NORTH SMITHFIELD – A 20-year teacher at North Smithfield High School who’s well-known involvement in a national civics competition has led 14 groups of students to state championships is the school district’s Teacher of the Year.
Social studies department Chairperson Natalie O’Brien was named to the honor at the School Committee’s virtual meeting on Tuesday, June 16.
“Natalie is well-respected and admired by students and teachers alike,” noted school Principal Timothy McGee, who nominated O’Brien for the honor. “Not only is she super smart and engaged, she’s just a wonderful, wonderful person.”
O’Brien joined the North Smithfield school district in 2020 after previous stints teaching both overseas in Japan, and in the Bronx, NY. She has served as chairperson of the high school’s social studies department for the past ten years and in 2016, she was recipient of the American Lawyers Alliance’s Law Related Education High School Teacher of the Year award.
McGee noted that O’Brien, a North Smithfield resident, has also served as a mentor at the James Madison Legacy Project at Suffolk University, co-chaired the New England Association of Schools and Colleges steering committee and is a girls’ and boys’ tennis coach.
“She created a community service program that led students to become active citizens and motivated them to get involved in local, state, national and international projects with the Center for Civic Education,” McGee said. “She also incorporates current events throughout her teaching to bring real-life situations into the classroom and show students the modern day uses of the constitution and its principals.”
Her classes include honors American government, U.S. history and AP government and politics.
But arguably O’Brien’s most well-known achievement at the school comes through her involvement with the We the People program, an honors version of the freshman American Government course that prepares students for a state competition in civics curriculum.
Under O’Brien’s leadership, North Smithfield students have won the Rhode Island competition for 14 consecutive years. The top school from each state moves on to the national finals with a trip to Washington, DC, and for more than a decade, O’Brien has also led her students in a local fundraising effort to finance it.
“Although this list is impressive, perhaps Natalie’s most notable contribution to our school is the infectious enthusiasm and energy she brings to our students and staff,” McGee said.
That enthusiasm and passion for her job was evident as she thanked district officials for the honor Tuesday night.
“One of the reasons it is such a big honor is because all of you know what it is I actually do every single day,” O’Brien said. “It’s people I teach with and work with that felt I truly deserve this award.”
“What I’ve learned over the years is that teaching starts with learning,” O’Brien said. “I have learned so much more than I have taught.”
“I believe the teaching profession is the greatest job,” she added. “We really do make a difference in the lives of students.”
Members of the School Committee, several of whom noted they have kids who have taken O’Brien’s courses, agreed that she has had a strong impact on her students.
“You changed their lives,” said School Committee member Peg Votta of her three children. “You made them care about school. You made it clear that it’s ok to work really hard, but still enjoy what you’re learning.”
“You put them on that path through their entire high school career,” Votta added. “We’re living proof of the great work that you do every day.”