Ulster BOCES means different things to different people. For Cassidy O’Connor, Ulster BOCES provided the opportunity to be immersed in an academic environment that set her on the path towards a rewarding teaching career.
Today, as a special education teacher during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cassidy admits she never anticipated having to adapt everything she did in a physical classroom to an online format. She is working to quickly master distance learning technologies like WebEx videoconferencing, recording voiceovers for PowerPoint presentations, utilizing discussion boards, and creating and sharing lesson plans on Google Classroom. She says her education as an Ulster BOCES Pre-University/New Visions Education student helped to provide her with the skills and resilience to overcome these challenges.
“The best thing I got from Ulster BOCES was how to keep organized. In terms of the time it takes for planning and preparing, well, that’s tripled,” Cassidy explains. She also credits the program with giving her the foundational teaching skills she needs to be successful in both a virtual environment or a brick and mortar school building. “New Visions showed me that this is for me. I am meant to be a teacher,” she says.
As early as Grade 7, Cassidy knew she wanted to become a teacher. Her mother inspired her to pursue a dual certification in childhood education and special education. “My mom is a teaching assistant and works in a life skills education class, so I felt a real connection to these kids,” she says.
She recalls being a quiet and reserved student in high school, and her teachers told her that if she was going to be a teacher, she was going to have to overcome her shyness. “New Visions helped drive that for me, and it gave me confidence,” she says.
Cassidy learned about Ulster BOCES from her guidance counselor. “I was nervous. I was the only student from my district. I didn’t know anyone, and it was a new setting, but soon I became at ease because we all had the common goal of becoming teachers.”
Cassidy recalls finding value in every part of the New Visions curriculum. The internship, which enables students to shadow school administrators, guidance counselors, teachers, and other educators, gave her the opportunity to prepare and deliver instruction while earning nine college credits. In addition to the job-shadowing piece of her Ulster BOCES program, Cassidy spent Tuesdays in the classroom at the Career & Technical Center taking courses in English and Political Science.
Cassidy thrived as an intern four days a week in the Kingston City School District. After she graduated from high school, she pursued her teaching degree at The College of Saint Rose, earning a bachelor’s degree in Special Education and Childhood Education in Grades 1-6. She then completed her master’s degree in Literacy at Saint Rose, all by the time she was 22 years old.
Cassidy says the Pre-University/New Visions Education program made her feel capable of handling the rigorous curriculum and provided her with an advantage in college. “I felt like I had an edge. I had this layer of foundational skills,” she says. “My New Visions teachers had had us put together a teacher planning binder, so I went in with lesson plans.”
While still working on her master’s degree, Cassidy accepted a long-term leave position for a Grade 5 Special Education class in the Rondout Valley Central School District. After completing her master’s degree, she accepted three other special education leave positions in both the Rondout Valley and Highland Central School Districts before landing her current job.
The 2013 Rondout Valley High School graduate is now teaching English and science online two hours a day, five days a week to Grade 6 special education students in a Hudson Valley school district. Cassidy says she is very busy creating new learning materials, developing practice lessons, and planning activities to keep her students connected. She has adapted her schedule to work early in the morning and late at night to avoid the disruptions caused by a high volume of daytime Internet users.
As the pandemic runs its course, with distance learning as the new normal, Cassidy continues to provide her students with learning opportunities and make sure they have access to the best possible education. Most importantly though, Cassidy continues to be a source of stability for her students. “I’ve made little videos so they don’t feel alone. I tell them, ‘This is weird. This isn’t how school should be, but we will get through this together.’”