When Dawn DeMeo was named the 2022 Teacher of the Year, she joined a list of illustrious colleagues who preceded her.
But she also kept a unique family tradition alive.
DeMeo’s father, John DeMeo, a former math teacher at Coginchaug Regional High School, and her brother, Scott DeMeo, a math teacher at Amity High School, both received teacher of the year honors from their respective districts. Now, DeMeo adds her own accomplishment to the family mantle.
“It was a pretty special Labor Day,” said DeMeo, with a laugh.
On Aug. 25, during the Cheshire Public School’s annual Convocation Ceremony, DeMeo was announced as the Teacher of the Year. As per tradition, DeMeo had been informed about the award before the end of the previous school year and was required to keep silent about the honor until the ceremony in August,
“It just honestly feels like the ultimate acknowledgement,” said DeMeo. “It really feels like (the administrators) see you.”
“I just kept thinking about how I’m in such really good company,” DeMeo continued. “My colleagues, I see how hard they work, so it’s humbling (to be chosen from amongst them). It’s really the ultimate compliment, and it comes from people who know what it takes to do a good job as a teacher.”
Finding out in June was especially significant for DeMeo as it coincided with a visit from another Teacher of the Year recipient, Congresswoman Jahana Hayes (D-5), who spoke with students in DeMeo’s Black and Latino Studies course. During her speech, Hayes, who was National Teacher of the Year in 2016 before eventually running for office, spoke about the riots at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, explaining that, as she hid under her desk she began writing, in an almost unconscious manner, a lesson plan, harkening back to her roots as an educator during the traumatic moment.
“I just realized that (being a teacher) is just so meaningful,” said DeMeo. “I also realized, in listening (to Hayes) that something good could come from the award. It could provide a real platform.”
DeMeo has been in Cheshire since 1999 when she started as a long-term substitute teacher and eventually accepted a full-time teaching position. “I didn’t really think I would stay all that long but, now, here I am, 24 years later,” she said, laughing.
In addition to her duties as an English teacher and co-educator of the Black and Latino Studies course, DeMeo is also intimately involved in school productions throughout the year, serving as the director of the spring musical each season.
“I knew, for me, I didn’t want to just be in the classroom,” she said, referencing the extracurricular activities she helps to lead. “I am always involved in 100 different things.”
But, in fact, the classroom was always where DeMeo knew she wanted to be right from the start as she watched her father make an impact on young people’s lives.
“He is probably the biggest role model in my life,” she said.
“Growing up, going to his high school, seeing him do his job, it was a real inspiration,” she continued, adding that her father also became her teacher when she attended Coginchaug. “Just seeing how you got to be someone’s sophomore math teacher, someone’s (school play) director, and you could touch so many kid’s lives. It just seemed like a logical career for me.”
Initially, DeMeo assumed she would become a math teacher like her father, but she ended up gravitating towards English and literature, despite the fact that the subjects did not come easily.
“I never have been afraid of a challenge,” said DeMeo. “I ended up really chasing English. Then, in college, I (developed) a passion for literature. That’s where it was really codified for me. That when I knew I wanted (to teach English).”
DeMeo graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine with her teaching certificate, meaning she could immediately enter the profession. However, the late-1990s were not an easy time to find a job in education, so DeMeo took long-termsubstitute positions in Durham and Watertown, before finally landing a full-time job in Madison. However, the young teacher also had a burning desire to travel, so she went to live and teach in Brazil for a year before returning to Connecticut and eventually taking a job in Cheshire.
DeMeo admits that, being so nervous when she first began, “I would script almost the entire class. I would script not only what I was going to say, but what I thought the students were going to say.”
Yet, since DeMeo couldn’t know exactly what her students would ask, the environment wasn’t as conducive to educational discovery as the newbie teacher would have liked.
“It wasn’t a discussion,” she said.
Now, DeMeo approaches her students with questions not knowing or even anticipating their answers.
“I really listen to what they have to say,” she said.
As far as the students themselves are concerned, DeMeo stated that the modern high schooler is “more savvy” than previous generations because they are “exposed to so much.”
“They are getting a lot of knowledge on their own, and they are coming (into class) trying to make sense of things,” she said. “I see my role as an educator as creating an environment where (the students) feel safe to have conversations.”
Yet, while the current crop of teens might be more in tune with what’s happening in the world — “They aren’t just citizens of Cheshire or of Connecticut now,” said DeMeo. “They are global citizens.” — how she relates to her class hasn’t changed.
“The connection you make with the kids is the same,” she said. “In the sense of human interactions, its all the same as it has been.”
That desire to get to know her students on a personal level has resulted in profound relationships that have lasted well after students moved on from Cheshire High School. DeMeo mentioned attending former students’ weddings and baby showers, all because of the bonds formed during their time together at CHS.
Some of that bonding also takes place during drama productions. DeMeo, who studied dance and theater while in college, — she did a semester “abroad” at New York University — always knew she wanted to incorporate her love for the arts into her time as an educator, and she believes the experience helps both her and the students.
“It’s just a lighter experience,” she said. “I see the kids in a different way, and they get to see me in another way. It helps you to see each other as human beings.”
Over the last two years, attention has been paid to the difficulties faced by all involved in public education, from the teachers to the students to the parents. Numerous educators have decided to step away, leading to teaching shortages reported around the country.
However, for DeMeo, her passion for her chosen profession has only grown during the time of uncertainty.
“I think what the past two years have shown us is how important our role really is,” said DeMeo, about teachers. “I don’t just teach literature. It’s far more than that.”
“I believe this is the most important, most relevant work I can do, and it’s constantly changing,” she added. “(School) is a fascinating place to be. It’s where the world is for me. And as much as I love teaching and spending time with the kids, many of my colleagues feel the same way. CHS has amazing school spirit and I hope the parents in the community appreciate the time, love and effort that all the teachers at the high school put into educating their kids, with a genuine care for their education and welfare.”