To begin their day, children in Judy Reilly’s first grade class at Walnut Square School join in her in a sing-along of “What a Wonderful World.”
That popular song, made famous by jazz great Louis Armstrong, is just one example of Reilly teaching her students to appreciate our world and all of its wonders.
The love and passion she has brought to teaching since 1961 was recognized last week when the Haverhill YMCA named Reilly its Educator of the Year. She is the fourth person to be honored since the program began in 2009.
“I just love it,” Reilly said about her career, which has spanned 49 years. “Children are like little sponges and just love to learn.”
Not one to bring attention to herself, Reilly prefers to lavish all of her attention on her students. So it came as no surprise to those who know her that that when her name was announced during the awards ceremony at DiBurro’s function hall, she accepted the award with gratitude and humility.
“I was very surprised and humbled,” she said. “There should be more awards for other teachers who work so diligently and are so dedicated. Every teacher should be teacher of the year.”
Haverhill YMCA Executive Director Tracy Fuller said honoring a top educator is in line with the YMCA’s mission of focusing on youth development.
“She’s an icon of education in the city,” Fuller said about Reilly. “We feel privileged to be able to recognize educators in our city. Teachers are unsung heroes in our community.”
Reilly was nominated for the award by Kim Braiser, a parent of one of Reilly’s former students.
The Haverhill YMCA, in its 158th year and located at 81 Winter St., also honored Pentucket Bank and state. Rep. Brian Dempsey with Commitment to Community awards.
Reilly’s teaching career began at the Hannah Duston School, where she taught first grade for 17 years. When the school closed, Reilly was transferred to Walnut Square, where she taught for 12 years. Then she moved her classroom and all of her colorful learning materials to Smiley School. Her items include a mannequin named “Mr. English,” whom Reilly scolds for breaking the rules of grammar. She taught at Smiley for 13 years and, when it closed in 2002, she returned to Walnut Square, where she continues to teach and shows no interest in stopping.
”Teaching brings me peace and joy,” she said.
Reilly’s work also reaches into classrooms across the city. Each year for the last 15 years, her first-grade classroom has turned into “tree central” in preparation for Arbor Day. Her students sort and bag 1,000 pine tree saplings that are distributed to first-graders throughout Haverhill and Groveland as part of the Haverhill Exchange Club’s award-winning Trees for Tots program. The club supplies Reilly’s students with boxes of saplings, and she turns the work into a fun project that touches on variety of topics, including math. Exchange Club members and local businessmen Jeff Linehan and Tom Minichiello founded the program and continue to work with Reilly’s students.
”Jeff, a former first-grade student of mine from Hannah Duston, comes back every year to help,” Reilly said.
Linehan and Minichiello visit Reilly’s classroom throughout the year, including on Read Across America Day, which celebrates children’s author Dr. Seuss.
”She’s the best teacher I ever had and, in my eyes, one of the best teachers in Haverhill,” Linehan said. “When you visit her classroom, you can see the magic taking place. I hope she never retires.”
Minichiello said Reilly should be every teacher’s role model.
”From our initial visit during the first week of school to other visits throughout the year, we can see how her children have developed into outstanding and proficient students,” Minichiello said.
Other nominees for Educator of the Year, listed with their schools, were: Suzette DiTonno, Pentucket Lake; Michelle Joubert, Nettle; Meghan Doyle, Golden Hill; Diane Palmaccio, Silver Hill; Mary Ward, Tilton; Deb Schnappauf, Haverhill Alternative School; Patty Gaudet, Sacred Hearts School; and Paula Richards, Northern Essex Community College. This year’s event was sponsored by Haverhill Bank.