York Co.’s Teacher of the Year Wants Kids to Learn Hard Work Pays Off

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Yorktown Middle School math teacher Elizabeth O'Brien was named the Teacher of the Year for the York County School Division. (Photo courtesy YCSD)
Yorktown Middle School math teacher Elizabeth O’Brien was named the Teacher of the Year for the York County School Division. (Photo courtesy YCSD)

From three finalists, Elizabeth O’Brien has emerged as the York County School Division Teacher of the Year.

O’Brien has taught math at Yorktown Middle School for four years after transitioning from Grafton High School, where she won the same honor as a math teacher and head of the department in 2004, having won the regional award that year as well.

“You’re only as good as the people you work with,” O’Brien said. “I like to think I’m representing all the great teachers I’ve worked with. I’ve been very humbled by it.”

O’Brien said her colleagues are the reason for any success she has in the classroom, from planning together as a department and sharing quick adjustments between classes to applying the most effective methods she has seen from other teachers.

“Everybody in education cares about kids, and they work really, really hard,” O’Brien said. “The only way you can be good at education is by sharing.”

Having three sons at each of the three York zone schools has also helped O’Brien in finding effective methods and to have a better understanding of what students go through.

“I know what teachers do to help my kids,” O’Brien said.

In the classroom, O’Brien focuses on using a variety of teaching methods to ensure no child falls through the cracks, while encouraging a positive attitude to promote perseverance.

“I hope by the end of the year, [I’m] teaching kids that hard work does pay off,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said the block schedule at Yorktown Middle, which offers a 90-minute math class five days a week, helps engage students often and in a variety of ways that allows her to differentiate the curriculum to cater to all levels of students, utilizing hands-on activities, guided group assignments, peer tutoring, video learning and traditional lecture.

“I always have believed every kid can do this, and it’s just about figuring out what’s the best way to teach a student,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien gears the curriculum toward real-world applications as well, such as better-buy cost comparisons to make students better consumers and smarter shoppers.

She also hopes to show students math is a gateway in today’s job market to better careers, such as technology and engineering.

O’Brien studied industrial engineering herself, thinking that was the career she would be getting into; however, fate would have her walk into a classroom one day, earning her master’s degree at night, and never leave 25 years later.

Originally from Pittsburgh, O’Brien taught one year in her hometown and six years in North Carolina before moving to York County and working for Williamsburg-James City County Schools for four years, making the move to the area because of her husband David’s job as a marine biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It’s so much fun because it’s so much about the engagement with kids,” O’Brien said.

After 10 years at Grafton High School, she wanted a new challenge, transitioning to middle school, where she said the classroom is as much about engagement as it is teaching the curriculum.

O’Brien is engaged with the community as well, active in her family’s church, Grace Episcopal Church in Yorktown, and many sports. O’Brien, a runner herself, is also active with her three sons’ sports, whose favorites are lacrosse and baseball. Summer swim team is part of the family’s sports gamut, too.

Keeping her teaching skills sharp, O’Brien is involved with various math associations, including at the state level with the Virginia Council of Teachers of Mathematics, visiting different seminars and conferences as a presenter and participant.

“It’s all about the kids when it comes down to it,” O’Brien said. “You just think about what impact you can have on these kids.”

As the division Teacher of the Year, O’Brien is now a candidate for the regional Teacher of the Year. One of the eight regional honorees will be named the state Teacher of the Year in the fall.

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