×

Gowanda teacher reflects on 33-year career

Crystal O’Connor

GOWANDA — When she walked into Gowanda Elementary on Sept. 5, 2023, her 33rd first day of school as an educator, Crystal O’Connor had no idea it was her final year of teaching.

The Pennsylvania native, who never set foot in Gowanda prior to being hired in 1991 and who long planned to hang up her lanyard in June 2025, is retiring in June to spend time with family.

And it’s the close-knit sense of family among staff that’s kept her at GCS – where she teaches fourth grade. Her coworkers are bracing for her absence and imagining a school without their calm and steady colleague.

“Teaching’s a tough gig,” says O’Connor. “The sense of the community with the people here is very grounding.”

“What’s going to be challenging is to figure out how to parcel out, give away, share, – however you want to think of it – the many books I’ve accumulated over the years,” she says. “I’m grateful my husband has never grumbled about what I spend on my classroom!”

Fourth-grade teacher Crystal O’Connor poses with students from her 2023-2024 classroom at The Buffalo Zoo in May.

O’Connor’s connections across campus are multilayered, her roots run deep and her ties are strong, some spanning generations. Certain staff know her as a teacher, some know her as a parent of a student, others know her because she taught their kids, and there are even a lucky few coworkers she once had as students.

“I have never known anyone who has worked as hard as Crystal,” says Terri Reeves, school psychologist. “Her students always knew what was expected of them and they would do their best to complete the task to the best of their ability. It is difficult to explain, but she has a way of making her students feel believed in.”

ORIGIN OF AN EDUCATOR

It all began when she was a teen, and a friend whose father was a fourth-grade teacher let her read “Where the Red Fern Grows” by Wilson Rawls to his class, inspiring her career choice.

She earned a bachelor’s in teaching from Elizabethtown College, near Hershey, Pa. She has a master’s in curriculum development and is certified to teach middle school math.

For the first decade of her career, she commuted to GCS from places in Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, and Wyoming counties, but in 2002 became a village resident and loves living here.

“It’s nice that I’m only a block from work. I could walk, but my bag’s too heavy, so forget that,” she says. “You’d think after this many years I’d have it figured out and not have such a heavy bag.”

Although she’s happy for her coworker and neighbor, third-grade teacher Christina Shull doesn’t know how she’ll cope with O’Connor’s absence.

“I’ve relied on her from day one,” says Shull, whose daughter, Chloe, had O’Connor for a teacher. “She has always been here for me.”

Chloe, now a sixth-grader, says O’Connor helped her and her classmates build conflict resolution skills and craft holiday cards.

“She always did little activities with us that made learning fun. She made more lessons much cooler and kept it interesting,” says Chloe. “She taught us how to keep the multiplication tables in our head and keep our focus. She always made sure everybody was included.”

THE CHANGING CLASSROOM

Slate chalkboards, overhead transparencies and filmstrips were just starting to be phased out in the ’90’s with more advanced technologies being implemented in rapid succession as the 21st century began.

“I don’t know that our district initially thought the elementary school could find as many uses for tech as we did,” says O’Connor, who remembers small banks of computers being added to classrooms in the ’90’s.

One thing that kept her motivated were moments along the way that reassured her that, yes, this work is worth doing. The student’s name was Kevin and they’d been working hard at writing.

“It was not easy for him,” she says “All of a sudden he was like, ‘Hurry, hurry, come quick! I’m having a brainwave!’ What he really meant was he was having a brainstorm because we often brainstorm our ideas before we get them all out on paper.”

It’s those “aha!” moments O’Connor will miss most.

“The love of learning and the curiosity, too,” she says of things she’s reluctant to relinquish in retirement. “The look on kids’ faces when they finally figure out something by themselves.”

District library media specialist Kimberly Nobles was a multiage classroom student of O’Connor.

“I think that was due to feeling challenged academically as well as enjoying all the extras we did, specifically learning sign language and writing to pen pals,” says Nobles. “As an adult and teacher myself now I can appreciate the extra work that went into all that differentiation and enrichment!”

WHAT’S NEXT

O’Connor has no immediate plan beyond taking it easy. Her husband is a retired law enforcement officer, she has four stepchildren, three grandsons and one daughter.

She loves crafting, wants to catch up on her reading list and resume church volunteering. At some point, the O’Connors plan to move to North Carolina to be near their daughter, a GHS Class of 2015 grad who wed in 2023. She’s earning a Ph.D. in immunology/virology and researches pancreatic cancer. She is also a patent agent.

“When they settle down and have a family I’m going to be ‘that’ grandma,” says O’Connor.

***

Read a longer version of this profile at www.gowcsd.org. Submitted by Erica Carlson for Gowanda CSD via the Communications & Development Department of Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugs BOCES.

Newsletter

Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *
   

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today