The bond between a teacher and a student is sacred, built in 181 days or over 1,300 hours together of learning, breakthroughs, smiles, and memories. This year, although the in-person time may have been reduced, the connection was stronger than ever.
On Wednesday, May 27, each of the over 300 Cider Mill fifth graders received a graduation lawn sign to celebrate their accomplishments, personally delivered by his or her teacher to each student’s surprise. The signs were an idea principal Dr. Jennifer Falcone and other administrators came up as a way to “honor and celebrate” their students’ three years with the Cider Mill Community. However, it was much more personal and meaningful than Falcone could have ever imagined.
“A hundred percent each and every one of our fifth grade teachers wanted to be the ones to hand-deliver the signs to their to their students,” Falcone said. “I was just blown away.”
Though their original idea was to have the PTA or volunteers drop off the sign, the entire staff volunteered, and in doing so, made it a day students and families would never forget. Falcone calls this a testament to the passion and care of the entire Cider Mill Staff.
“I can’t tell you how many teachers emailed me, call me texted me after and said, ‘Oh my god, I needed that so bad,'” Falcone said. “They truly needed that connection, and that closure and that kind of face-to-face, even social distancing, just as badly as our kids did.”
Success of the Day
All fifth grade teachers huddled into their cars in the early, sunny morning hours Wednesday; most didn’t get home until late that evening, spending anywhere from five to eight hours in their cars. Some didn’t stop to take restroom breaks or grab lunch, while others brought their families along for the ride. Almost every student–and teacher–left with a smile on their faces.
Anastasia Romond, also known as Mrs. Skroubelos, went on maternity leave in the middle of e-Learning. She delivered the signs with the teacher who took over for her, and loved the chance to say goodbye to the kids. She said the day was long, emotional, but so fulfilling, and that it meant just as much to the kids as it did to her.
“It was honestly amazing, there are a few times that I definitely got teary-eyed and cried seeing some of my students just seeing the look on their faces,” Romond said. “There was even one student, we drove up to her house and the second she saw us she just buried her face into her hands, and it just meant so much to me to see them and to be able to congratulate them and to just wish them well in person.”
Fifth grade teacher Maria Corti felt similarly, adding that the visits showed her how “a small gesture like that had great impact.” She said that the kids’ reactions ranged from “flabbergasted, touched, excited, and surprised,” but each visit meant a lot to each family.
Erica Rome, who played a big role in organizing and ordering the signs, took her family with her for the surprise. She greeted every student by holding the lawn sign above her head as if it was a ‘boom box,’ and was thrilled by the joy it gave them.
“We’re so used to seeing them in the past three months in these little boxes [on Zoom or Google Hangouts], but it was just so nice to see them in person–like they were real and they were right there and it was nice to see them,” Rome said. “They were surprised, they were excited. Some of them were a little dumbfounded, they were shocked… it’s like breaking that barrier of, usually, your house is your house and your school is your school. Everything’s all together.”
Sarah Arbucci, who actually had visited all of her students a few weeks prior, said that seeing the kids in person had given her a great chance to recharge. Eager to do it again, she mapped out the route ahead of time, piled into the car with her own kids, told them to conserve water so they wouldn’t have to stop, and took off.
“Definitely by the end of the day, [it was] tiring but so worth it, and all my other teacher friends that I talked to, everybody said the same thing,” she said. “We so needed that–it was such a spirit lifter for the kids, for us, for the parents, it was just such a positive experience.”
Kim Romero spent nearly seven hours in the car delivering signs to her students and remarked about how wonderful it was to see them in-person. “It was really just amazing to visit them at their houses,” Romero said.
Students felt the love as well, just as much as the teachers did. Megan Maley wrote to GOOD Morning Wilton that Romero’s visit brightened her daughter’s mood in a way the family hadn’t seen “since before the lockdown.” Haiku Durden said her daughter Olivia could not have been more “thrilled” to see her teacher.
“It certainly makes us smile to see that cheery sign by the mailbox,” she said.
Laura Harkins agreed, adding that the sign initiative gave her fifth grader Will Viggiano a special moment he will treasure forever. “[The kids] have been through quite a lot in these past few months in addition to winding down their Cider Mill careers. Will Viggiano was lucky to have an amazing beacon of positivity and support in Ms. Olivia Barbieri. Her endless enthusiasm and daily communication was exactly what our son needed during this peculiar pandemic/eLearning experience.” Harkins wrote.
Making Connection a Priority–Care Comes First
Connection didn’t start with the signs.
Falcone said that prioritizing connection and each child’s well-being was a “driving force” in eLearning, and in every decision they make.
“Everything that we’ve been doing both instructionally and social-emotionally has been about keeping that community together,” she said.
Corti added that as teachers, this is important because many of them became teachers to connect with students.
“I think what I’ve taken away from the last couple of months, is that we need to be together,” Corti said. “Because that’s what we miss is being together and learning together.”
For the school as a whole, this meant keeping up traditions like the ABC Countdown where kids do something special each day for the last 26 days of school, planning to host a virtual field day and virtual closing house, and creatively designing ways to connect with the community, as the faculty did with its Lean on Me video.
Arbucci said that her students’ social-emotional well-being has been a focus of hers “from the beginning.” In addition to doing synchronous online learning as much as possible, Arbucci has hosted dance parties, guided drawing, scavenger hunts, and even joke days.
“Anything to help them feel connected and to make them smile because I think that’s something that has been really hard, challenging for everyone, especially for kids of this age [who] are so social,” Arbucci added.
Many teachers are like Romero, who intentionally checks in with students on a day-to-day basis, both as a group and individually, to give those who were shyer or had a greater difficulty adjusting could still be supported. She said these meetings have allowed her to form unique and deeper connections with the kids in her class.
“The only positive I think that’s come out of this [time] is the connection with family, so when they get on these zoom calls, and when we see them in person you can see their dogs, you can see their cats, you can see their family members, and you just get a look into their lives that you wouldn’t normally see,” she said.
Romero added that making these intentional opportunities for connection like the sign surprise or everyday meetings is especially important for children at this age because the kids are going through so many changes and need to feel heard.
“Fifth grade is a really hard year for them. They’re growing up, they’re going through so many things physically as well as mentally, that they need a lot of guidance for it, they need to know why this is going on. They need to know that they’re supported,” Romero said. “By every fifth grade teacher showing up at every single house, those kids felt heard they felt like they mattered and they felt like they had that social-emotional connection.”
Martha Phelan said this special attention to connection in this time of uncertainty does not go unnoticed and is especially grateful to her daughter Abby‘s teacher, Trish Howell.
“The visit and conversation brightened the day for all of us! Ms. Howell has gone above and beyond all year and especially during eLearning to create a comfortable, fun environment for learning for her classroom.”
Closure and Celebration
Romond added that visiting the kids gave both the students and herself a necessary sense of “closure.” “It’s a big year for students,” she said. “It’s a big transition year and you know the way they end it now is going to carry on with them forever.”
Similarly, mother Melissa Roos wrote to GMW that this time gave her fifth grader Owen a sense of closure to their elementary school career as a whole.
“It gave the students time to talk to their teachers that they have not seen in person since March and I believe a sense of closure to their elementary school days,” Roos wrote. “[I am] so grateful for the Wilton Public Schools and Community especially during this unprecedented time.”
Falcone added that she could not be more proud of her staff throughout this period, and the fact that throughout everything, they have led with “their hearts.”
“They’re not just educators, they are amazing people with tremendous hearts that lead all of the decision making and work that they do for their students,” she said. They truly love their students and that’s what really pulls the community together to provide these experiences for their students.”