Thornton Elementary School second-grade teacher Judy Maurano thought it was just a regular visit from Rhode Island Department of Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green, being filmed as she went from classroom to classroom on Oct. 11.
Then, she saw family members. Her husband, daughters, son-in-law, grandson, mother and mother-in-law piled into her classroom, and it became apparent this was no ordinary day.
Maurano, who will be retiring at the end of this year, then received the Golden Apple Award from WJAR’s Patrice Wood. Maurano’s segment will air today.
According to RIDE, the Golden Apple Award is presented to “those who believe in the true spirit of teaching by making classrooms a creative and safe space to learn.” Winners also get a $250 contribution from the Ocean State Credit Union.
“It’s very humbling and very gratifying, and it was a great sense of closure to say, I’ve not only been doing this for 30 years, but I dreamed of being a teacher from the time I was little,” Maurano said during an interview in her classroom on Oct. 15, right next to her Golden Apple.
Maurano has worked at Thornton since 1989 and she has nearly four decades of teaching experience overall. However, her adoration for the profession goes back well beyond the first time convened a class.
She said it had been her dream to teach since she was a child, when she was setting up a mock classroom in her garage to instruct imaginary students. It’s no wonder that, when her vision became reality, she was overcome with joy.
“My dad would walk in and say, ‘Who are you teaching to?’ I’d say, ‘My class!’ He’d be like, ‘There’s no one here.’ I’d make up the papers, I’d get the stickers,” Maurano said. “I would do the whole thing, so when I actually got my teaching certificate that said I could officially teach, I actually cried all the way back to the car. I think it hit me for the first time that someone said, ‘You can teach. You’re officially a teacher.’”
Maurano has made the most of that degree, too. She said she doesn’t operate the same way every year because the students “really dictate how you teach.” While the curricula and standards are always changing, Maurano said she meets her students at their level and helps them grow from there.
“So I say to the children, ‘It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.’ Don't worry where you're starting, just worry about improving yourself from that point on, so I think that makes every year you teach different,” Maurano said. “It’s never the same. So you can be in the same grade for 30 years, but not teach the same way any year.”
When asked what advice she would offer aspiring teachers, Maurano said that children should allowed to be risk-takers. She said at the beginning of the year, second-grade students receive a letter with an eraser enclosed, encouraging them to make mistakes and embrace challenges.
She said “yet” is a common word used in her classroom, illustrating that students are continuing to work toward their goals even if they slip up occasionally.
“I don’t think you can grow if you don’t risk making mistakes. It’s from our mistakes that we learn the most and we grow the most, so you have to have the child feel like it’s OK to do that,” Maurano said. “So I constantly refer to that with the kids, it’s OK not to be there yet. Did you do your best? If you did your best, that’s all a teacher can ask for, and if you keep working at it, you will get there.”
She also said becoming a master of behavior management is essential, as it “allows you to do everything else” in the classroom. Teachers can’t be apprehensive about approaching each other for advice, though.
“If you’re spending all your time managing behavior, then it takes away from the joy and the teaching and learning that needs to take place, and I think that’s difficult for young teachers,” Maurano said. “Something that you have to [use] trial-and-error, you know? You find out what works, you find out the strategies that work, or you go to veteran teachers and say, ‘What works for you?’”
She’s never had to be bashful, though. She said her friends and colleagues at Thornton are essential to providing stability as leadership at the school switched hands several times during her tenure. That camaraderie has always been the same, and Maurano said it’s an “amazing” network.
“They’ve gone through all my family’s ups and downs, I’ve gone through theirs. We’ve been to each other’s family events. We’ve supported one another,” Maurano said. “I think what makes Thornton the most unique, really, is that many of the teachers who are here have been here for years, so we have formed that community. We have formed that village. We are there to support one another, to be there for one another, and I think that makes it very unique.”
Her impact wasn’t lost on Lisa Filippelli, who nominated Maurano for the Golden Apple. Filippelli sent some of what she wrote as part of Maurano’s nomination to the Sun Rise, heaping praise on Maurano for being “a cheerleader, a hard worker, a dreamer and an advocate with a critical cause … to insure the best education possible for many students who have passed through her classroom door.”
“Judy is a well spoken, well respected, and well-known as an educator who includes parents in educational decisions, insists on student progress no matter what social and emotional issue may hinder, and truly cares about the welfare of each student as an individual learner,” Filippelli said.
As for her retirement plans, Maurano said she will be spending plenty of time with her grandson and doing what she chooses to do.
“I think it was being a grandmother for the first time,” Maurano said regarding what spurred her retirement. “My daughter wanting to know if I would be able to watch the baby part-time. She’s a nurse, so she went back to nursing. It was that time. I felt like it was that time for me to now take time for myself and do the things that I want to do.”