Goodbye to a Gem: Crystal O’Connor Reflects on 33-year Teaching Career

Crystal and her students pose at The Buffalo Zoo during a field trip there in May 2024.
Fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Crystal O’Connor poses with students from her 2023-2024 classroom during a field trip to The Buffalo Zoo in May 10, 2024. After 33 years, she’s whittling down her school supplies and gifting books to coworkers and loved ones ahead of her June retirement.


When she walked into Gowanda Elementary on September 5, 2023, her 33rd first day of school as an educator, Crystal O’Connor had no idea it was her final year of teaching.
The Pennsylvania native, who never set foot in Gowanda prior to being hired in 1991 and who long planned to hang up her lanyard in June 2025, is retiring in June to spend more time taking care of and spending time with family.

And it’s the close-knit sense of family among staff that’s kept her at GCS – where she teaches fourth grade. Her fellow educators are bracing for her absence and imagining a school without their calm and steady colleague.

“Teaching’s a tough gig,” says O’Connor. “The sense of the community with the people here is very grounding.”

She is already delegating homes for her wide range of books via a specific and intentional process with selected colleagues and a niece who is a teacher in Erie among the fortunate recipients.

“What’s going to be challenging is to figure out how to parcel out, give away, share, -however you want to think of it- the many books I’ve accumulated over the years,” she says, looking around her classroom. “I’m grateful my husband has never grumbled about what I spend on my classroom!”

O’Connor’s connections across campus are multilayered, her roots run deep and her ties are strong, some spanning generations. Certain staff know her as a teacher, some know her as a parent of a student, others know her because she taught their kids, and there are even a lucky few coworkers she once had as students.

“I have never known anyone who has worked as hard as Crystal has,” says Terri Reeves, school psychologist. “It used to be a GES joke that you could always find Crystal’s car in the parking lot late into the evening hours because she was dedicated to helping her students reach their highest potential.”

Reeves loved going to O’Connor’s classroom because it ran like a well-oiled machine.

“Her students always knew what was expected of them and they would do their best to complete the task to the best of their ability. It is difficult to explain, but she has a way of making her students feel believed in.”

Superintendent Dr. Robert B. Anderson is appreciative of all O’Connor has done and will miss her. Over the years they’ve done committee work together and he’s observed her classroom as an independent evaluator.Dr Anderson was principal when her daughter Colleen was a student at GHS.

“She spends the time and commitment that it takes to make a difference in the lives of all of her students,” says Anderson, who wishes her all the best. “Mrs. O’Connor has been a leader in the district, a wonderful colleague, and a good friend.”

Crystal O'Connor
Crystal O’Connor is pictured outside of her classroom at Gowanda Elementary School in May 2024. Some of her students are visible in the background.

O’Connor’s experienced a myriad of changes and watched hundreds of people come and go. She’s worked under seven principals and five superintendents at GCS. She’s seen some things.

But it all began when she was a teenager, and a friend whose father was a fourth-grade teacher let her read aloud from “Where the Red Fern Grows” by Wilson Rawls to his class, inspiring her to pursue education as a career.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in teaching from Elizabethtown College, near Hershey, Pa. She has a master’s degree in curriculum development, mostly because she couldn’t narrow it down to a field of interest, and is also certified to teach middle school math.

For the first decade of her career, she commuted to GCS from places in Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, and Wyoming counties, but in 2002 made the leap and became a village resident, and loves living here.

“It’s nice that I’m only a block from work. I could walk, but my bag’s too heavy, so forget that,” she says. “You’d think after this many years I’d have it figured out and not have such a heavy bag.”

Although she’s happy for her coworker and neighbor, third-grade teacher Christina Shull doesn’t know how she’ll cope with O’Connor’s absence.

“I’ve relied on her from day one,” says Shull, whose daughter, Chloe, had O’Connor for a teacher. “She has always been here for me. Prior to being hired in the district, I subbed for many years after completing my education degree. She always gives her all whether it be for her students, her daily work as a teacher or her colleagues. Anytime I needed support she was always there for me with suggestions, so I could look at different options she thought would be helpful and utilize what worked best for me and/or my students.”

