For more than 2 decades, Ann Neary traveled the world. She was a top fashion marketer, working with the biggest names in the industry.
Then came 9/11.
For 9 months, Neary volunteered at St. Paul’s Chapel. During those long 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. shifts, she had plenty of time to think.
“If I sold a beautiful shirt and it made someone look great, that made no difference in the world,” she recalls thinking.
“But kids make a difference.”
Every day, letters arrived at the makeshift rescue site. Many were from children. Strangers around the globe, they thanked the people working in the pit where the World Trade Center once stood.
Neary wanted to give back to her native city — and work with kids. She earned a master’s degree in education from Manhattanville College. For the next 11 years, she taught English and journalism at DeWitt Clinton High School.
She was fully invested in the Bronx school — with 5,000 students, the largest in New York. She organized playwriting workshops, and brought in big names to work with students.
But the school downsized. Though she’d been there nearly a dozen years, Neary was out of a job.
She went through the rigorous hiring process in Westport. For the past 3 years, she’s taught Advanced Placement Literature and sophomore English at Staples High School. This year, she spends mornings at the school’s innovative Pathways Academy, handling all English instruction.
Neary’s story is like many Westport educators’: intriguing, involved and important.
But there’s one more unique feature: In December, Neary earned certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Awarded only after a rigorous, performance-based peer-review process, it’s considered the gold standard — and the highest mark of achievement, in the teaching profession.
In fact, Neary was the only teacher in the entire state of Connecticut to earn National Board Certification this year.
But she joins 2 others in the Westport Public Schools who have also achieved that distinction: Kristina Rodriguez (Bedford Middle School) and Paul Zajac (Staples). District grade 6-12 English coordinator Julie Heller is a former National Board Certified teacher.
Neary began thinking about the National Board process 5 years ago, after meeting an impressive group of teachers at a US Department of Education summit in Boston.
When she learned that Mt. Holyoke College offered a certification component, she applied.
It normally takes 3 years to complete the program. Neary did it in just 1. She graduated last spring with her 2nd master’s. She was officially certified in December.
The certification process is very challenging. “You have to reflect on every move you make as a teacher,” Neary says. “Teachers are naturally busy — there’s not a lot of time for reflection. This forces you to do that.”
She spent much of her time figuring out ways to truly know her students as individuals, then turn that knowledge into curriculum work. That’s been especially important at Pathways, Staples’ flexible, multidisciplinary academy for students who need a different approach to education.
Neary’s certification is a major accomplishment. Fifty percent of educators do not pass on their first try.
And despite Connecticut’s reputation as an education leader, it does not offer much support for National Certification. Many states provide financial incentives, and/or mentors. Connecticut does not.
Still, Neary persevered — and succeeded. The self-reflective process was important, she says.
And it all began in those dark days after 9/11, when Ann Neary first reflected on what was truly important in the world, and answered her own question: kids.