BETHLEHEM - A small sign on Mary Ellen Kuzma's classroom wall at Bethlehem Elementary School, near her desk, says "To teach is to touch a life. A caring teacher touches the lives of many."
Mary Ellen Kuzma, first-grade teacher at Bethlehem Elementary School, is Region 14ís Teacher of the Year for 2009. She said one of the best parts of her job is greeting her students every day. Mrs. Kuzma is pictured with five of her students (from left) Rebecca Hydar, Isabella Calvano, Ksenia Korobov, Ryan Henderson and Preston DeLeo. (Cura photo)
On top of a cabinet, a tiara and a sash are stashed, reminders of Mrs. Kuzma's title - Region 14 Teacher of the Year, 2009.
BES students gave her the tiara and sash to commemorate the experience.
"I'm very proud that I was named teacher of the year," said Mrs. Kuzma.
Maureen Bottino, a parent of one of Mrs. Kuzma's former students, nominated her as teacher of the year last year.
"From day one of the school year, she completely engaged the children," Mrs. Bottino wrote in her nomination letter to the Connecticut Teacher of the Year program.
"She creates an air of magic and wonder in approaching each student so that they constantly are learning, yet do not realize it."
Case in point - a new year has arrived and post-holiday bliss was rampant in Mrs. Kuzma's first-grade classroom. A lot of the chatter was about presents and centered on the individual, she said.
Part of the winter curriculum was a lesson based around snowmen and she had originally planned for each student to make and decorate their own paper snowman.Instead, large snowmen cutouts, almost as tall as an adult, lay flat on the floor, with various art materials scattered about.
"They have to work together," said Mrs. Kuzma.
The children were divided into teams and on the first day, each student had plans on what they wanted the snowman to look like.
As the week progressed, the children started working together, said Mrs. Kuzma, with a proud smile.
Since she was little, Mrs. Kuzma always wanted to be a teacher and follow in the footsteps of her grandmother.
"Some people are meant to be teachers," she said.
After Mrs. Kuzma graduated from St. Joseph College in West Hartford, with a major in child study and a minor in history, she taught fifth grade for seven years.
She took a hiatus from teaching to start her family and also got her master's degree from Central Connecticut State University.
She has three children, all of whom have been students at Region 14 schools. When her youngest child was in second grade, she resumed teaching.
Mrs. Kuzma said she never dreads going to work.
"As a first-grade teacher, you have to come in ready to go," she said. "I'm full of enthusiasm."
Mrs. Kuzma sings songs. She draws. She reads aloud with feeling.
"I want them to love to read," she said.
When she introduces a book to the students, she becomes the character, talking in different voices and adding different levels of expression to her reading.
The students also read out loud to other students, even getting to sit in the celebrity reader chair, which is personalized with the words, "Kuzma's Crew."
Reading out loud helps the children with their presentation skills - Mrs. Kuzma said the children do not even realize they are speaking in front of more than 20 people.
"They're gaining confidence," she said.
The students are not the only ones. Through her teachings, the children gain life skills. Through her life experiences, Mrs. Kuzma is learning new things about herself.
"I don't think there's anything that can stop me anymore," she said.
For the past 12 years, Mrs. Kuzma has taught at Region 14. Her minor in history was beneficial when, in 2004, two weeks before the school year was set to begin, she was informed that she had to teach history at Nonnewaug High School.
"In 2004, the budget went down many times and there were cuts," she said.
Her experience at the high school was wildly different from what she was used to.
"It was a good year and a good experience," said Mrs. Kuzma. "But my heart is in first grade."
Still though, Mrs. Kuzma put her heart into her one year of teaching at NHS. She recalled a day when she asked the high school students to do an act of kindness for another person.
After some time had passed, the students arranged their desks in a circle and she told the students to say "pass" if they had not done an act of kindness.
Mrs. Kuzma said she was surprised to hear the answers, especially from one student who was not the most academically inclined.
The student worked at a gas station and encountered a woman who had less than $2 to pay for gas.
The student told the boss to take the rest of the money out of that student's next paycheck and filled the woman's gas tank.
The student may never remember the details of the Treaty of Paris or Marbury vs. Madison, but learned a life lesson, said Mrs. Kuzma.
A change of plans also occurred for Mrs. Kuzma in 2006, also two weeks before school was set to start. Mrs. Kuzma was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer. She is now in remission.
Per doctor's orders, Mrs. Kuzma did not teach that entire year. The Region 14 community supported her during that time, she said.
"I'm a very lucky person," said Mrs. Kuzma. "We had meals for a whole year - every Monday, Wednesday, Friday - delivered to us."
That experience, as frightening as it was, was a learning experience.
"Through adversity, I became a stronger person," she said. "I don't take a day for granted."
The most challenging aspect of Mrs. Kuzma's job is that there are not enough hours in the school day to get all her goals accomplished.
Being a teacher comes with extra responsibilities outside of the classroom - she does bring her work home with her, grading papers and constructing lesson plans.
Communication outside the classroom is an important aspect of her job.
"I think it's very important to have good, clear communication with parents," said Mrs. Kuzma. "I feel that I do."
She said that if the parent of a child has a concern, she feels as though they are comfortable telling her about it.
"Parents are their own child's advocate," she said.
Communication with children is important too. Constant correction with compassion - that is how Mrs. Kuzma treats her students.
Children need structure but she does not want them to feel stifled.
"I want every child to want to come to school," said Mrs. Kuzma.
While Mrs. Kuzma knows that part of her job is to instruct students on polite and appropriate behavior, she is not looking to reign in their youthful spirit.
She pointed out the lilting gait of her students as they half-skipped, half-walked to the cafeteria.
"They come in every day, happy as larks," she said.
Mrs. Kuzma does not just teach spelling and colors to her students, she is laying down the building blocks that help a child succeed and become a healthy adult.
When she draws something during lessons, she said she always tells the students that she is not a good artist, but she tries her best.
That is what she tells the children, too - to try their best.
"I still have some things that I'm learning too," she said.
Because learning does not stop once school is over, it is a continuous process.
"I think I learn more from my students than they learn from me," she said.
"I've been through so much. With what I've been through, I don't think there's anything I can't do.
"Can I do everything great? No. But I can do my best."