Chloe, now a sixth-grader, says O’Connor helped her and her classmates build conflict resolution skills and craft holiday cards.

“She always did little activities with us that made learning fun. She made more lessons much cooler and kept it interesting,” says Chloe. “She taught us how to keep the multiplication tables in our head and keep our focus. She always made sure everybody was included.”

Chloe, Crystal & Christina
Crystal O’Connor is flanked by former student Chloe Shull and colleague Christina Shull in her classroom in May 2024.

Slate chalkboards, overhead transparencies and filmstrips were just starting to be phased out in the ‘90’s with more advanced technologies being implemented in rapid succession as the 21st century began.

“I don’t know that our district initially thought the elementary school could find as many uses for tech as we did,” says O’Connor, who remembers small banks of computers being added to classrooms in the ‘90’s.

She and two fellow teachers advocated for early smartboard implementation.

“We could show there were things we could do with them with the children,” she says. “We have wonderful technology for the kind of rural district we are. The kids really can compete if they have the ability to use the technology and the support to best use it.”

Gowanda quickly became a regional forerunner in implementing 1:1 devices for all students in grades K-12.

If she had a magic wand and could hope for one thing for all districts, students and teachers, it would be “stable targets.”

“Having standards is nice because we need to know where that bar is that we’re aiming for, but that bar keeps moving,” says O’Connor. “Sometimes it robs us of enjoying the journey of learning. We need to be able to adapt to change, but there’s so many moving parts that if the target keeps changing, it’s really hard to stay grounded and realize they’re people. They are little beings and they have a lot of needs. Those targets are pretty lofty.”

One of the things that kept her motivated were moments along the way that reassured her that, yes, this work is worth doing. The student’s name was Kevin and they’d been working hard at writing.

“It was not easy for him,” she says “All of a sudden he was like, ‘Hurry, hurry, come quick! I’m having a brainwave!’ What he really meant was he was having a brainstorm because we often brainstorm our ideas before we get them all out on paper. For him that was an “aha!” moment. So we didn’t call it a brainstorm – we’ll call it a brainwave and I’ll take it. There are just as many moments- if not more – showing that the work is hard. You don’t always see the progress, even if it is happening behind the scenes.”
It’s those “aha!” moments O’Connor will miss most.

“The love of learning and the curiosity, too,” she says of things she’s reluctant to relinquish in retirement. “The look on kids’ faces when they finally figure out something by themselves.”
District library media specialist Kimberly Nobles was a fourth-grader during one of the years O’Connor taught in a multi-age grade 3-4 classroom and remembers that time of her life fondly.

“Looking back, I think that was due to feeling challenged academically as well as enjoying all the extras we did, specifically learning sign language and writing to pen pals at another school,” says Nobles, noting her gratitude for O’Connor’s impact. “As an adult and teacher myself now I can appreciate the extra work that went into all that differentiation and enrichment! Crystal contributed to the many good years I had here at Gowanda.”

Music teacher Jacob Swanson, who was a student of O’Connor’s alongside Nobles, has a unique history and a “complex web” of relationship with his former teacher and now colleague. She is also a neighbor of his parents and he taught her daughter, Colleen.

“In all aspects, Crystal is kind, altruistic, and reliably strong. I am not alone in having only the greatest praise for her,” says Swanson. “Crystal’s classroom was a warm, secure, exciting space to be! I can’t remember if it was official or just Crystal’s way-of-being but she was absolutely wonderful to me as a young teacher. She consistently checked-in, gently offered advice I didn’t even know to ask for, and graciously shared enthusiasm for my work. Her genuine encouragement is something I consciously strive to model with the promising younger teachers around me and her career at GCS is a model for us all.”

Teaching assistant Jenna Dispenza has worked next door to O’Connor for 13 of her 17-year career at GES, and will miss seeing her smile every day. Dispenza also had O’Connor as a teacher.

“I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from her,” says Dispenza. “Her patience, kindness and understanding have helped me grow and succeed. She’s more than just a teacher – she’s a friend, a mentor and a role model.”


Crystal O'Connor poses in New York City.
Crystal O’Connor during a visit to New York City.

In addition to being a building representative, negotiator and vice president for the Gowanda Teachers Association, O’Connor has also supported her coworkers by serving on the report card, retention policy, various curriculum committees and more over the years.

