Q&A with an educator: Building character in elementary school

  • Stephanie DiMatteo teaches first and second grade at James Faulkner Elementary School in Stoddard. This year she is teaching 40 remote students. Stephanie DiMatteo—Courtesy photo

  • Stephanie DiMatteo teaches an online class of first and second graders while dressed as a fortune teller for a lesson on mental math strategies. DiMatteo finds that dressing in costumes is a fun way to keep remote students engaged during class. Stephanie DiMatteo—Courtesy photo

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    Teacher Stephanie DiMatteo poses, dressed as "Grandma Grammar" for an online grammar lesson with her group of remote first and second graders at James Faulkner Elementary School. DiMatteo finds that dressing in costumes is a fun way to keep remote students engaged during class. Stephanie DiMatteo—Courtesy photo

  • Teacher Stephanie DiMatteo poses, dressed as an astronaut for an online astronomy lesson with her group of remote first- and second-graders. Stephanie DiMatteo / Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 11/3/2020 11:16:57 AM

If wearing a costume is what it takes to keep her remote students engaged and learning this year, Stephanie DiMatteo is more than up for the challenge.

DiMatteo, a first- and second-grade classroom teacher at James Faulkner Elementary School in Stoddard, is teaching 40 remote first- and second-graders online this year, from James Faulkner, Center Woods Elementary and Henniker Community School. She conducts classes from her school classroom so she has access to all the class materials. She also teaches four in-person students who come into her classroom for a phonics lesson, simulations along with the online class.

DiMatteo, who lives in Hillsborough, has been teaching at James Faulkner for four years. Before that, she was a special education paraprofessional for two years in the Derry School District. In the summers, she teaches at a program for students with disabilities through the Derry district.

This year she is trying out different methods of engaging her students in an online setting, including dressing up in costumes for the different lessons of the day, like an astronaut during a science unit on the sun and stars, or her personal favorite: “Grandma Grammar” for an English block.

“In a classroom, when a kid is not engaged, they can’t just walk out and leave. But with remote, if a student is not engaged they can just leave the meeting,” DiMatteo said. “I am finding my kids are engaged because we are doing hands-on activities they see the value in.”

DiMatteo sat down for an interview with the Concord Monitor recently to discuss remote teaching during COVID-19 and what inspires her as an educator. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Q: What’s been the biggest challenge of teaching remotely?

A: For me personally, and I think a lot of teachers would agree, it’s changing all of the tools we are used to knowing. Teachers are such in-person people. We are used to having our students right in front of us. Trying to teach and still have the same relationships but virtually, I think, has been the biggest challenge. Making sure that I’m reaching all my students and teaching them in ways they need has been a big challenge. But I have a really flexible mindset and I’m a really creative and adaptable person, so learning new tools and learning new technologies has been a challenge but it’s also been the greatest success for me as a teacher.

How are the first- and second-graders doing with online learning?

They are learning a new set of technology. They’re not used to having Google docs and typing and things like that. But with these new technologies that they are learning, these are life skills. They’re almost getting ahead of the game in a way, by having to do everything virtually. Our society is very virtual now. They can create their own Zoom links and they know how to open up a document and take notes in it. For first and second grade, that’s amazing they can do this.

What’s been the biggest success so far?

I’ve never seen kids be so reflective. My students really are learning about themselves, about what works for them. You see kids changing where they’re sitting or changing what’s around them, or trying headphones or not using headphones. And when you ask them about it they can tell you, “well I really couldn’t hear well yesterday, so I’m trying this today.” So they are doing some self-reflection and self-discovery in ways I don’t think we’ve ever seen before, until we were in this type of a model.

Our level of discussion as a group has not changed or lessened because we aren’t in person together. It’s just as high quality of a discussion that my students have. And the ownership of their learning they have to take is also a major success.

What made you interested in teaching?

I became a teacher because I was the kid in the back of the classroom who had no idea what was going on, but I smiled and I stayed quiet and I’d nod my head, like “yes, I know what you’re talking about,” when I really had no idea. I never liked that feeling, so I swore that I would never let somebody else feel that way. I knew I wanted to be a teacher and that this was my passion since second grade – this is who I was, I was meant to be a teacher.

What’s something that inspires you as an educator?

I think it’s when I hear the students go, “I love my class” or “I can do this.” It’s those moments where the kids say they love their class or they can learn or they finally get something, it gives me that feeling this is where I’m meant to be.

My principal here, she has a really great saying: “It’s not just about teaching students, it’s about teaching and reaching students.” With the remote form of education, that phrase has become so real to me. With the remote, I definitely had to think creatively about how to do that. I dress up in a lot of costumes. The kids get so excited to log in and see – what is Ms. DiMatteo wearing today? They get the biggest kick out of it and they’re engaged.

Do you have any favorite moments from teaching?

One of my favorite moments came today when we were talking about rules and laws and why we need them. The kids were able to talk about how we need to have laws to make our community safe and to make it run, but those laws don’t work if they’re not accessible to everyone. They were able to put this all together, just from talking to each other. I threw out the idea of, ‘what makes a law fair?’ and they just went with it and it was amazing to watch. As a teacher that’s when I just sit back and smile because I am so proud of them and what they’re able to communicate, and how they are thinking about trying to help others.

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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