For our final post, I thought it would be fitting to talk to Jean O’Neil, who has just retired after 39 years teaching at the Lincoln School.
“One of the reasons I liked staying here my whole career is the culture,” Jean said. “It is very diverse. The parents are very willing to help their children, and the children work very hard. The staff works well together here. It’s a nice feeling that you can depend on each other.”
O’Neil grew up in Melrose and went to St. Mary’s for 12 years. “I played basketball here at the Lincoln School when I was young—they had CYO basketball—so it was kind of like coming home,” she said.
And she always wanted to be a teacher: “I love being with children. I feel like I learn from them sometimes more than they learn from me. I think the way children think sometimes is a different perspective; it opens your eye to new things.”
O’Neil taught fourth grade for 37 years, and two years ago, when there was a bubble class, she moved to second grade. “I think going up is easier than going down,” she said. “They have different needs in second grade. Reading is the emphasis in K-2, learning to read, and 3-5 is reading to learn, so there is a big difference.”
O’Neil says that classroom instruction is more open-ended now. “When I first started, I think it was more reading about a situation, especially science and math, reading and showing the children how to do it,” she said. “Now they explore by themselves, then we talk about it, talk about different ways of thinking. A lot more freedom is given to children to explore, for their own creativity. As far as the math goes, children have to explain themselves more than in the past. There is more of an emphasis on writing in general, which is wonderful. Children do need to write to explain themselves. Now that more children are going to college, that is an emphasis that the colleges do have that children be able to write. They are putting on emphasis from kindergarten on doing narratives, how to books, poetry, expository writing—we just finished an opinion piece where the children had to write a letter to convince someone that they needed something. It’s very different.”
“When we first started, the children did a lot of creative writing,” she said. “You gave them a prompt and they went with it. Now the writing is structured. They can be creative within the structure, but it’s good because it gives them that structure and they are exposed to more different kinds of writing at an earlier age.”
Even after 39 years, she says, her favorite part of the job is simply being with the children. “Being with the children every day. Watching them succeed and feel like they have accomplished something. Watching them do something they didn’t think they could do. Watching them interact with each other, and watching children from different countries in particular. The more they interact with children from different countries early on, the better a world it will be.”
Thank you, Ms. O’Neil! I wish you and all the other teachers who retired this June a healthy and happy retirement.