MERIDEN — When School Superintendent Mark Benigni announced that Jennifer Duell, who teaches science at Maloney High School, had been named the 2021-2022 teacher of the year for the Meriden Public Schools, Duell had a look of surprise.
In fact, after receiving her plaque and an honorary bouquet, Duell said she was very surprised.
So in her brief acceptance speech, which she gave from a podium set up under a tent behind Lincoln Middle School, she gave kudos to her colleagues and students.
“This has been a year unlike any other in teaching. I know the hard work that I put in, and my colleagues, and the hard work my students put in,” Duell said, adding she was grateful to be able to “mold great minds.”
Afterwards, Duell, who also coaches softball at Platt High School, described the other honorees that afternoon as “very good, deserving candidates.”
While Duell may have expressed surprise, Maloney principal Jennifer Straub is quick to tell you the honor is well deserved.
“I’m so proud of her,” Straub said. “She’s a very humble teacher. We know a lot of the things she does above and beyond for the kids, but there’s so much more that we don’t even know.”
Straub described Duell — who teaches biology, advanced placement biology, environmental science, botany and other courses — as an educator who supports students and her peer teachers.
“She really is a teacher of teachers too, by her example and just by her knowledge and skill set … She’s just a fabulous teacher who goes above and beyond every day,” Straub said.
Last year, the district didn’t have a Teacher of the Year ceremony.
So for Duell and the dozens of other educators gathered under the tent behind Lincoln the ceremony marked a return to some normalcy. They embraced and smiled, as they took cell phone photos to commemorate the occasion.
“It’s been a different year than ever. But it’s only going to make us stronger next year — when we get back to normal,” Duell said. “It’s just nice to have the kids in front of us every day.”
Patricia Sullivan Kowalski, the district’s senior director of Student Supports and Special Education, was the event’s emcee. This year teachers at 14 schools, which included the district’s distance learning elementary school program, were honored. For each honoree, Sullivan Kowalski read descriptions provided by peers. In those descriptions, peers said their colleagues were student-centered, enthusiastic and role models for other educators.
One teacher, Amy Moody, a teacher in Meriden for more than 20 years, taught in the district’s distance learning school this year. She was honored as that school’s teacher of the year.
“She maintained a positive attitude as she met the challenges of distance learning teaching,” Sullivan Kowalski said of Moody, noting she strived to support students and fellow teachers.
Moody, like Duell, was quick to give her colleagues credit for the honor.
“We learned a lot,” Moody said of teaching an entire year remotely. She taught during the day and collaborated at night with other teachers, she said, “just trying to make it all work and figure it out.”
Benigni offered his appreciation to all the educators who had gathered.
“Together we made it work,” he said from behind the podium. “Today we honor our teacher of the year, but more than that I want to honor all of our teachers who have done such an amazing job. So give yourself a round of applause.”