Rebecca Vitelli is a preschool special education teacher at the Colonial Early Education Program in New Castle, Delaware. Rebecca earned a Bachelor of Science in early childhood education with minors in human development and family studies and disabilities studies and a Master of Education in exceptional children and youth with a concentration in autism and severe disabilities from the University of Delaware. Most recently, she was named the 2020 Delaware Teacher of the Year.
How did you begin your career in early childhood?
I was fortunate to be born into a family of educators, both my parents are teachers and education was always valued in our home. While I was a child who loved to learn, I didn’t always love school. School was a huge source of stress and anxiety for me because I always felt I had to be the perfect student.
I’ve always loved working with children, especially the youngest children, which is ultimately what inspired me to be a preschool teacher. But, during my pre-service years, seeing our earliest learners dreading school, feeling nervous and anxious and constantly trying to “perform,” made me sad. I thought something had to change, and who better to help be part of that change but me, someone who lived through that feeling of loving to learn, but not always loving school.
It’s my goal to make learning exciting and meaningful for all my students. I want to form strong relationships with my families and students and have them make powerful connections with one another. I want them to feel at home, safe, loved, connected, and valued. I want them to take chances, make mistakes, get messy, and have fun!
How did you prepare to start the new school year?
My school district, the Colonial School District in New Castle, DE, embraces “The Power of We.” This is an intentional movement that values the strengths of all district stakeholders through collaboration. The goal is to create a collaborative environment that will empower stakeholders to work together for the common good of our students and district. We’ve reviewed families’ feedback from the previous year. Over the summer, our preschool had a health and safety wellness team that reviewed any updates to the protocols and their impact on us at the preschool level. It has truly been a team effort.
Personally, I prepared throughout the summer by focusing on my own mental health and well-being. Last year was more exhausting than ever for educators and staff, so I’m grateful for the time I had to rest, recharge, and rejuvenate my soul for 2021–2022! I truly feel how much I needed it — self-care is critical so that we’re at our best, ready to serve our students and families.
What does the new school year look like in your school/classroom?
I have already had my first day of school and it was SO NICE to have all the staff together in the building again! Starting with virtual learning for all last year, and then a handful of staff continuing to be virtual through June, it never truly felt like “back to school.” Our motto this year is “One Goal, One Team.” We’ll continue to work together to cultivate creative thinkers, curious learners, and confident scholars by providing a fun, nurturing and curiosity-driven environment where children will develop a life-long passion for learning and appreciation of the world around them. We will accomplish this by collaborating with one another, working together to make this vision a reality. It takes a village, especially when you’re teaching during these unprecedented times.
Our program will serve students 5-days a week fully in person. All of our staff are back on site as well as our students. Our class sizes are slightly smaller for the full-day four-year-old program; in many ways it feels like “business as normal,” except for, of course, being extremely mindful about handwashing, selection and sanitizing of materials, engineering the environment to promote appropriate social distancing and encouraging mask wearing as much as possible. While masks are not required to be worn by preschoolers, they are required for all staff.
Our beginning-of-the-year home visits, as well as all individualized education program meetings and conferences will be held virtually.
What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this new school year and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?
There are many new faces this year, and so one challenge as a school will be to ensure that all new staff feel supported, well-trained, and welcomed. We are a “School Family,” and so we all work together to help support and uplift one another. We believe in teamwork and collaboration. We devote time to start the year with professional developments, and provide common planning time across the school to ensure we can put collaboration into action.
Another challenge I believe many of us feel is the reality that we’re still teaching during a pandemic. So, flexibility will be key as there may be sudden changes to our routines due to revisions in health and safety protocols at any time for which we need to be ready — physically and mentally. We also know that there remain some anxieties and fears amongst staff, families, and children. The need to create an atmosphere of safety for all is of utmost importance and will require everyone to do their part. I think it’s imperative for staff to be emotionally transparent during this time. Students will either catch our anxiety or catch our calmness. Doing what we need to do to remain calm and composed this year will be essential.
What suggestions do you have for others (e.g., parents, educators, administrators, researchers, etc.) who want to better support our youngest students?
One of the most notable take-aways from this pandemic was the absolute amazing resiliency of our children. It has been a challenging time for everyone, and that includes our youngest learners. They, like us, now understand that everything can change in an instant. So, as we move into the new school year, take a breath with, and for, our youngest learners. Listen to and validate their feelings. We all do better when we are heard, respected, and valued. Our little ones are doing really big things! And they will need our help and support to navigate the uncertainties. They seek safety and connection. Our energy is what they feel, so we need to be our best selves to help support them.
Among parents, educators, administrators, researchers, etc., collaboration and clear communication is essential to serving our youngest learners. The work we do is important. It needs to be celebrated and supported. It takes full community investment to do so. When we unite, our children win every time.
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