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Dr. Patricia Cosentino, Superintendent of Schools, addresses the staff at the 2020-21 NFPS Opening Convocation. Photo by @NFMiddleSchool via Twitter.

“We’re going to get through this. There’s an end to this,” said Superintendent Dr. Pat Cosentino at the district’s convocation on Friday, 8/28.  Her speech to staff, and corresponding slideshow, was encouraging. She alluded to the fact that, though there’s no way to determine when the end is, there is the opportunity to choose how to react during this period and to be hopeful. Destressing, and finding ways to stay positive, were repeated threads throughout her speech. “Try to avoid that negative talk because it just brings us down into a black hole,” she said.

“We are so proud of the work you have done and will continue to do,” Cosentino relayed, stressing how much she missed being together, seeing all the teachers and the students, and said that she is “grateful to be here with you doing such important work.” A believer in the power of positivity and gratitude, Cosentino says that “an attitude of gratitude” goes a long way, writing in her slideshow, “Gratitude will keep us strong. It is a motivator and a remedy.”

Cosentino acknowledged that there will be frustration this year, saying there will be times when they may want to “throw our computer across the wall or the phone” but focusing on the positive will move them forward. “Stress is a big deal” and “has a major impact on our lives.” She asked teachers to take a minute, take deep breaths, let their tongues lay in the bottom of their mouths while they are deep breathing–a technique she recently learned–and practice mindfulness.

It’s ok for teachers to tell their classes that they all need to take a break, that teachers can sit at their desk for five minutes and have all of the kids put their heads on their desks and rest for five minutes, too–noting that schools did this a lot in the 1950s through 80s. Given that this is expected to be a challenging year in the school, she was excited to announce that all teachers, paraprofessionals, and other staff have been registered for a 10-hour social-emotional wellness workshop that is being coordinated through Yale.

Using the “Friends” couch-pivoting scene clip to further a “need for flexibility” theme, Cosentino said, “You have to adapt, you have to be flexible, and you have to pivot.” She says that their goals, in order, should be to: 1) Keep all children safe, 2) lower their anxiety about the situation, 3) help them laugh, 4) make them feel loved, and 5) teach them something important.

In addition to acknowledging the passing of 30-year cafeteria staff member, Ms. Nancy Lobraico, she went through a series of shout outs to wide-ranging recipients, including the Operations team, the 2020 graduation team, the nurses, the IT staff, the lunch ladies, the custodians, NFMS teacher Mr. Bill Dudas, and many more.

Assistant Superintendent Ms. Julie Luby said that she feels “calm” going into the year after working so closely with many NFPS staff in reimagining education in the district. She encouraged the staff by reading a bit of Harold and the Purple Crayon, asking them to consider its themes on inventing, reinventing, and imagining in moving forward this year. She stressed that every little thing would be all right and then transitioned to a Split Decision rendition (after a long technical delay) of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” Luby also noted that there are many new employees to the district who are “revved up and ready to go,” and acknowledged that is an unusual time to enter the profession.

New Fairfield’s First Selectman Ms. Pat Del Monaco thanked teachers “for everything they do in normal times, and especially now for educating during a pandemic.” She went on to say, “I certainly appreciate how difficult it is to lead during this time, keeping every optimistic, moving forward, and making sure we are all staying safe and healthy.” Del Monaco is focused on getting the word out to the community that the safety guidelines need to be followed. “By doing that we will support the schools” she said, noting that it is a community effort. She wished the staff well, saying, “I hope that you have a healthy and productive school year.”

Ms. Christine Baldelli, the administrator’s union president and principal of NFMS, thanked the staff for all of their work in pivoting in the spring. She encouraged them to embrace their feelings and the feelings of those around them, but also stay hopeful. “Let’s give this school year the opportunity to be awesome,” she said, “don’t throw a label or judgement on it before it begins. It may surprise us.”

As the new teacher’s union president, Mr. Jeff Giuliano, 5th grade teacher at Meeting House Hill School, spoke to say that he has seen teachers show “flexibility, determinism, and professionalism” in preparing to come back for the reopening of school. Of the odd times teachers, and all staff, find themselves in he said, “These are difficult times. People often mention challenges in the past in very casual ways. These times go far beyond. Far beyond what we’ve ever dealt with as teachers, as a school, as a local community, and as a global community. These are dark times–pandemic, hurricanes, civil unrest–but during dark times, the hardest times, that’s when true opportunity arises.” He encouraged fellow staff members to keep it about the kids, “we will be their light in the darkness.”

As is tradition, the convocation includes a speech by the District Teacher of the Year, this year MHHS’s Ms. Pam Quist, a 3rd grade teacher. Introducing Quist, MHHS Principal Mr. James Mandracchia said, “Pam is an amazing educator who has directly influenced more 700 students and countless others in over her 35-year career. She has been nominated for Teacher of the Year nearly every year that I have had the privilege of working with her. She is humble and always giving credit to her colleagues and students.” Of the uncertain period we find ourselves in, he went on to say, “…it will be said many times that this is an unprecedented year, that we could never imagine in our wildest dreams….But one thing is right and justified with the world and that is we are finally granted the privilege of Mrs. Quist being recognized as New Fairfield’s Teacher of the Year.” Giuliano agreed, saying “It’s no secret that I’m a Pam Quist fan,” describing her as a “magical” teacher.

Quist’s speech was centered on finding joy in teaching and in working together. “It’s being enthusiastic about your subject, laughing with your students when funny or unexpected things happen, and sharing your stories and imperfections with them. We all need to remember to find the joy in teaching and learning!” Faced with life- and career-altering shifts last March, Quist also found joy in collaborating with her colleagues. “I like to do things my own way. And sometimes getting 7 teachers to agree on something takes a long time, and can be frustrating, but after the first couple of weeks it became so clear how much we needed each other,” she said. Quist went on to say, “Our individual strengths were valuable to the team, and we eventually figured it out.” Having missed out on the traditions of the end-of-year celebration, Ms. Quist also received a white rose bush from NFHS English faculty member Mr. Owen Lucas.

Story by Sarah Opdahl