When Meghan Hatch-Geary first visited Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls in 2009, she knew instantly it was where she belonged. It had a collaborative culture, a principal who believed in teacher autonomy and – most striking of all – an extracurricular club mobilizing opposition to human trafficking around the world.
The club, Woodland Worldwide, was devoted to building girls’ leadership skills through activism on behalf of women and girls locally and globally.
“I was just blown away that this little school in this little town I’d never heard of was tackling these huge, important, global issues and trying to bring global awareness to students about the status of women and girls,” she said.
Geary was then Meghan Hatch, a 30-year-old teaching intern in graduate school, having spent her 20s on a global quest for her true purpose. She started off in musical theater in New York City, then returned to college and immersed herself in Black and Latino literature, which widened her horizons so dramatically that she left the U.S. after graduation to live and work in Africa and South America. While teaching in Ecuador, she realized she wanted to become a public school educator in Connecticut, like her parents, and to infuse teaching with awareness of the outside world.
Twelve years later, she is a sought-after English teacher at Woodland and an adviser to multiple student groups, including Woodland Worldwide, which is made up of teachers, students, administrators, secretaries, custodians, coaches, parents and community partners. She also leads numerous district initiatives and helped design Connecticut’s statewide Black and Puerto Rican/Latino Curriculum, the nation’s first.
She regularly inspires students to draw on what they discover in school to become actively involved in their communities. For her impact inside and outside the classroom, Geary was named Connecticut’s 2020 Teacher of the Year.
I believe in the power of a child’s voice to bring communities together. I work constantly and am always thinking of how I can help kids recognize that, believe in themselves and then activate themselves. The student group Woodland Worldwide came from students who learned about human trafficking in social studies class and wanted a way to do something about it. That’s student voice. My calling as a teacher is to help students find their voice.
A 2020 Woodland graduate named Mary Pelkey sought out Geary to mentor her senior project, a staging of The Laramie Project, about a small town’s reckoning with the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard for being gay. The social media tagline for the play was “Just Love,” but the script – drawn from real-life interviews with Laramie residents – includes anti-gay voices hurling “F bombs” and slurs. Administrators approved the project months in advance, but considered modifying the presentation and limiting the performance following an anonymous complaint about offensive language.
“I was so panicked,” recalled Pelkey, now a sophomore at Southern Connecticut State University. “It felt like a blatant attack and very homophobic. Then Mrs. Geary got me to take a step back. And wow!”
The “wow” was seeing a superb teacher go to the mat for your vision.
Together they highlighted all the offensive language, and Geary came up with a compromise: Delete most of the “F words,” but defend using the anti-gay slurs.
“I have a building administration that’s very reasonable, flexible and smart,” Geary said. “I said there is language here that’s intense but necessary to understand the characters. You hear [anti-gay slurs] and you’re horrified. The message is this is wrong and the language helps you see that. I said we couldn’t go back on our promise because we were afraid. The loudest message here is about love and being humane to other people.”
The show went on and was a smash hit. Pelkey erected a small fence in the school lobby – Shephard’s killers had hung his beaten body on a fence – and asked audience members to leave their reactions on it. She was overcome to find it papered with messages of love. “There were people in the audience in Make America Great Again hats who were crying,” Geary said.
That’s what ignites a generation of change makers – recognizing that by pushing and being passionate, you can affect people.
“We have to keep giving students opportunities to try,” she said. “Mary faced resistance, she had to compromise, but look at the impact. It’s such a real world lesson – actually, lessons upon lessons.”
This year, Geary will teach sophomore and junior English and AP Language and Literature. She built a unit of the AP class around race and the legacy of slavery, beginning with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave and ultimately exploring the roots of modern-day segregation in schools and housing.
“At the beginning of the year, I ask them to think about how or why we might be at a disadvantage because we are a largely racially homogeneous school. I tell them, “This isn’t wrong; it is who we are. But it does mean we have to work harder to be able to understand other people’s experiences and points of view.” When she asks at the outset, “Have you ever thought about how our cities and towns become predominantly one race or another?” many students say they haven’t. By the end of the unit they are analyzing the proximity of affluent white and low-income communities of color throughout the state, one of the most segregated in the U.S.
“What I see is students feeling really grateful to have these conversations,” she said.
“We say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. We’re a patriotic, civic-minded district. Students want to learn and understand the truth of their country. If we try to censor or silence that in any way, we’re doing a massive disservice to all our students.”