“My colleagues trusted me to be a negotiator so I’ve served as a negotiator for at least a few contracts,” she says. “I really see myself as more of a supporter, kind of a behind-the-scenes person. I don’t love the spotlight.”

High school teacher Dan Ratel served as GTA president when O’Connor was vice president and will miss working with his friend.

“I will always remember her calm demeanor in the most demanding situations,” says Ratel, noting her attention to detail as a negotiator and leader. “You could always count on her to take your call late into the night or early in the morning. She is as dedicated to the union cause as she is to her own family.”

Occasionally, though, her advocacy work places her in the spotlight. She’s out of her comfort zone when speaking publicly to crowds, but her colleagues say she exudes calm.
Science teacher Scott Barto says O’Connor is the most professional co-worker he’s had the pleasure of knowing in his 24-year career. They’ve worked together via the GTA and on committees and he taught her daughter.

“She is always so positive and never has a bad word to say about anyone,” Barto says, noting O’Connor’s professionalism and desire to always do what is best for her students. “Whenever someone goes to Crystal with a concern, she always makes time for them, no matter how busy she is, and always lends an ear. She was often one of the last, if not the last, teacher working in the building. After 30+ years of teaching, she easily could have just ‘winged it,’ but she never did.”

Fellow fourth-grade teacher Cheryl Trippy spent 16 years working with O’Connor and among her many great qualities, calling her caring, giving, dedicated and inspiring.

“She is always making sure that her students are getting the best education. She has spent many late nights learning new programs, getting lessons ready, putting parts to crafts together, and planning the best lessons to meet the needs of her students,” says Trippy. “She has not only dedicated time to the students and Gwanda community but she has done it with extreme integrity and passion.”

Fourth-grade teacher Alicia Robbins, whose classroom is next door to O’Connor, calls her an “ideal” colleague.

“Crystal always goes above and beyond for her students. You can often see her still at school, burning the midnight oil so to speak, many hours after school has let out, planning lessons and activities for her class,” says Robbins. “I have been lucky to have Crystal to lean on as a colleague through the years, but I am even luckier to call her a friend.”

She says shadowing real teachers and asking questions about the nitty gritty and observing the day-to-day is important for anyone considering a career as an educator.

“What you learn in methods classes and the how-to-teach part may have been your motivation, but in order to stay the course, you need to be able to manage a classroom and the minutiae of recordkeeping. Someone making that choice needs to be aware of that upfront or it will become overwhelming quickly,” says O’Connor. “College prepares you for the how-to, but not to hit the ground running.”

She knows district support for new teachers is crucial.

“Some of that support you have to seek out. There is a lot of support within your teacher family and make sure you’re participating in that,” she says. “Get involved with colleagues because you are stronger when you are united.”


O’Connor has no immediate plan beyond taking it easy this summer and spending more time with family. Her husband is a retired law enforcement officer, she has four stepchildren, three grandsons and one daughter. She has a large extended family as her mother is one of 12 siblings. Three of O’Connor’s siblings reside in South Carolina but the bulk of her extended family lives in Western New York.

She loves to scrapbook and make cards (some of which she’s made for the GTA membership over the years) and finds crafting stress-relieving. She wants to catch up on her reading list and resume volunteering for her church.

The O’Connors like to travel and are looking forward to some international adventures. They are hockey fans and baseball is a pastime they’ve enjoyed since early in their courtship: Their second date was to a Buffalo Bisons game, as Mr. O’Connor’s office was within walking distance of the field. They follow the Guardians and the Mets. They like live performances and attending theater festivals in New York, Massachusetts and in Canada.

At some point, O’Connor and her husband plan to move to North Carolina to be near her daughter, a member of the GHS Class of 2015 who wed in October 2023. She is earning a Ph.D. in immunology/virology and researches pancreatic cancer. She also recently became a patent agent.

“When they settle down and have a family I’m going to be ‘that’ grandma,” says O’Connor.

Crystal and her husband, Bob.
Mr. and Mrs. O’Connor
Crystal O'Connor and her daughter, Colleen.

Crystal O’Connor and her daughter, Colleen. 



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