WCSU Alumni Association recognizes local education ‘hero’
As anyone who has children or works in education knows, Covid-19 has brought many challenges to school systems and teachers’ ability to carry on. With little notice, educators everywhere had to make a quick pivot to remote or hybrid teaching. While tech-savvy middle and high school students had minimal difficulty with this, it was a challenge to figure out how to engage and maintain the attention of kindergarteners.
One Western Connecticut State University education alumna, Melissa Gabriel, rose to the challenge and has been designated as a hero by the WCSU Alumni Association for her contributions during the Covid-19 pandemic. Gabriel was nominated by Monica Sousa, a WCSU Nursing professor.
Gabriel attended Danbury Schools from K-12, and graduated in 1999. She then enrolled at WCSU, where she obtained a Bachelor of Science with a major in Elementary Education and a minor in Psychology in 2003, and a Master of Science with a focus on Reading Instruction in 2005. She acquired an additional 30 credits post master’s with a focus on Special Populations in an online program.
“My brother was a WCSU graduate, and I saw the quality of education he received there,” Gabriel said. “He was very happy with his courses and degree. I tended to always follow in his footsteps and I also knew I didn’t want to go too far from home. I helped my parents quite a bit, due to their language barrier. Portuguese was the first language I learned. I am fluent in Portuguese and conversational in Spanish. I use all three languages every day in my distance learning. I have students and parents who speak no English.”
Gabriel has taught kindergarten at Morris Street School in Danbury for 17 years.
“I have been blessed to spend all of these years in the same grade and same school. It really is my second home and the staff is my second family. I am so proud of Morris Street and all that it has accomplished. We are the little engine that could. Teaching kindergarten is not for those short on patience. It is not easy, but it does bring me joy. Seeing these youngest of students make such incredible progress during the school year is amazing. Many come in not knowing their letters, but leave being a reader.”
When Covid-19 arrived, Gabriel’s routine came to an abrupt halt.
“On March 12, we dismissed our students and said goodbye thinking we would see them again in two weeks. Boy, were we all wrong. In two weeks, I learned a completely new way of teaching kindergarten. I had never used Google Classroom before. With many long hours into the night, some tears, training, and the help of my awesome and very tech savvy grade-level partners, teaching kindergarten resumed, but in a different format. We used Google slides, videos, audio recordings, learning programs and some live Google meets. My first time seeing my students again, live on Google Meet, was emotional. How can you explain to 5- and 6-year-olds that kindergarten would now be on the computer and that I didn’t know if I would see them again?
“Those last few months of the school year involved many phone calls home, emails, meetings, and supporting one another,” Gabriel said. “Teachers supporting teachers, administrators supporting staff, staff supporting parents, and yes, parents supporting teachers. We held a drive-by kindergarten graduation at the school in June and I will NEVER forget one of the students getting out of the car and running and giving me a hug. I cried, of course, and I hugged him back. As teachers, we hope to leave some positive impact upon our students and that one moment reminded me of why I choose this profession. This situation isn’t fair to them. This isn’t what their first formal year of school should look like. But it’s amazing how much they have learned even through distance learning.”
As fall 2020 approached and a new school year was about to begin, Gabriel once again had to pivot.
“In August 2020, Danbury Schools were planning to open with a 100% in-person model, which was then switched to hybrid, and then switched again to 100% remote. Teachers prepared for three possible models,” Gabriel said. “My classroom, which is usually filled with age-appropriate centers, including blocks, a kitchen, a book corner and others, now has empty tables, chairs and bookcases covered with fabric. All of the ‘play based’ centers have been taken out. Tape on the floor provides a separation from me and the students. Danbury opened hybrid in mid-January. When I tell people that I have had to completely relearn my job ... it’s not an exaggeration. I do believe Danbury did a great job in helping our youngest learners prepare for distance learning. They gave all kindergarten students math manipulatives, general school supplies, letter tiles and Chromebooks. The first week of school, parents attended orientation. We held it outside under a tent and showed them step by step, how to use the laptops and Google Classroom.”
Gabriel said she never thought that in her 17th year of teaching kindergarten, she would be teaching letter sounds through a computer screen.
“It’s also the first year I’ve done home visits, but not at all like they were done back in the day. Instead, I have dropped off glue sticks, laptops and dry erase markers. We have to work together. This model is not easy for teachers, but also not easy for parents. In less than a year, we have changed the way we teach three times (in person, pushing out Google Slides, and live remote instruction). Teachers and parents have been human chameleons!”
She credits both WCSU Education faculty and her current colleagues with providing the tools that helped her remain nimble throughout all the change.
“Dr. Darla Shaw always reminded her students to keep having fun,” Gabriel said. “You can take any lesson and put a spin on it to make it more engaging. This is the year of spinning to make things engaging! My grade level partners have taught me so much. I would not be able to do this without their guidance and patience. Our principal has our back and gives us the support we need. She works with us, asks for our feedback, and makes plans together. She has formed committees to help with the reopening. I have joined her on the parent engagement, scheduling and reopening committees. The district also hosts weekly meetings with our literacy and math coaches. They give us guidance, develop lessons and are readily available to give support.”
When informed of Gabriel’s Alumni Hero Award, Kristen Bradley, principal at Morris Street School, said, “Simply put, Melissa is a phenomenal educator. She is incredibly thoughtful about everything she does for her students, brings a solution-minded approach to all challenges (even pandemic-sized challenges!), and sets high expectations for her students — which they meet due to her dedication to their success. I am lucky to be able to work with her.”
The WCSU Alumni Association is looking for WCSU alumni who have made tremendous contributions to their communities. The Alumni Association will award the Distinguished Alumni Service Award to alumni who have gone above and beyond during the COVID-19 pandemic. This could mean providing community support, putting in extra time as an essential worker, and so on. When possible, the Alumni Association hopes to honor all recipients with an on-campus celebration.