Ms. Decoursey Named Teacher of the Year at Benway School

This year our Art teacher, Ms. Decoursey, has been nominated for 3 different teacher of the year awards.  

Shannon Decoursey  beloved teacher at Benway School found her calling to serve the special education community in her early years as she, a student with SLD herself, volunteered to help the low instance special education classroom in her elementary school.  Resiliently, after being told she was not “college material” from her high school counselor, she took her growth mindset and flourished. Despite the recommendation to pursue other employment, thankfully she decided to go to Montclair State to become the Special Education Art Teacher we have been most proud of for the past 11 years. Empowered to spread her secrets to success with others, Shannon jumped right in from the start creating programs and services for Benway that proved to be so impactful that both Shannon and Benway grew together. Benway grew in numbers as more students wanted to come to Benway to participate in Shannon’s program.  Shannon was able to grow as an educator as the more success and challenges she faced the more she investigated the out of the box and social emotionally rich teachings she is known for that continue to reach the students.  The confidence students exhibited after working with Shannon was apparent in their positive attitude and what they were able to produce.   Powered by her experience as both an educator and a person with a learning disability her programs fit the needs of a diverse population.  Shannon has a giving nature, evokes leadership, is team minded, communicates well, is trustworthy, a problem solver, flexible, and adaptable. There are countless examples that illustrate how Shannon has displayed these attributes over the years. She has worked with Susan G. Komen, March of Dimes, American Heart Association, and the American Diabetes Association. Within her community Shannon is a volunteer for the Special Olympics.  She also, raises money for the Polar Bear Challenge and participates every winter.   Shannon organizes Benway’s annual Breast Cancer Awareness Program. Along with having students prepare by fundraising, making posters, and learning about the disease she also works with the Susan G. Komen Foundation to bring in local celebrities to the annual Breast Cancer Walk.  Students feel celebrated and important when they are recognized and supported by these community leaders.  Student’s abilities and impact are the focus for each of Shannon’s events, as she proves to the students that they are capable of making a positive difference in the community. Shannon also spear heads the American Heart Association Kids Heart Challenge at Benway with events throughout the month of February.  Additionally, when our school experienced the unfortunate loss of a student due to heat exhaustion Shannon took the opportunity to lead the Spirit Committee, as the chair, in raising awareness to our students and setting up a memorial for the student.  After fundraising, Shannon purchased and planted a tree on the premises.

Currently, Shannon is leading a team in SEL as she finishes her SEL Leadership Certifcation at St. Elizabeth’s College in New Jersey.  Benway’s Director found Shannon a perfect fit to lead a core group of teachers in establishing a new SEL Program that assesses the school’s current standing with SEL and uses the data to target specific areas where instruction is needed through explicit instruction, Project Based Learning, school wide assemblies and events.

Shannon is always looking for ways to bring innovation to the classroom and school community.  Within her classroom she utilizes 3D printers, 3D pens, pottery, sculpture, art history, mixed media, and so much more to empower students to express themselves, become leaders, and learn through Project Based Learning and Technology. She is known for her annual Haunted House where she spends months planning with staff and students a theme, building decorations, setting up the gymnasium, and modifying the environment to fit the needs of the students. As a school that serves students with behavioral difficulties, we look for opportunities for behavior modification.  For us the haunted house is significant because students are motivated to be their best selves so that they can participate in the event every year. Each department jumps in to help with some aspect.  Videography, photography, art, music, teachers and students across the disciplines work together to each add elements that promote their own individual talents and flare. The night before the haunted house opens staff comes together to help build the maze and set up the stations with the student work for the school community to come together and have a great shared experience.

 Shannon artistically molds students therapeutically to be confident and positive individuals.  Students have been featured at NJ Performing Arts Center over the years for their art work under the direction of Shannon. Additionally, each year students submit designs to Vans Sneaker Company hopeful that their design will be chosen for the next mass production.  Shannon teaches resiliency by celebrating their personal accomplishments for entering such a prestigious competition with a personal award ceremony, publishing the designs throughout the communities and school districts, and rewarding the students with a pizza party for their efforts.  Shannon had also inspired and led the team in creating a dynamic STREAM program.  Collaborating and educating teachers on its positive effects and providing workshops on how to implement the program within their current curriculum.  STREAM at Benway has gone from 2-3 teachers implementing programming to the entire student body receiving targeted lessons 3x a week.  This has in turn inspired students to get involved in other areas of education where they may not have if this one brave and tenacious teacher did not push to explore the possibilities.

The greatest impact Shannon provides for our school is a positive culture and climate. Without these influential programs Benway would lose a big piece of its heart.  As administrators know, what you choose to celebrate and memorialize greatly affects the overall mood of the school community.  Each one of Shannon’s programs becomes a piece of cement building our community stronger and stronger.  Shannon has accrued at a great deal of Benway’s traditions.  Better yet, these traditions are so deeply rooted in school due to Shannon’s impeccable planning abilities that they can and will continue long into Benway’s future.

Thinking about our most recent  Breast Cancer Awareness event,  words cannot accurately express the pure joy on each and everyone of the students’ and staff’s faces. Especially, after finally working our way back to normalcy after the pandemic.  Every photo snapped that day was a photo of relief, togetherness, jubilee, and comradery. Before SEL was a buzz word in the education community Shannon’s events have always been meaningful, socially and emotionally impactful, and empowering to our staff and students.  Shannon provides outlets for both students and teachers to come together, express themselves freely, make a difference in the community, and feel like a part of a caring group.   In a Special Education school that serves diverse needs and age ranges the community can easily feel divided.  However, the consistent programming each month allows opportunities for unity.  She provides countless opportunities to support the community and make the students with disabilities know their worth and role within their community by leading food drives, sock drives for soldiers, Toys for Tots, and donations for natural disaster survivors.   Shannon is always there to support her fellow teachers in whatever capacity is needed.  She focuses on the community aspect of the school rather than an attitude of being there for the students as a sole focus point.  She is there for everyone, and everyone knows it.  Her sensitive, empathetic, good nature has won the hearts of all who know her since starting with us in 2010.  

Best of Luck to you on your 3 nominations this year!