I am a staggering 5 feet, 3 1/4 inches tall. In my world, I tower over no one. In fact, I am quite used to looking up at both my students and my athletes, and this doesn’t faze me. Perhaps it’s the feisty Italian blood of my foremothers or the inherent intensity of my Napoleon complex, but I can’t really see myself teaching or coaching at any other level. No, it seems high school was my destiny all along.
OK, fine: I also cried the last time I went to an elementary school, so I really haven’t had much desire to go back to one. That’s right, the year was 1999, and I was in high school myself. My mom, a phenomenal educator, taught physical education at an elementary school for students with severe emotional and behavioral disabilities, and, in the spring of my freshman year, I volunteered to assist her with field day. I arrived eager to help her students participate in an array of challenging obstacles — hula hoops, potato sacks, egg-spoon races — the excitement was palpable.
It was only a matter of minutes, however, before one of her delightful 8-year-olds had me in tears after spouting off a colorful array of well-articulated insults in my direction.
Of course, my mom handled the situation with the grace of a seasoned pro, disciplining the young man before ensuring her tough daughter — the high-school wrestler — was OK. Needless to say, I haven’t felt any sense of urgency to pay homage to the primary grades since.
Nevertheless, a 15-year hiatus was long enough. It was time for me to face my fears and return to a world that was now entirely foreign to me. And so, when I arrived at Little River Elementary School around 9:15 a.m. a couple Wednesdays ago, I was a bit apprehensive. When I walked into the front office, though, I was greeted by a sweet woman who quickly made me feel at ease. It is amazing how much a friendly smile and a positive attitude can impact others, and I realized I felt much more relaxed as I navigated my way through the bright hallways and up a set of stairs.
I made it to Room 215 just as two students were arriving late to school. I waited behind them as they knocked on the door. Their backpacks seemed enormous against their tiny frames, and I quickly realized I was towering over them — and not the other way around. The students looked up at me with confused amusement just as Martin Rohleder answered the door. They were directed to their specials, and I was invited into Mr. Rohleder’s second-grade classroom on the second floor of the newly remodeled school.
The room was a wonderful collision of Indiana Jones- and Star Wars-inspired centers. The walls were covered with all sorts of visual pleasantries. The little desks were arranged in deliberate collaborative grouping. This was a classroom that certainly fostered learning — but beyond that, I could tell it also nurtured creativity, passion and a sincere love for innovative instruction. Of course, this distinctive enthusiasm was emphasized even more by the belt Marty wore. It resembled a professional-grade tool belt and held an assortment of convenient supplies any teacher would be thrilled to have on hand — or waist: Post-it notes, scissors, pens, markers, paperclips, rubber bands, eraser, timer, keys, stapler, tape, school ID and much more. For the buckle, he designed a special logo created on a 3D printer. I loved it.
After a few minutes, I accompanied him down a set of stairs to pick up his class from their Wednesday-morning special, PE. Teachers signaled for their classes, and an obedient line of little bodies formed in front of them. This military-style precision made me smile as I thought about passing periods at my school: 3,800 students (the majority taller than me) piling into hallways for a brief six minutes of freedom before making their way to their next class. Texting, socializing, scrambling to finish assignments as they struggled to open their lockers, or blocking doorways after being distracted by any number of things. Worlds apart, and yet I felt a deep sense of appreciation for both.
After marching back to the classroom, the students fell into a well-structured routine. When an individual did a particularly good job of following class expectations, he or she was rewarded with “classroom money.” Marty was positive, upbeat and enthusiastic, and all these qualities were replicated by his attentive students.
The whole scene made me smile, and I began to reflect on my own time in second grade. It has been more than 20 years, but if I close my eyes, I can still see it happening. The almost-magical way my teacher’s face would change from a pale white to the deepest shade of red you have ever seen. How the green vein would protrude violently from her forehead — pulsating with each high-pitched syllable that left her taut mouth. How she almost looked like a candied apple ready to combust, and how little droplets of angry spit would lunge from her lips like enraged daggers. Not quite what I was witnessing now.
I realized my experience would have been much different had I been with a teacher with the same youthful exuberance and sincere care for quality instruction I saw in Marty.
After homework was checked, students rushed to a colorful carpet and sat on the floor, ready to review. When Mr. Rohleder asked a question, 18 hands shot into the air and waved wildly — yet another difference between our worlds. I wondered when kids transitioned from eager urgency to answer questions to an unsure apprehension.
After the review, I was excited to see a language-arts lesson and marveled at the similarities in our instruction. I, too, was teaching evidence-based responses. Of course, Marty’s students were attempting to ascertain what made the gray kangaroo hop, while mine were trying to explain the cultural relevance of race versus ethnicity utilizing Richard Rodriguez’s essay, “Blaxicans.” But seeing this skill at its foundation was both stimulating and profound.
This was Marty’s first experience with the second-grade curriculum, and I was impressed how he taught it with so much ease. He had mentioned starting his career teaching first grade. Mrs. Tubb, my own first-grade teacher, liked writing my name on the board so much that you would assume she was my biggest fan. Apparently, I just talked too much.
Discipline in Marty’s classroom was different. When his students needed correction, it was done quickly and efficiently. More importantly, if his students were wrong, he did not belittle them but instead redirected them — instilling a positive confidence I missed. Although two decades have passed, I still remember vividly the time I turned my Indian picture into Mrs. Tubb.
By that point, we had spent several days learning about Native Americans, and, among other things, Mrs. Tubb taught us Indians were formerly referred to as Redskins. But, when I proudly handed her my picture, she screamed at me in front of the whole class. She made me feel ignorant and disrespectful. I had no idea what I did wrong and wouldn’t understand until years later. So, instead, I just stared at the floor as she violently chastised me and my classmates gawked and snickered. She was upset because I colored my Indians with a bright red crayon. I didn’t understand why she was so mad; she told us they were Redskins.
As a secondary teacher now, I make it a point to try to empower my students. It’s not just because they are older and need it. It’s because we are all human and have the opportunity to positively influence one another.
I am proud to say Martin Rohleder reminded me about why I am so excited to spend the year writing about our district’s unsung heroes. When I arrived to his school, I was exhausted from the daily grind and drained from an increasingly hectic schedule. But, after only a few minutes, I found myself smiling as I sat quietly at a back table.
I was truly happy.
West Orange High School language-arts teacher Kristen Iannuzzi is the 2015 Orange County Teacher of the Year. During this school year, she is sharing stories about the employees who work for Orange County Public Schools.