Every September, fourth-graders at the Hampton Bays Elementary School file into the gymnasium wearing red, white and blue. With proud expressions, they show off everything they’ve learned in class about patriotism, including what it means to be an American and why they celebrate Patriot Day every April. They also discuss the September 11 terrorist attacks, which occurred years before they were born.The students are then asked to write poems and essays based on what they’ve learned, and during their music period, are taught patriotic songs. Then, during a special flag ceremony held mid-September, they sing songs in front of the community, while a handful are selected to share their poems and essays.
Watching the students apply what they’ve learned during that annual tradition is one of Amy McNamara’s favorite things about teaching the fourth grade in Hampton Bays.
“I love the age—they’re still innocent enough,” Ms. McNamara said. “They still love learning. When you see a child get it, when their face lights up and they get it, that is so motivating for me … And, really, they’re so sweet, they’re innocent. They want to do well, they want to please the teacher.”
Ms. McNamara, who lives in Hampton Bays and has been a teacher in the elementary school for 18 years, said she particularly loves educating students about veterans, especially those residing in her hometown. Even though she has no family members or close friends serving in the military, the educator knows that many veterans live in her community, and she thinks it is important to honor them.
It was Ms. McNamara’s passion for such a cause that inspired Hampton Bays Schools Superintendent Lars Clemensen to nominate her for the New York State Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Elementary Teacher of the Year award. And the longtime hamlet resident learned earlier this month that she had bested other nominees in the state to take home the honor for 2017.
“I was really shocked,” Ms. McNamara said. “I was surprised.”
The VFW holds three separate contests each year, specifically designed to honor elementary, middle and high school teachers across the state, and, this year, received about 80 nominations, according to Daniel McMahon, the programs chairman for the state VFW. Mr. McMahon, who could not provide an exact breakdown of entrants for each category, explained that those who win the coveted Teacher of the Year award must model good citizenship, foster community involvement and, perhaps most important, rely on innovative ways to teach students about veterans.
Ms. McNamara is scheduled to receive her plaque and certificate at the state VFW’s annual convention on Wednesday, June 7, in Albany. If she cannot attend the event—she wasn’t certain as of earlier this week—Ms. McNamara’s awards will be mailed to the school district so Mr. Clemensen can present them to her.
Because Ms. McNamara won at the state level, her application was automatically submitted to the VFW’s nationwide Teacher of the Year contest, according to Mr. McMahon. If she wins that honor, both she and the Hampton Bays Elementary School would receive $1,000 prizes, and additional plaques.
Ms. McNamara, the coordinator of the fourth grade in Hampton Bays—she leads and works with all the teachers in the grade level to organize combined activities for all seven classes—said she couldn’t believe her eyes when she read the email from Mr. Clemensen telling her that she won the state award.
Citing Ms. McNamara’s efforts to teach students about America and patriotism, the superintendent said that nominating Ms. McNamara—who is known by her students as “Ms. Mack”—was an easy decision.
“I nominated Amy for the Elementary Teacher of the Year because of her leadership with our kids and veterans,” Mr. Clemensen said. “She is a representation of a teacher-leader by bringing the textbook to life. Starting day one with September 11 prep and into November for Veterans Day planning, fourth-graders enjoy a ‘living classroom.’”
Though he is not a member, Mr. Clemensen works closely with the local VFW and American Legion posts. He organizes a flag ceremony at the elementary school each month during which a different local veteran is asked to share his or her story. A new American flag is then raised in honor of the veteran and it remains on display for the entire month. At month’s end, the flag is gifted to the veteran.
Ms. McNamara, meanwhile, is always doing what she can to turn her classroom—Room 42—into a living classroom.
For example, just prior to Veterans Day in November, she reached out to Paul Milazzo, a Marine from the Airborne Tri Team, a not-for-profit based in western Suffolk County that offers assistance to mentally and physically challenged veterans. She invited him to meet all of the district’s fourth grade students. He obliged and, afterward, set up a mock boot camp to give them a taste of what it is like to serve in the military.
Later, Ms. McNamara suggested that the entire fourth grade class come up with a way to raise money for the Airborne Tri Team, as a way of thanking Mr. Milazzo and all veterans. Students agreed to play dodge ball one afternoon, with each player pledging $5 to enter. They raised $250 for the organization in a single afternoon, and presented the money at a special Veterans Day breakfast held at the elementary school.
Hampton Bays Elementary School Principal Mark Meyer points to Ms. McNamara’s efforts, both before and after Mr. Milazzo’s visit, as prime examples of why she is so deserving of the VFW honor.
“She is constantly trying to do new and exciting things for the kids both in and outside of the classroom,” Mr. Meyer said. “She does a great job connecting with students, parents and the community.”
Teaching has always come natural for Ms. McNamara. She explained that she knew she was destined to pursue a career in education when she was an elementary school student herself.
“I knew I was going to be a teacher since I was 6 or 7 years old …” she said, later noting that her father, Tom Nelvin, was a physical education teacher when she and her five siblings were growing up in North Carolina. “I think it was first or second grade that I said, ‘I’m going to be a teacher,’ and I never really swayed from it.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in education from Elon College in North Carolina, Ms. McNamara was hired as a teacher at the Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in Charleston, South Carolina, where she taught the fourth grade. She later moved to New York and was hired as a fifth grade teacher at the South Huntington School District. Eventually, she made her way out to Hampton Bays where she met, and later married, her husband, Kevin McNamara, a longtime hamlet resident.
Ms. McNamara has taught the fourth, fifth and sixth grades during her nearly two-decade-long tenure in Hampton Bays.
And her inherent love for teaching is evident as soon as visitors approach her classroom as there is a sign on the wooden door that reads, “When you are in this classroom you are:”—and it is followed by a list of nouns that includes “learners,” “scientists” and “leaders.” The interior of her classroom features shelves filled with books with worn spines, and a bulletin board that has photos of every class she has taught at Hampton Bays.
Presently, she teaches an inclusion class—meaning that several of her 21 students are special needs children—with the help of special education teacher Sherry Vermette.
“It can be challenging,” Ms. McNamara of her job, explaining that many of her students are now suffering from spring fever. “But between the two of us, we get to everyone.”
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