Melissa Zablonski grew up with two teachers -- her mother and her grandfather -- stoking her passion for life-long learning.
“My mom was a reading specialist and my grandfather was an English teacher in New Britain for 35 years,” said Zablonski, who is a social studies teacher at Putnam High School in Putnam. “So I grew up with a lot of books and I was always having books handed to me.”
It was her grandfather who often passed along books of historical fiction and took her and her sister to museums, sparking her love of history. A top student – she was valedictorian of her class at Bacon Academy in Colchester – she often served as an unofficial peer mentor helping other students with their school work.
By the time she was a senior, she was clear that she wanted to be an educator, much to the chagrin of some of her teachers.
“A lot of my teachers and peers really questioned why I wanted to be a teacher,” she recalled. “They really made me doubt my choice.”
It was her history teacher and her father, she said, who reaffirmed that being an educator was a great career path.
Now in her seventh year of teaching, Zablonski is the teacher in charge of sparking that love of learning and affirming her own students. She’s doing that for her students while some of them are learning English, during a global pandemic, and in a digital environment. And all of this is happening in a historic time of social unrest and political battles that now include what she and her fellow educators are teaching.
It’s challenging but it’s also rewarding. Our school population is really small and it’s not very diverse, but our students come from some really difficult situations and for a lot of them, school is a safe space. It’s been very rewarding to be part of the context of their safe space. It makes them want to come to school even if they don’t want to learn that day.
During the early days of the global pandemic, Zablonski had to figure out how to provide that safe space for a new student from Brazil.
The student joined her class during the initial shutdown of schools in April 2020. It was the student’s first time in a U.S. school and she spoke very little English. If all of that weren’t enough, the student was experiencing it all over a computer screen because everyone had moved to virtual learning.
“She’d never had a U.S. history course,” Zablonski said. “I couldn’t just start talking to her about the Cold War.”
Instead, Zablonski spent one-on-one time with the student talking about the founding principles of the U.S. government and listening to the student’s perspective as a Brazilian. Zablonski also spent time helping the student use what she was learning in class to make sense of the U.S. culture and the current political and social unrest as juxtaposed with those founding principles.
Zablonski also arranged for the student to have a Zoom meet-up with some other girls in the school who shared similar interests to help her make connections and feel more integrated into the school community.
“Her family ended up moving in with one of the girls from the Zoom and they’ve become best friends,” Zablonski said. “It has helped her adjust. It’s amazing how something so small as throwing a bunch of girls onto a Zoom meeting completely changes things.”
Zablonski said oftentimes educators think it’s the biggest things that have the greatest impact but it’s often the simplest things like helping a student feel welcome and included that make the most difference. She finally got to meet her Brazilian student in person and the two have maintained a closeness.
Upon their meeting, the student said, “You’re a lot shorter than I thought you would be,” Zablonski recalled. “It was pretty funny.”
She said working with the student ended up being very empowering for her as a teacher but also for the student as it “helped her develop her identity.” That’s something that Zablonski wants for all of her students particularly during a time where what educators are teaching has become fodder for cultural and political battles of the day.
Zablonski said some of the discourse around modern justice movements seeps into the classroom but she said there are ground rules for discussion. Those ground rules help students feel comfortable engaging in discussion and learning about the historical context of what’s happening today. She said it’s tough but rewarding work.
My best teaching day is when we’re all laughing together. That’s productive and we’re learning, having fun and engaging in a back-and-forth dialogue and able to make really strong connections.