NEWINGTON - Brian Kelly conducts his class as if it were a symphony orchestra, challenging and inspiring each student to perform his or her best.
The K-12 Music Department program leader of the Newington public schools and director of bands at John Wallace Middle School was selected as the 2017 Newington Teacher of the Year. He will also represent the town as one of 15 semifinalists for 2018 Connecticut Teacher of the Year.
All the while, the humble but articulate Kelly demands nothing but greatness from himself, students and fellow staff members - the latter of whom nominated him for the award.
“It’s very humbling and flattering that my colleagues think that much of me,” Kelly said inside the Wallace band room after school recently. “When you have kids’ lives in your hands, whatever’s going on outside of school you have to make this a safe and comfortable place to be. Having support from your colleagues is important.”
As department head, he works with the district’s other music teachers to forge new ground in musical education while moving forward a shared vision.
A high level of expectation is perhaps the most distinctive attribute of Kelly’s teaching style.
“I really believe kids want to be challenged,” he explained. “If you show them that you’re interested in them they’ll be interested in what you’re teaching.”
John Wallace Principal Dan Dias met Kelly when they were teaching at Newington High School. The success of the music program was clearly evident during concert performances, Dias noted, but it was Kelly at work in the classroom that really made a lasting impression.
“Just seeing how the finished product gets built is amazing,” Dias said.
When Kelly invited him into JWMS band practice this past year, he was astounded.
“To see the respect students have for Brian, you think about an orchestra, he orchestrates this whole system.”
Kelly’s students conduct attendance, count supplies and help each other grow in skill and character.
“The kids know they can come to him and he’ll put in the extra time with them individually,” the principal continued. “They see him go above and beyond and it really shines through.”
This passion and dedication was fostered in Newington, which has been recognized nationally for its performing arts program. Before graduating from NHS in 1988, Kelly played lead trumpet in the jazz band. His plans to become either a history teacher or a cop turned upside down following a performance at the Berklee Jazz Festival in Boston.
“Newington High School won the festival that year,” he remembered. “A representative from the University of Connecticut contacted me afterwards and offered me a scholarship. If it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t have experienced all these amazing things.”
Kelly went on to meet his wife at UConn, and earn a Bachelor of Science in music education and a Bachelor of Arts in music. He completed his Master of Arts in liberal studies at Wesleyan University.
Kelly has spent the last ten of 25 years teaching in his hometown. Accepting the award recently, he thanked those who nurtured him early on. Former NHS Band Director John Mills inspired his rigid standards, for example.
“He had high expectations for himself and us as students,” Kelly recalled. “He was a huge influence on me.”
Superintendent of Schools Dr. William Collins called Kelly “an exemplary teacher.”
“He serves as a role model to students and colleagues, consistently demonstrating the characteristics that he fosters in his students,” Collins added. “He inspires every student every day to do their best. He has mastered the art of teaching.”
Erica Schmitt can be reached at 860-801-5097, or firstname.lastname@example.org.