder rolls overhead and flash of lightening splits the night sky in half.
“Dad”, Chase says, “did you know when there’s thunder and lightning God is bowling in heaven.”
“Yes, bud I did know that.”
“How did you know that dad?”
“Well, I went to catholic school just like you buddy. And my teachers told me the same thing.”
Call it telepathy, call it being a parent but I felt the questions forming like thunderclouds in his head. He’s pondering the angles of time. He’s attempting to comprehend the news that I was once a kid like him, unsure and curious, sporting a catholic school uniform, sitting quietly with folded hands as the teacher educated us on things like God and heaven and bowling.
The car eases to a traffic light and stops. The rain falls hard and heavy. The windshield fogs at its edges.
“Dad, do know who the Ultimate Warrior is?”
( Clearly, not the question I was expecting.)
“Yes I know who he is. Why?”
“Because he died.”
“Dad, he had cancer and he died.”
“Hey buddy, how did you know that?” “Youtube.”
The first person I ever really knew who died was my grandmother. I was 16 when it happened. I remember not thinking much about her death. In a way, I guess, it made sense. She was old and sick and she died. And that was that.
I catch Chase in the rear view mirror. His knees pressed against his chest, feet up on the seat, his oversized eyes watching the watery glow of street lights and store signs flick by. I’m envious. His little life unbounded by theories of time, of the unnerving truth that I will one day die and won’t be here to answer his questions.
The light turns green and we go.
The second person I knew who died was a close family friend, Joey. One night, for reasons still unknown, he hung himself with his karate belt in the bathroom. He was 12. I was 18. He was a happy and popular and had blonde hair then he was dead. I remember my dad, with wet eyes and strained words, explaining what happened, clearing his throat, working out the details. I remember saying I was fine. I remember going to school. I remember sitting in history class, staring out the window watching the morning bloom into its becoming and imaging what it must be like to be dead. Was it like my grade school teachers said? Was it peaceful and warm? Was everything italicized in gold? Was God even there? If so, would he greet me? Would we go bowling? If so, would I have to bring my own shoes or does heaven have a shoe rental counter?
The engine shifts and we pass the plastic heavens of suburbia– Target, Starbucks, Chick-fil-A.
I was curious. I wanted to press the conversation. I wanted to know what my child knew about life, about death.
“Hey Chase, do you know what happens when you die?”
“Well, bud…you go to heaven.”
“Oh yeah. They said that at school.”
“So dad, is the Ultimate Warrior in heaven?”
“I think so.”
“But he doesn’t have cancer in heaven. Because you can’t have cancer in heaven, right dad?”
“Chase, do you know what cancer is?”
“It means you’re really sick.”
“Dad, do you have cancer?”
“Dad, when you die are you going to go to heaven?”
“Well, I hope so bud.”
“Because when you’re in heaven, you’re not sick anymore and I know sometimes you’re sick. That’s what mom says. So if you go to heaven you’ll feel better, right dad?”
“I hope so bud.”
“But if you’re in heaven than you can’t take me to my soccer games.”
We merge onto the highway and the engine shifts and we race under an overpass and things get quiet, the rain stops and I digest the absoluteness of my son’s declaration and I breathe and feel the spinning wheels, the pulsing engine and the car charges toward the waiting darkness and there’s an explosion of thunder, a slash of lighting and just before we exit the quiet of the overpass, Chase calmly says, “But dad if you’re in heaven you can meet the Ultimate Warrior. And then you and the Ultimate Warrior could go bowling with God.”
Beyond the brim of the overpass there looms thunder and lightning.
Before we blast headfirst into the storm I squeeze the steering wheel, stiffen my wrist, catch Chase in the mirror again and lacking something inside–maybe courage, maybe conviction to challenge his young beliefs lean my head back, brace myself for what’s to come and simply reply, “I hope so buddy.”
I hope so.
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