Herald Head of the Class 2021: Melissa Polzella, Covert Avenue School, Fifth Grade


Why did you become a teacher?

I became a teacher in the most unlikely of ways. While I have always loved children, my first career choice was a pediatric optometrist. I was working at an optometrist's office at the time and was enrolled in Dowling's Pre-Medicine program. Due to my love of children, I took a second summer job as a 1:1 aide for a little boy with autism. That little boy changed not only the trajectory of my career but completely altered my life. This little boy was so brilliant, capable and compassionate. I sat in on his CPSE meeting, and after I explained how well he was doing, another member of the committee looked me straight in the eyes and said, "I'm not sure why you're wasting your time with him when he will never be able to do anything the way he is supposed to." Her words gripped my heart and I was overwhelmed with sadness, but I quickly turned that sadness into a passion. My thoughts were, "If not me, who?!" I was confident that this boy was going to do great things and that he was already an inspiring human. I knew from that second on that I could make a difference.  ... I went on to get my Masters's in Special Education with a concentration in Autism. This little boy taught me that every child deserves a champion because every child is a champion. At only four years old, he changed my life.

Tell us about a teacher that inspired you as a student. 

I have had many impactful teachers, but the most impactful one that I have had was my kindergarten teacher. She taught me to love learning. She brought books and numbers to life. All these years later, I still remember her classroom beautifully prepared for me each morning. I remember the centers she set up and how she created activities where I learned by doing. This is one of my biggest philosophies in my own classroom today: Children learn by doing. All of these things about Mrs. Peters were truly wonderful, but the most wonderful and inspiring thing about Mrs. Peters is that I knew she loved me, believed in me, and wanted me to reach my greatest potential. Her classroom was not just a classroom to me; it was home. I still keep in touch with Mrs. Peters today.

What did you experience or learn about teaching—yourself, your students, the process, etc.—during the pandemic that you think you will carry forward? 

During the pandemic, I learned that my influence goes so much further than just academics. The pandemic was a scary and unexpected change for everyone, and I noticed how eager my students were to get onto Zoom with me each day because it was their calm, their safety, and it was a constant they could count on in the uncertain, changing world around them. I learned that I will never take for granted this special place I have in my students' lives. I think that more than anything, I learned that my students have the same impact on me. Over my teaching career, I have learned so much from the unique individuals in my class. They have taught me more about culture, life experiences, human relationships, and have even taught me more about myself. I learned that these relationships formed with my students are the most important part of building my classroom family each year, because when students know you love them and that they are safe with you, they will be excited to do the work and learn from you and with you.

What's the most memorable thing a student has said to you? 

During my first year of teaching, I had a second-grade student who had just transferred in from El Salvador and was fully Spanish-speaking. When he first started with me, the first words he had learned were "no" and "I can't." I taught myself [to use Wilson, a research-based system,] so that I could teach him how to read in English. I labeled every item in the classroom with both the Spanish word and English word. Every time this student told me "I can't", I repeated "you can" and I had him say "I can" instead. Ten years later, I was a fifth-grade teacher and facilitating parent-teacher conferences. A parent of one of my fifth-grade students walked in, along with this same boy that I had had so many years ago (he was now a tenth grader). He was there to translate from Spanish into English for his aunt's conference with me about his cousin! He looked at me and said, "Mrs. Polzella, I can do this because you said I can." I will never forget these words or this moment.

What has been your toughest challenge as a teacher so far?

My toughest challenge as a teacher so far has been learning to balance all of the many moving parts that are required to provide sound instruction during a pandemic. My students this year are fully virtual, and motivating them to come on time to Zoom sessions and complete their virtual assignments has been no easy feat. I have learned that while it can be overwhelming to learn all of the new curricular goals, academic standards, and the diverse needs of each child in my class, it is still possible to motivate and challenge students no matter what the setting. ... My passion to see my students excel has helped me overcome the challenges I faced as a teacher during this time.

What has been your proudest moment as a teacher so far? 

I had a fifth-grade student, who on the first day of fifth grade, told me "I am always in trouble and I'm really bad at school." I told him, "that changes today." This boy did struggle with intrinsic motivation but was very motivated by my praise and compliments. He was really into baseball and hockey, so I would create math word problems that were related to these subjects and he started putting in the effort to solve the real-life problems. In reading, I would search everywhere to find books on his level that were related to his passions. I finally had the idea to show him I cared by showing up to his finalist hockey game. I saw such a change in his personality after that. His behavior changed and he became a role model. I recently ran into one of his parents who said "Mrs. Polzella, you made my son love school. He still talks about you to this day." Having that feedback years later made me feel proud that the small things I do on a daily truly are making a difference.

What surprised you the most when you first started teaching? 

When I first started teaching, I was surprised by how much beyond academics a teacher's job goes. Every student in my classroom enters with a different cultural background, a unique family make-up and a variety of socio-economic circumstances. No matter what these are, these do not define a child and it is the teacher's job to provide each child with the tools he/she needs to be successful. This starts with every child feel accepted, included, safe, and loved and transforms into using different instructional methods to reach and teach each child so that every single one has the same opportunity to be successful.

How do you keep students engaged and interested?

One of my philosophies is that students learn by doing! I believe in project-based learning and hands-on activities where students can create, debate, design, and collaboratively solve problems. Students learn so much from one another and are motivated by peer interaction. It's my job to make sure these interactions are purposeful, standard and curricular driven, and motivating for my students. Under the direction of my building leadership, my colleagues and I were able to create a STEAM unit where students created a model of a community to be built on the moon. They had to use their knowledge of space, human needs, mathematical measurements including area, volume, and scaling and create a persuasive video explaining why their community plan would allow for successful human life on the moon. Through this project, I saw students' learning come to life, and they were so excited to participate and work hard each day. My co-teacher, Mrs. Weitzel, and I even brought our class back to the school at night so they could view the moon through a telescope.

What is an aspect of being a teacher that you think most people outside the profession don't know or fully understand?

A teacher has so many roles beyond teaching. Some of these include being a parental figure, a nurse, a mentor, a friend, a coach and a cheerleader. Your job as an educator is never done, and I know my colleagues and I leave work so often unable to get our students' specific situations out of our minds. I treat my students as my own children, and I love them immensely. It would be impossible to explain the bond between a teacher and a student, and how that love drives instructional decisions. I am constantly researching and learning in order to improve my craft. Yes, I want to be an amazing educator, but even more, I want to give every child in my class the best opportunity to reach his/her highest potential. 

What advice do you have for aspiring teachers?

My advice is to be a student of your students. Learn who they are, what motivates them, what worries them and what they need academically to propel them forward. Every single child is capable of learning and growing, and it is your job to figure out how to get each one there. Sometimes it may feel impossible, but never quit because those little eyes are watching your perseverance and will use that as a role model for their own behavior.

What is the most important thing you hope a student takes away from your class?

...The most important thing I would hope they leave with is to treat others the way they would like to be treated and to meet each challenge with grace and kindness. I always share one of my favorite quotes by Maya Angelou with my students; "Be a rainbow in someone's cloud." Every student I have had the privilege of teaching has been part of my rainbow, and I am eternally grateful.