Originally published Sept. 29, 2022 in Vermont Biz.
The Vermont Agency of Education today named Robyn Newton, a physical education teacher at Vergennes Union Elementary School, as the 2023 Vermont Teacher of the Year. Newton will begin her tenure as Vermont Teacher of the Year on January 1, 2023.
Also recognized are the 2023 Vermont Teacher of the Year Distinguished Finalists, Abbie Bowker, visual art teacher at Champlain Valley Union High School, Amy Clapp, upper elementary teacher at Salisbury Community School, and Aziza Malik, upper elementary teacher at Champlain Elementary School.
Newton has been a physical education teacher at Vergennes Union Elementary School for 27 years. At Vergennes UES, Newton focuses on providing a physical education experience that is joyful and educational, and develops the skills and confidence needed for healthy development and lifelong fitness. Newton has built an interdisciplinary program that connects students to their communities and builds on their learning in the classroom, on the playing field, and beyond.
“Robyn Newton exemplifies what makes Vermont educators special,” said Secretary of Education Dan French. “From using the Olympics to teach students about sportsmanship, competition, world affairs and intercultural competency, to her efforts to bring more funding to physical education and nutrition programs in her district, Ms. Newton excels in teaching, shows leadership through an interdisciplinary and collaborative mindset, and, most importantly, she builds excitement for learning in and out of the classroom.”
Newton’s accomplishments at UES include leading a multi-disciplinary unit on the Olympics that touches every grade and every subject at the Addison County elementary school. Each class chooses a country to represent, and students learn about their country through lessons in reading, writing and math. Before the games, students see videos of real Olympic events, and in PE they learn and practice the related skills. Each student chooses four events in which to compete.
As Newton wrote in her application for Vermont Teacher of the Year “There is nothing better than watching peers cheer each other on or hearing a younger student shout “I won” when they receive their bronze medal…This unit embodies how and why I teach: to create enjoyable experiences that develop new skills, build confidence and promote healthy movement and joy.”
“Robyn understands the importance of possibility,” said Vergennes Union Elementary School Principal Matt DeBlois. “Personalization of physical education allows students to understand that their own growth should not be compared to the person next to them, but rather the way that individual students have performed in the past. Students in physical education at VUES write themselves goals, reflect on their learning in their physical education journals, and attempt to beat their self-designed goals.”
Newton’s leadership has extended to securing funding to expand her district’s Physical Education offerings in a game-changing way.
In 2008 she wrote and was awarded the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) grant for over $900,000. Among other programmatic updates, the district built three ropes courses, including a high ropes course to improve social emotional skills such as self-confidence, trust, and teamwork, and outfitted each school with equipment to support lifetime activities such as snowshoes, cross country skis, ice skates, rollerblades, tennis equipment, disc golf courses, indoor climbing walls, exercise bikes, ellipticals, treadmills and heart rate monitors.
“Robyn is an extraordinary educator,” said Addison Northwest School District Superintendent Sheila Soule. “Her commitment to the health and well-being of others extends far beyond the classroom- Robyn has had a remarkable impact on the entire community through her work on the Vergennes Recreation Committee and district Wellness Team. She is an inspiration to others through her positivity and optimism. She is very deserving of this recognition and we could not be more proud of her accomplishments.”
As Vermont’s Teacher of the Year, Newton will focus on the importance of physical activity, fitness, and play, both to student’s learning and academic achievement, and to their social-emotional well-being. Her platform is grounded in research that demonstrates that students do better academically, both when they are fit, healthy and active, and have the opportunity for unstructured play during the school day.
This “brain break” allows students to synthesize what they have learned and return to the classroom refreshed. Physical activity and adequate play make students more creative, independent thinkers and learners, and happier overall. As Vermont schools recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, high quality physical education and opportunities for unstructured play and “brain breaks” are critical to student success and wellbeing.