Jeff O’Hara: Understanding what makes middle schoolers tick

Courtesy photo
Jeff O’Hara with his daughter Lexi and dog Nala.

This year marks Jeff O’Hara’s eighth as co-principal at Hinesburg Community School, and he continues to enjoy working with the middle schoolers who fall under his jurisdiction. Then again, O’Hara has enjoyed working with every age group of students in every capacity since he began his career in education. “Every age has amazing things that come with it,” he said.

O’Hara got his degree in New York and spent time student teaching pre-K, kindergarten, and fourth grade. Each time he envisioned a future with that age group. Moving to Vermont in 1997 he became a para-educator for a boy with Down’s Syndrome, leading him to consider a career in special education. He was subsequently offered a long-term substitute position teaching sixth grade at Camels Hump Middle School in Richmond and fell in love with that age range, but an invitation to run a summer camp for the YMCA led him to consider a career as a school administrator.

O’Hara started the School’s Out afterschool program in South Burlington, which solidified that goal, so he worked towards obtaining licensure for administration. Unfortunately, his work history wasn’t considered sufficient so he returned to the classroom, staying longer than he intended. After five years teaching in South Burlington, he was recruited to be assistant principal in Hinesburg. “It’s funny how life works,” he said, summing up his career arc.

When long-time principal Bob Goudreau retired, the Hinesburg Community School decided to switch to a co-principal system and O’Hara was paired with Allegra Miller and placed in charge of fifth through eighth grade. When Miller retired and was replaced by Susan Locke, the two tried a different arrangement with Locke in charge of academics and O’Hara overseeing social/emotional development, but that proved too confusing. After a year, they returned to the age divisions.

“Middle school is the toughest time in a child’s life,” O’Hara said, “but when you can build relationships and connections with students and they see you as a trusting face and a person they can turn to, there is no better feeling.” O’Hara said he thinks the summer between seventh and eighth grade is often a time of intense change and he enjoys seeing students return to school after a summer of transformation. “I don’t think there is another grade level where the change is so dramatic,” he said.

O’Hara lives in Williston and enjoys hiking and spending time on the slopes with his nine-year-old daughter – she on skis and he on his snowboard – but he admits the office often calls to him. “The realization I made pretty early on is that I love to work,” he said. “I’m often in the office on Saturday and Sunday, but it’s a place I enjoy.”

O’Hara doesn’t want to diminish the need for academic rigor, but he feels it is important to care for the kids first. “What I’m most proud of is our work in the social/emotional realm,” he said. “If kids don’t feel safe, we won’t get their best. Academics is the end goal but you have to put an equal amount of time into making sure kids are cared for and feel safe and protected because that’s when we’ll get their best academically.”

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