As far as Lea DiStefano’s fourth grade students at Totoket Valley Elementary School can tell, she is all theirs all the time. She makes reading, writing and social studies constantly interesting, introducing books that expand their horizons well beyond their cozy community of North Branford.
She checks discreetly on their moods every morning and makes time to talk privately if they’re having a hard time. She ensures everyone is on track, and she works with anyone who isn’t. She keeps close tabs on kids in quarantine, ensuring they catch up on whatever they miss.
But DiStefano plays many other roles behind the scenes at TVES, and her influence surrounds her students in ways they don’t even realize. For example, she is the school’s Success Coordinator, which means she oversees sessions held every summer, fall and spring for students with learning gaps in core academic subjects. These have become increasingly important in the face of widespread learning loss related to the pandemic.
She is also the lead teacher, comparable to assistant principal in larger schools (TVES has fewer than 400 students, grades 3 through 5). While carrying a full teaching load, she acts as liaison between the principal and staff, in addition to supporting work with discipline, data, teacher evaluations, new-teacher orientation and more.
And she founded her school’s equity team. “One of the biggest struggles in the curriculum is that our students, who are predominantly white, are so used to seeing themselves, but they don’t always have an understanding that everywhere in the world isn’t North Branford,” she said. She wanted to introduce them to different cultures, religions and races, with a focus on empathy, “so that all students learn to be allies for each other regardless of differences.”
The new and intriguing books that her fourth graders find so interesting? Those came out of DiStefano’s equity team. One is One Good Thing About America, about a French-speaking girl from Congo who is trying to fit into her new school while missing home and struggling to understand English. The whole school has read it as part of a “one book, one read.” In the book, the girl’s grandmother, still in Africa, asks her to write “one good thing about America” every day, to help her adjust. Based on this book, everyone at school has a tee shirt with the phrases “One Good Thing About TVES” on the front, and “We Are Allies.”
“It’s something we can focus on to make us better people,” DiStefano said. “A part of our district mission statement includes `Being responsible citizens in a diverse world.’ It’s about getting people to understand what diversity means. Whatever you learn at TVES, it involves caring about others.”
Motivating all her work in and out of the classroom, DiStefano said, is a conviction that every student should feel important. From her work as Success Coordinator, she knows well that student outcomes are closely tied to demographics. Lower achievement can reflect a “need to feel more accepted, to belong,” she said. “We want to make sure everyone feels represented and can see themselves throughout their school experience.”
Last year, a colleague on the equity team came up with the idea of making a mural out of 4-by-4-inch photos of every student, each showing only a fragment of a child’s face or body to highlight different skin tones, varying colors of eyes and hair, different hair styles, short or elongated fingers and other unique characteristics. Around the border of the mural, students completed the sentence, “I am…” in dozens of ways: I am black, I am a twin, I am strong, I am a little sister, I am Turkish, I am a living thing, I am just the way I am, I am athletic.
As in many communities, some families initially questioned the focus on equity, but DiStefano said her principal helped parents and guardians see its importance. “We explained this isn’t a political topic, and it’s not just about race. It’s about helping children grow up to be good citizens in a future where people are more kind and want to help each other and support each other regardless of their differences. Being an ally means that when someone is being mistreated, you’ll respond because you genuinely care for them.”
DiStefano traces her desire to teach – and to ensure that every child feels important – to watching her mother, Joan Messina, teach kindergarten in West Haven in the early 1990s. A boy with Down’s syndrome was assigned to her mother’s class, the first time the school placed a student with learning disabilities in a regular classroom.
“The relationship she built with him – the look on his face every time he saw her – that pushed me to want to teach,” she said. Her mother was known to her students as “Mrs. Messina.” This little boy would rush into her arms with abandon, exclaiming, “Bessina!”
DiStefano’s attention to detail in her multiple roles reflects her mother’s care for that kindergartener 30 years ago. She recast the TVES Student Success program from tutoring sessions into an all-inclusive curriculum with varying themes. The theme of one session was “surviving in the rainforest.” Students used reading and research skills to figure out what kind of animals they’d encounter, how they would eat, what they would wear. They were given a $500 budget and had to use math, graphing and word problems to demonstrate how to make the money last.
DiStefano often applies life lessons to her teaching, including what she learns from her own children, ages 11 and 13. Helping them navigate the pandemic – “being stuck at home, not being able to play with friends, being fearful something could happen to someone in your family, wondering, ‘Is this life now?’” – gave her a deeper understanding of her students, she said. “It made me a better teacher.”
Recently, at her son’s basketball game, she ran into the mother of a former student, now a sixth grader. The mother said her son recently told her, “This is a good year, but fourth grade was my favorite.” The mother asked why, and he responded, “Because Mrs. DiStefano made me feel like I was important.”
“THAT is the reason I do this job,” DiStefano wrote in an email.
I have many roles at school, and all of these are important in helping to build student success. But my most important role is in the classroom, where I can connect with my students, build relationships with them, and make each and every one of them KNOW they are important. That’s number one. Students need to feel cared for, safe, and believed in. They need to feel important, especially while living through a time with so much uncertainty around them.