“Honored.” That’s how local teachers Heidi Aranjo and Robert DeCicco felt when they were recently named the University of Vermont Outstanding Teachers of the Year for Milton.
The awards, bestowed at UVM each October, celebrate outstanding educators from every school district in the state.
Teacher and book-lover supreme
Aranjo, a Milton Elementary School teacher, starts her day at 5:30 a.m. teaching Chinese students English online. By 7:30 a.m. she logs off and heads to MES where she has alternated between teaching first and second grade for about 15 years.
This year, when Aranjo’s four-year teaching partner Kendra Gorton announced her “Outstanding Teacher” recognition, Aranjo was surprised and delighted.
“It was a shock,” she said. “It was very exciting.”
But Aranjo’s peers were not surprised to hear of her accomplishment.
“She really believes that all students can learn [and] goes out of her way … to meet the needs of her students both academically, socially and emotionally,” Gorton said. “She is an amazing colleague, she’s super organized and she keeps all of our first grade teachers grounded.”
Books line the walls of Aranjo’s jungle themed classroom. Sentence structure and vocabulary posters flank the screen where she teaches students about parts of a story using home footage of her beloved dogs. For her, the occupation was a natural choice.
Aranjo’s mother taught kindergarten for 38 years and often called upon her daughter, a Milton student herself, to read to the children and help them with their work. After completing her secondary studies, Aranjo pursued an undergraduate degree in English with the goal of becoming an English teacher.
But she had a change of heart.
“I decided that smaller kids are more my flavor,” Aranjo said.
She never looked back from elementary education. Aranjo obtained her master’s in reading instruction from St. Michael’s College and brought her skills to MTSD.
In her first year, Aranjo realized the classroom management, student behavior, curriculum and parent interactions that come with teaching are a lot to handle. But her colleagues got her over the hurdles, she said.
“I had other teachers who I wasn’t afraid to ask them for help,” she said. “They were wonderful about wrapping around me and supporting me when I started.”
Aranjo now volunteers to mentor new teachers in the elementary school. According to Gorton, Aranjo is a great collaborator who helps newcomers with lesson plans and curriculum and shares activities and resources.
For Aranjo, the greatest reward is seeing the light bulb turn on after kids work to learn a new concept.
“You might see that they’re struggling, they’re sounding out every single word and it’s a lot of work,” Aranjo said. “When they start to get the connection between the letters and the words … and they’re like, ‘I get this,’ it’s just magic.”
The most challenging part? Time.
“There’s not enough time in the day for all the things that you want to do,” she said. “I could read books all day long, but because of other things, we can’t.”
But the challenges are all part of the joy Aranjo gets from her job. She smiled as she reflected on her time as both a student and now a teacher in the district. She looks forward to more years of teaching, but her dream job, she said, would be becoming a librarian.
Teacher and scientist extraordinaire
A class hamster, some moldy bread experiments and several atom models made of styrofoam. These objects are all found in Robert DeCicco’s classroom.
DeCicco is a 12-year instructor of general science, a lifelong learner and is Milton Middle School’s Outstanding Teacher.
However, he didn’t always picture himself up at the whiteboard.
DeCicco was set to become a doctor, but his experience as a teaching assistant in Colchester gave him pause. When his principal told him about a six-month “crash course” to earn his Vermont teaching licensure, he was all ears.
“I got the bug for it … when I was working in the classroom as an assistant and just kind of loved the energy behind it,” he said.
Though the job has its peaks and valleys, DeCicco said he’s felt “a greater sense of teacher agency,” in recent years. The many different impacts his profession has on students have surprised him and inspired him to keep growing his skills.
Over the past five years, DeCicco increased his involvement in the middle school by joining the leadership committee, pursuing his master’s coursework and hosting the music and game club each Wednesday.
“I just kind of started doing a lot more things that opened up doors that I just didn’t even think were part of teaching,” he said.
For him, the key to success is just that: being open to new concepts.
“Being a teacher, I think it’s natural you have to be a good student in some way,” he said. “You’re always learning, and I think that’s what life is really about.”
DeCicco said he’s learned much from his colleagues and deflected praise for the award, saying it was a “group effort in many ways.”
Duncan Wardwell, who nominated DeCicco, said he is a helpful, sharing leader and teacher, who aided him learn curriculum during his first days at MMS.
“I’ve been South, East and West and claim Rob DeCicco is probably the most receptive, respectful and reliable of us all,” Wardwell said.
The science teacher’s students were likewise impressed by their teacher.
“He’s very encouraging to students,” seventh-grader Kelsey Savard said. “He’s very kind and helpful.”
A chorus of classmates chimed in all citing what a fun and interesting teacher Mr. DeCicco is, and how quickly his class passes with its experiments and discussion.
As for the future, DeCicco said he’s open to new possibilities. He’s actively pursuing an administrative endorsement, but he’s not in a rush to leave his lab.
“I have a lot more work left in the classroom still,” he said. “I want to get even better with what I’m doing and I want achievement levels to rise, for students, even more.”