Bettencourt named Pawtucket Teacher of the Year

Bettencourt named Pawtucket Teacher of the Year

PAWTUCKET – For her work not only educating her students in-person throughout the pandemic but also making sure her classroom was a safe environment for all, Keri Bettencourt has been named Pawtucket’s District Teacher of the Year 2021-2022.

Bettencourt, a Pawtucket native, is a special education teacher at Jenks Junior High School and works with seven students in grades 6-8 who have severe intellectual disabilities. Michael Lazzareschi, principal at Jenks, who nominated Bettencourt for the award, told The Breeze that Bettencourt has been working in-person with her students since September and has gone through a variety of scenarios due to the pandemic.

“She works with one of our most vulnerable populations, many of (them) nonverbal, have multiple medical issues (and) different vulnerabilities,” he said. “It was an extraordinary effort.”

During that time, Bettencourt has not only had to teach her students but she’s had to make sure that they’re being safe and keeping their masks on. “It’s extremely important that the environment be safe, clean, and procedurally correct,” Lazzareschi said. The trust that Bettencourt developed with the parents and the care she gave her students made her stand out, he said.

“I was in total shock,” Bettencourt told The Breeze about her reaction to receiving the news. “Then I just felt completely honored and grateful, especially this year. This has been such a tough year. I’ve seen so many teachers go above and beyond this year. To be recognized … it meant the world.”

A surprise ceremony was held for Bettencourt last week where she was presented with flowers and a certificate. She also received $1,000 to purchase classroom supplies: $500 from the district and $500 from the Pawtucket Teachers’ Alliance.

Supt. Cheryl McWilliams said the Bettencourt “provides an excellent learning environment for her students with high quality learning opportunities that are meaningful. She creates lessons with differentiated instruction to accommodate all the various needs of her students. She is an advocate for students and their families, going above and beyond ensuring they are engaged.”

Prior to her six years at Jenks, Bettencourt worked at Meeting Street in Providence for 15 years. After starting there as a teacher assistant when she was 19 years old, she received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Rhode Island College and is currently in a certificate program focused on autism at RIC, she said.

A resident of Attleboro, Mass., Bettencourt said she grew up in Pawtucket and attended St. Leo’s before going to Tolman High School.

When asked what inspired her career path, she said she wants to make learning meaningful and fun for students who have challenges and disabilities. “I love my job,” she said. “My favorite part of my day is being with my students.”

When the pandemic first started, Bettencourt said it was difficult teaching from home and having her son learning from home as well. “It constantly felt like I wasn’t doing enough,” she said. “It was definitely difficult to try to meet their needs virtually over a computer screen.”

One positive, however, was that she was able to work with students’ families and established relationships with a lot of them, she said.

While going back to school last September in the middle of the pandemic was scary, she said as soon as she was back in the classroom, all her fears went away. Bettencourt, who teaches all of the typical school subjects as well as social skills, noted that she has three assistants who help her in the classroom.

Asked what she plans to spend the $1,000 prize money on, Bettencourt said she’s not sure about specifics yet but that there are sensory tools, such as wiggle seats and bouncy bands, that she wants to purchase to make her students’ days “a little easier for them.”