Enthusiastic, focused and determined to make Shelter Island her permanent home, Shelter Island School’s new Spanish teacher, Keeley Kotula, 28, admits she was nervous on the first day of school last week.
But her fellow teachers have been helpful in giving her advice about that first year of teaching on the Island, and with a few days under her belt, she seemed to be settling in by the time she sat for an interview in her classroom last Friday.
She had come to the Island after living in South Dakota with her mother, Tina Panzirer, after Ms. Panzirer and Ms. Kotula’s father, Ed Kotula, divorced. Ms. Kotula’s dad was one of a team of Islanders who responded in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, going to Ground Zero with Helen Rosenblum, Ed Boyd, Faye Rodriguez, Chris Drake, Peter McCracken, Bud Fox, Ken Klenawicus and Ben Jones. They had packed an ambulance with supplies and headed for the site, not knowing what they would find and assisted where they could before returning to the Island.
Ms. Kotula once thought about becoming a missionary, perhaps in China, when she was a child, but ultimately was drawn to education and earned her undergraduate degree at Black Hills State University in South Dakota with campuses in Rapid City and Spearfish.
She taught in South Dakota where she was ESL (English as a Second Language) director in a larger school. But, drawn back to Shelter Island where she has relatives, she resigned her post to move east. In the interim, she was offered another job in South Dakota, but passed it up, determined to move, drawn by family here and generally more mild weather, she said.
She had sent her resume to Superintendent Brian Doelger, Ed.D., asking about a teaching post last year, but nothing was available at the time. Instead, she took a job at the school as a clerk, handling details of student transportation with bus companies and overseeing attendance records. “I didn’t want to teach anywhere but here,” she said.
Her work in South Dakota had included standing outside the room before each class in case there were any fights that had to be stopped. She did the same here before quickly realizing her students were already in their seats in the classroom and this is a very different community.
Certified to teach in New York State, when the opportunity to teach opened this fall, she jumped at it. She still has to pursue a master’s degree, but has five years to complete those studies, she said.
Since coming to the Island, she has been nurtured by her aunt and uncle, Nancy and John Kotula, and her cousin Jillian Kotula. Nancy Kotula was a long-time clerk for the Shelter Island Justice Court, and John is a carpenter and bayman.
“It has been so healing to be here,” she said.
When she has tried to give back to her family, she said Nancy Kotula told her the older generation is supposed to help the younger generation.
She has an apartment now, while hoping someday to buy a house. Years ago, her father won a lottery to get an affordable house on the Island and Ms. Kotula is hoping, as her salary increases, she will eventually be able to do the same.
When it came time to leave South Dakota, she sought someone who would be flying to New York who could bring her dog to LaGuardia Airport. The volunteer was a complete stranger, she said, but he offered to assist her.
The next step was getting someone to pick the dog up at the airport and bring it to the Island. Two men offered — political rivals for Town Board seats, but good friends with one another — Tom Cronin, who is a relative, and Benjamin Dyett. Mr. Cronin is a former Shelter Island Police officer running on the Republican ticket, while Mr. Dyett, a Democrat, serves on the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee.
The two men are among four candidates seeking two Town Board seats in the November election. She said both men are caring and intelligent.
That’s why when certain openings for teachers to take on extra curricular activities were mentioned, she initially offered services as a translator. Fellow teachers advised her, in her first year of teaching on the Island, not to take on too much other work. She will, however, advise a foreign language club.
Since settling on the Island, Ms. Kotula worked at the Shelter Island Yacht Club and The Chequit. As for her colleagues, they couldn’t be more supportive, she said.
The young girl who once thought about pursuing a life as a missionary, perhaps in China, said, “I still want to help people.”