April 18, 2007

State Teacher of the Year uses humor, motivation to drive kids to succeed

Source:  New York Teacher

Cover of New York Teacher featuring Teacher of the Year Marguerite Izzo and her studentsFirst period is about to begin on a dreary winter morning at Howard T. Herber Middle School in Malverne, and New York State Teacher of the Year Marguerite Izzo's day is off to a bad start. A good friend is ill; conferences with parents of her fifth-grade students kept her out late the night before; she's dog-tired and the day hasn't even really started yet. And now a reporter will be attached to her hip all morning.

But as the clock inches closer to the start of the school day, her entire mood seems to transform. She's not putting on a brave face - it's much more than that. As the bell is about to ring, she's nearly jumping out of her own skin. After 30 years, Marguerite Izzo still can't wait to teach.

"It's show time," Izzo declares as the bell rings and she trots to the door, engaging in an instructional method she swears by: saying something positive to each student as they enter the room.

In Malverne, Long Island, an economically and culturally diverse district where children often face challenges before arriving to class, students always can count on a friendly, "Hey, buddy!" or "How ya' doing, girlfriend?" from Izzo.

"Come on!" she calls to a student lagging in the hallway, encouraging him to avoid being late. "Thrill me to my socks!"

"Thrill me to my socks" is just one of a series of Izzo-isms that help keep her students amused and motivated. During the course of two periods, Izzo whipped out such gems as:

"Shake a leg, buddy."

"Show me your friends, and I'll tell you who you are."

"Blow me out of the water!"

"Don't just sit there looking handsome."

"Duke it out! Who's going to get which verb?"

While her kids are absorbing thoughtfully crafted lessons that integrate social studies and English language arts skills, they also absorb Izzo's sense of humor.

"What kind of a job are you going to get after college, just sitting around watching people?" Izzo asks a student who is briefly off-task.

"What about a bodyguard?" the student responds, proud of himself. Izzo is stumped, but only for a second.

"Wouldn't you rather be the one having his body guarded?" she asks.

Checkmate. The student nods his agreement.

"Marguerite Izzo sets high expectations for her students and gives them the support to meet those expectations," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. "She demonstrates the diligence and creativity that are core qualities of all great teachers."

Izzo greets one of her students on his way in to class. She believes in making sure all of her students have a positive interaction with her during the day.
Izzo greets one of her students on his way in to class. She believes in making sure all of her students have a positive interaction with her during the day.

Dreaming big

When you enter Izzo's classroom and see she has created the Sistine Chapel on her ceiling with students' artwork, you know you're entering a place where kids dream big. Izzo teaches fifth grade ELA and social studies, but she's not teaching for some state test - her students are looking much further ahead. Some students keep journals reflecting on their futures, such as where they'll go to college and what they'll do after.

And Izzo's students do go to college. Despite an achievement gap in New York that often discriminates by race, Malverne is a success story. Nearly eight in 10 students are students of color, and nearly nine in 10 go to college.

"We talk about college, setting goals and what AP courses they're going to take in high school," said Izzo, who is being honored this week at NYSUT's Representative Assembly in Washington, D.C. "It's important to show kids the right path."

Keeping students on that path involves building and sustaining their confidence, and that is where Izzo has a real gift. Her students think nothing of breaking into a song-and-dance routine about nouns and verbs.

When Izzo asks for a volunteer to sing the classic "Follow the Drinking Gourd" during a lesson on the Underground Railroad, a young girl steps forward and belts out a beautiful tune.

And when another student hangs her head as she resubmits a homework assignment that had previously failed to meet standards, Izzo pulls her aside for a pep talk. "That's real work and I'm proud of you," Izzo says, lifting the student's chin. "What I see here is someone who took a situation and rectified it."

"Marguerite has a great way with her students," said Malverne Teachers Association President Bonnie Dreska. "They love being in her class, and she makes each one feel like he or she is her favorite student - a whole class of teacher's pets."

Yet as natural a teacher and mentor as Izzo is, she was lucky to have stayed in teaching at all.

When school budgets don't pass, New York often loses some of its best teachers and School-Related Professionals; Izzo was one of them, excessed early in her career at Island Park.

"I worked for an airline and made pretty good money," Izzo recalled. "My colleagues kept in touch and kept pushing me to get back into teaching."

After two years, Izzo relented and was back in the classroom. Thirty years later, she has taught every grade between her stints in Island Park, West Hempstead, and now nearly 15 years at Malverne.

She is also an adjunct instructor at Adelphi University, where she earned her master's degree after finishing her undergraduate work at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

"Sometimes I'll try something with my college students and then bring it into my classroom," Izzo said, pointing out that a "verb quilt" lesson she conducted with her fifth-graders was first honed with her Adelphi students.

Izzo often uses popular children's books to teach students about verbs, nouns and other language components. History-themed books help her integrate social studies concepts.
Izzo often uses popular children's books to teach students about verbs, nouns and other language components. History-themed books help her integrate social studies concepts.

Loving the challenge

And it's the challenge, the constant tinkering, that Izzo lives for as a teacher. One of her classes this year has several students with disabilities and two special ed teachers who assist the students.

It's the kind of assignment that Izzo revels in. She not only engages the students, she makes them feel like real partners in the learning process and enthusiastically celebrates their successes.

When a student gets a question about verbs right, she slaps her head and exclaims, "I was thinking the same thing!"

In the end, the students love Izzo because she roots so openly for their success. They are therapeutic for her. They energize her.

That's good for the students and for Izzo, because she has no plans to retire any time soon; or, perhaps, ever.

She has plenty to do, between her work as a board member for the Malverne Teachers Center and the local public library, but for Izzo there is no substitute for teaching.

"I'll always be teaching, whether it's here or college," Izzo said. "It's the most important job in the world. I have to teach."

After 30 years, it still thrills her to her socks.

- Kevin Hart