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Teacher from Sunderland wins national kudos

SUNDERLAND — When Anne Marie Osheyack was growing up in New Bedford, school was her “safe haven.”

At home, recalls the ninth-grade English teacher at Northampton High School, her father was emotionally abusive and became violent when he lost his temper.

“My father was frequently doing two things — calling us stupid or throwing us against things,” Osheyack said. “At school, these issues melted away.” She credits two of her high school English teachers, David Pepin and Deborah Borden, for changing her from a ninth-grader who frequently skipped school to a magna cum laude graduate of Syracuse University.

What she didn’t know was that soon, she, too, would be changing lives by being an educator.

Osheyack, 32, who now lives in Sunderland, has won the 2015 California Casualty Award for Teaching Excellence. The award is given through a partnership between the National Education Association (NEA) Foundation and California Casualty, an insurance company in San Mateo, Calif., that has been a corporate sponsor of the awards since 2012. It recognizes educators for their professional practice, advocacy for their profession and attention to diversity, among other criteria.

The NEA Foundation is a public charity supported by contributions from members’ dues, corporate sponsors and donations that has annually recognized public school educators with its Awards for Teaching Excellence since 2001.

Osheyack will be among 39 public educators who will be honored at the NEA Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Education Gala in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 13, 2015. Each of the educators will received a $650 award, and five will be selected to receive $10,000 cash awards.

Osheyack has just finished her eighth year of teaching, and her first year at Northampton High School. Before that, she taught ninth-grade English at Central High School in Springfield, where she earned the title of 2014 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, an honor given by the Council of Chief State School Officers. Through this recognition, she met Massachusetts Teachers Association president Paul Toner, who nominated her for the California Casualty Award.

“She has an incredible life story as a young student facing much adversity,” said Toner in a telephone interview. “Public schools were what saved her.”

Osheyack became a teacher by “accident,” she recalls. She had studied film at Syracuse and hoped to become a screenwriter. But internships in that field created too much of an expense for her family, she said, so she explored other avenues.

She had been a camp counselor from the time she was a teenager through graduate school, she said, and her friends suggested she apply her ability to work with youths to teaching.

“At first I laughed at them,” she said.

But she gave it a try.

She participated in a summer program offered by Syracuse, where she could teach seventh- and eighth-graders in Providence, R.I. It was challenging work, she said, but it showed her that teaching was what she wanted to do.

At the time, the program was called Providence Summerbridge, but is called Breakthrough Providence and is part of the Breakthrough Collaborative, a program aimed to help low-income students on a path toward college.

During her own years as a student, school was where she did not have to think about her troubles at home.

When she was in middle school, her parents divorced and she began living with her mom and her younger brother, who had the same temper as her father, she said.

She recalls an incident where her brother tried to hit her in the face with a closet pole, but she threw out her arm to block him and broke his wrist. Her mother had him arrested and he was in and out of foster care through her time in high school, she said.

In her sophomore year of high school, Pepin gave her a love of literature, she recalled, and she began to do more writing. She joined the yearbook staff in her junior year and took advanced placement English and creative writing in her senior year. Borden was the teacher who oversaw the yearbook as well as the school literary magazine.

Both teachers encouraged her to take difficult classes and gave her places to do work after school, she recalls.

“I felt like I had this protective barrier around me at school, with two teachers always checking up on me, always pushing me, always telling me that they expected great things, and I certainly was not going to disappoint either of them,” she said. “Those two teachers saved my life during those hectic four years.”

In Toner’s nomination letter, he cites her impact in the classroom as well as on the community. She is involved with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, a professional development program through which educators can learn from one another to improve their writing as well as classroom practices. Osheyack is a teacher consultant in the program, leading courses for her fellow educators.

He also cites six weeks Osheyack spent teaching English language arts in Uganda in 2011. There, she said, she learned all the aspects of Western education that are taken for granted. For example, she said, her typical class in Africa contained anywhere from 80 to 150 students.

Back home, Osheyack said she loves teaching the ninth grade.

“Ninth grade is kind of unique. They’re like big eighth-graders,” she said. “I think they keep me young. They force me to learn new things with all the things they know.”

She is married to Abe Osheyack, sports information director at Keene State College. They have a 4-year-old rescue dog from Texas named Truman.

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at gmangiaratti@gazettenet.com.

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