Forming the Future: 'It's a sense of home' says longtime teacher at St. Columbkille Partnership School, Brighton

BRIGHTON -- Jean O'Connor, who has taught first grade at St. Columbkille Partnership School in Brighton for 38 years, is something of an institution at the school. Just don't tell her that.

"I'm not one to talk about myself," O'Connor told The Pilot in November. "It's a job. It's something that I love coming to do. I just want to make an impact on the kids that I have."

St. Columbkille opened in 1901, meaning that O'Connor has been there for almost a third of its history. A lifelong resident of Brighton, she attended St. Columbkille as a girl and teaches in the same classroom where she was once a student. Along with teaching, she also runs the daily after school program, the vacation programs in February and April, and the summer program.

"I love it," she said. "It's a sense of home for me, a sense of community, and it's a very rewarding profession. To have that stability of being here for so many years and watching the children grow and become little members of society."

She said that when she sees her former students' children enrolling in her class, she knows she is doing something right.

"I'm planting the seed," she said. "It's coming full-circle."

She started her teaching career in 1983, at the now-closed Immaculate Conception School in Cambridge. She returned to her childhood school in 1985, when she found out it needed the help. She wasn't planning to make a career at St. Columbkille, but she felt like she was providing an important service.

"I decided I'd keep it for a year," she said about the job, "and I ended up staying."

In 38 years, she has seen generations of first graders come and go. No matter the year, however, "they're still six."

"The kids haven't changed," she said, "but the style of teaching has changed, and I think that's the biggest impact."

When she started teaching, each grade only had one classroom. Now, each grade has two. Every student used to learn from the same book at the same time, doing the exact same exercises. Now, O'Connor said, "we look at more of the child as a whole" and tailor instruction to each individual student.

First graders are also much more tech savvy than they used to be. Learning is done with laptops and iPads as well as pencils and paper. Adapting to new technology has been as much of a learning curve for O'Connor as for her students. No matter the method, she wants to teach her students to be leaders and role models.

"I think the mission here is to instill in them not just the academics," she said, "but to instill in them the spiritual aspects of what a Catholic education is."

In return, her students have taught her patience, self-improvement, and the importance of living the values she wants to instill in them.

"It's a safe place for them to come," she said, "and I think they've taught me that I'm here for the good of them."

If students have trouble with academics, friendships, siblings, "or if they just want to chat about their day," O'Connor is there for them.

"It's that type of community where they know that if they have a problem or issue," she said, "they come to me."

When the pandemic hit in 2020, O'Connor, like every other teacher, had to give lessons online. That fall, St. Columbkille returned to in-person classes, six feet apart and masked.

"It was nice to have everyone here because they were still getting that social part of coming to a classroom and learning with their friends," she said.

It was difficult, but she felt that she needed to model stability for her students. They had to know that they were safe, and still connected with her.

"It helped them immensely knowing we were here for them," she said, "and we're all in the same boat together."

In 2015, O'Connor celebrated 30 years of service at St. Columbkille. On Teacher Appreciation Day that year, all of the teachers gathered for an assembly in their honor. Every teacher's name was called out except for hers. She feared that she had been forgotten. Then, the school gave her special recognition for her 30th anniversary. It turned out that all of the students made cards for her and presented her with a glass apple with her name engraved on it.

"I had tons of cards," she recalled.

She keeps all of the cards in her home to this day, and the apple is still on her desk.

She plans to stay at St. Columbkille for the rest of her career, and she isn't sure when she will retire.

"I still have a few good years in me," she said, "as long as I have good help."