Rebecca Vitelli had to learn how to love school as a student, but the prekindergarten teacher in the Colonial School District is now Delaware’s 2020 Teacher of the Year.
The 4th year teacher at the Colonial Early Education Center was selected from a group of 20 district and charter teachers statewide to win Delaware’s top teaching honor, and said she draws from her own experiences growing up in upstate New York.
“Growing up, I was not always that child that loved school. I had so much anxiety and so much stress, but I always loved working with children. Growing up, I was working in classrooms, I would get involved, and I realized I loved this. I also noticed that there were some children, even our youngest learners, that didn’t love school and were feeling those same anxieties, and fears, and frustrations, and I thought, who better to help be this voice of change and create these environments where children feel so loved and appreciated, than someone like me who could emphasize with them and how they felt so stressed or felt so overwhelmed and nervous.”
Pre-K is still an area of growth for many school districts in Delaware, and Vitelli said one of her goals with her new post is to change what people think about education before kindergarten.
“I’m told all the time ‘you’re preschool, so are you babysitting?’ What we do is unbelievable, and there is, in my opinion, nothing more powerful than being that child’s first interaction with school, and getting them to love school, love learning, and love themselves, 90 percent of the brain is developed by age 5. 90 percent. Every moment that we have to create these powerful interactions and wonderful memories, and these feeling and relationships is wiring the brain to be able to learn and to be connected and willing to learn.”
That being willing to learn part is something that Vitelli has to overcome at times in a classroom that can include a mix of students with disabilities along with their normally developing peers.
“Last year, I had a student who at the beginning of the year he wouldn’t even enter the classroom, he couldn’t even cross over the threshold. He was so anxious and nervous; he was basically throwing up on Open House Night. He really struggled with transitions and feeling safe and feeling ownership in that space. We really worked hard with him in building that relationship, and his mom and him came back with me at the beginning of the year. He started kindergarten this year and his mom said that he stopped at the doorway at Open House, he took a deep breath, and said ‘Mom, I’ve got this’. He loves school now, and it’s an honor to have been a part of the child’s journey.”
It’s been a quick rise for Vitelli, who graduated from the University of Delaware in 2014, and earned her Master of Education in exceptional children and youth with a concentration in autism and severe disabilities two years later.
Rebecca’s father taught in inner-city New York, while her mother worked in a more rural district.
“My entire life, they have been role models to help me love school and knowing what the power of education means. Loving learning, and being creative and thinking outside the box. Being that person for the people you’re working with.”
Impressively, Rebecca said she’s actually been nominated into the Teacher of the Year program all four years of her career, but said this year’s nominations were extra special.
“This past round, I know it came from multiple people. It came from some of the families that I worked with, it came from my speech therapist, and some of the other teachers I work with. It wasn’t the voice of one that nominated me, but it was the voice of many. I’m honored, and overwhelmed that so many people see me as a voice and a power for change. It’s really humbling. Could I ever imagine that it would be me in this moment? No, but I’m so grateful, and I’m so excited to learn and grow and for the opportunity.”
As for winning the Teacher of the Year Award, Rebecca said she actually has to draw on what she tries to teach her students.
“Really, ‘wow’ is the only thing I was able to say. I am so truly humbled, honored, excited, overjoyed, and overwhelmed. There are so many feelings. We know how to show our students how to handle big feelings, and I’m having so many big feelings right now. It’s truly an honor, and I’m truly, truly humbled.
“I’m so proud to be a teacher in Delaware and represent so many wonderful, passionate, dynamic educators in this field. I truly cannot wait to use my voice to help advocate for teachers, students, and public education.”
Rebecca’s voice will be used to address various community groups and state organizations for the next 12 months, and will be Delaware’s candidate for the National Teacher of the Year.
Vitelli also earned a $5,000 grant that will go back into her classroom.
She might not have loved school at first, but it’s clear Rebecca Vitelli sure does now.