Today, I am sharing Celeste Angelo's story. She teaches fifth grade at Huth Road Elementary School in Grand Island, New York. This is the seventh story in my series about teachers, their work, the things that they share with their students, and the things that bring them joy.
I understand that teaching was not your first career. Tell me about your career path.
Many years ago, I attended the State University of New York at Buffalo. I thought that I was interested in education or law. The year that I went there was the year that they dropped the education program. I graduated with a degree in psychology. I loved being a psych major. I loved how people learn. I am fascinated by people. My favorite class was child psychology. I’ve always loved kids. During that time, day care was becoming very popular. I wanted to own a day care center. I had come from a family that was always self- employed. Owning a day care business all fit in with my love of kids and my desire to be a teacher. So I immediately went on and got a masters in early childhood education, with the intent of opening a day care center.
But life has twists and turns. While I was pursuing my masters I had job in sales. I sold fundraising to schools. Then I became the manager of the Niagara Falls Racquetball club for four years. During that time, I got married. My husband and I stated an auto wholesale business, where I worked for 15 years. My husband would buy the cars. We painted and transported them and sold them to auctions. We had 30 employees so we had a pretty big business. I drove the cars and was the jack of all trades. While I was doing that, our four children came along. I was a room mom at Huth Road Elementary School. My heartstrings were getting pulled back to my original goal in life, which was to work with kids. I found out that all I had to do was student teach. I had a masters. I did that. When my youngest children (a set of twins, brother and sister) entered kindergarten in 1994, I got a teaching job. I was hired to teach fourth grade in the City of Tonawanda. I was so happy. It was what I wanted to do my whole life! The next year, a second grade job opened up at Huth. I interviewed and I got it. This is my 22nd year at Huth Road School. All of my children were in this school.
When I got my job at Huth Road school, the twins were at Sidway. The other kids were in third and fifth grades.
How long have you lived in Grand Island? Did you attend Grand Island schools?
I moved in Grand Island when I was in seventh grade.
What grades have you taught at Huth Road School?
I have taught all of the grades here at Huth Road. This is my eighth year teaching fifth grade.
What do you like about teaching fifth grade?
I love fifth grade. You can talk to the students, and they understand. You can talk about things in the world. You can talk about politics, natural disasters, or other events. Here’s where I bring my background into the classroom. I talk to them about what it takes to be successful because I come from the business world. They understand hard work and taking responsibility and ownership and they get my jokes. I let them know that you have to be motivated. You have to be willing to work hard. You have to be reliable. You have to be responsible. I teach them this through all the things that I have seen and experienced for all of these years. I continually tell them stories about cars that weren’t repaired correctly and just things that they can understand. They like stories. People learn from stories. I have many stories. The greatest thing is that they come back from middle school. They walk into the classroom and they say, everything that you told us is true! We’re having a great year. It is so rewarding.
Having taught all of those grades and having my own children, I know where they are going and where they are coming from. It helps me to be a stronger teacher to have taught all of those grades. You see an increase in vocabulary, a willingness to tackle lengthier and more comprehensive books. I once had a third grader tell me, ‘I don’t do chapter books.’ Yes, you do chapter books in third grade. That’s what is so fun. Three years is like eons… to see the growth and to know. My children are through college. I know what they have to do as high schoolers and in college. Having my own children go through college has given me an awareness. That’s only eight years from now. You’re going to be in college. Do your homework! The kids have older brothers and sisters, and they see. In eight years, you will drive a car. . They understand that. My hope is that you have the kind of life that I have. I have choices because I worked hard in school and in college. I took responsibility and now I have a great life. I have the job I wanted and went to the college I wanted. That’s all I want: for you is to have choices, to do what you want them to do. That resonates with them.
What do you see as challenges for fifth graders?
Social media is a huge challenge for students. I have empathy/sympathy for their parents. The kids are so savvy. They spent an inordinate amount of time with social media, to the detriment of school work and of reading. They are cognizant of the things that kids say about them on social media. I have to resolve problems that happened outside of the classroom because of social media. We talk about being responsible. Pictures on snapchat do not disappear. You are leaving a digital footprint. Kids say, “Everyone has to have a cell phone.” No. Everyone does not have to have a cell phone.
When you aren’t teaching, what do you like to do?
I have all kinds of hobbies. I love sports. I’ve played sports my whole life. I have a volleyball game tonight. My husband and I are big boaters. I water ski. I snow ski. I cycle. I love music. I played cello through college and beyond. I attend a dozen concerts a year. I like all music. Classical, pop... I like it all. We like to travel. We went skiing in Lake Tahoe last year. We are going on a cruise in a couple of weeks. I explored a cave in Belize. I showed the kids pictures, and they were amazed. I went to Las Vegas last year to go to Corvette driving school. I read. I have fun with vegetable gardening. I have a lot of fun. I get to visit my kids who are all over the world. I have a daughter in London, trying to start a business. My daughter in New York City is working for a startup. The company vets women to serve on corporate boards. Big corporations pay people (minorities) to be on their boards. I met Gloria Steinem and other big powerful women. My daughter in South Carolina, gave me my first granddaughter, Waverly. She is the best. Six months old. My son is local. He is finance.
What can parents do to support their children?
They have to allow their children to make mistakes. They to allow their children to fail and to stop rushing to their rescue. It is a very hard thing to do because we don’t want our children to struggle. That’s where learning occurs. You learn from your mistakes. I don’t believe that everyone gets a trophy. You earn what you get. That’s where the reward comes in, knowing that you worked hard and you achieved. I’m constantly using sports analogies in my classroom because I love sports. On Monday (February 6th), we talked about the Superbowl. The Patriots were down and out and no one expected them to come back. Tom Brady never lost hope; he never gave up and he was rewarded because of that attitude.
When kids run to parents and say, “I don’t get this,” ask questions. Ask: “what did you get?” Your second question: “tell me what you didn’t understand.” You have to verbalize the part that you don’t get. Then they will say, “oh, I get it.” Parents want to rescue them and make it easy for them. By giving kids too much help, it hinders them. We are trying to create kids who are outside the box thinkers. Parents need to talk to their kids, not talk at them, engage them in meaningful conversations. Take them places and talk to them about the experiences. What did you learn there? Let them see your mistakes and how you go about solving your mistakes. So when your car breaks down, explain to them how to solve that problem. When you run out of an ingredient, what can you substitute? There are so many ways to show children that life is full of bumps in the road and how we, as adults, handle those bumps in the road.
Do you run any after school clubs?
I have the homework club, which allows kids a quiet space to work on their homework, and I provide a little support if they need it. We are a very eclectic group. There is a variety of ages and experiences.
What brings you the most joy as a teacher?
It's that moment when you see the aha look on their face, when they come up to you and say, “I didn’t understand this last year but now I really understand it.” When you see them feeling so proud because they got it. Being at this school because of the wonderful camaraderie with all of my colleagues. I’ve always felt supported by everyone in this building. I think that’s what makes Huth Road such an interesting place. We come to school and we laugh at each other, with each other, and that shows you what a secure place it is. It it is for teachers, students, parents. I follow kids’ careers as they grow up. I’m really invested in them. They know that. I care about them.