Life experiences shape top teacher

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BEACON FALLS — In the early 1960s, when Region 16 Teacher of the Year Award recipient John Polletta was in elementary school, there were “no labels for kids,” he said. “You either knew [the material] or you didn’t.”

Polletta often fell in to the “didn’t” category. He was an average student throughout his K-12 education and made it through only one semester at Southern Connecticut State University before dropping out and pursuing a career in business at SNET, where he worked in customer service and public relations, slowly “climbing the corporate ladder.” He didn’t go back to school until he was 35.

It’s just these idiosyncrasies that may give Polletta an advantage in the classroom, in terms of life experience—“Maybe it takes a 40-year-old person coming in to a new career to look at it from a new angle,” he said—but he readily denies that he “does anything differently than any other teacher.”

Polletta’s experience and emphasis on pragmatic skills is evident in his philosophy.

“I think the problem with a lot of what’s been taught in the past is that we were learning for testing. … I believe we need to learn life skills. Period.”

After 20 years of cultivating his own life skills in business at SNET, Polletta said he felt he was “wallowing away,” and the work “wasn’t feeding [him] in terms of [his] wanting to do more in life.” It was at that point he took a second crack at a college education and received a B.A. in Philosophy and Communications from Albertus Magnus College, after six years of night classes. He immediately pursued a master’s degree in education in a one-year program at the University of New Haven, and began teaching in the Westville section of New Haven a year and a half after that.

In 2001, he came to Region 16, where he taught at Community School in Prospect and Long River Middle School before moving to Laurel Ledge School in Beacon Falls, where he still teaches fifth grade.

Polletta, a resident of North Haven, builds his classroom interactions and expectations on what he calls “the six pillars of character”—citizenship, caring, responsibility, respect, trustworthiness and fairness. He said he tries to maintain mutual honesty and respect with children. He doesn’t keep his mottled educational background a secret, and he believes the camaraderie he enjoys with students is a result of this bluntness. He believes he stands to learn as much from his students as they stand to learn from him.

Superintendant of Schools James Agostine echoed that sentiment, saying “[Polletta] is constantly reflecting on his own practice and constantly learning … he instills tremendous enthusiasm in his students … he has the ability to take kids who maybe have a history of not being engaged and turning them around.”

“When someone is cowling at their desk,” said Polletta, “that doesn’t work with me.”

He said one strategy he employs to engage students is to share his own experience of being disinterested and apathetic as a student.

“Maybe [unengaged students] remind me of my [former] self,” Polletta quipped.

Taped to a window in his classroom is a sign with the words “Dare to be different” along with portraits of Pablo Picasso (whom one student mistook as Curly from “The Three Stooges”), Jim Henson, Albert Einstein (an alleged C student himself), and Amelia Earhart. Polletta encourages students to embrace their differences.

“I’m not saying you need to try to be different,” he said, “but we’re all [inherently] different, and we all have something valuable to contribute.”

Aside from his educational aspirations, Polletta is a passionate musician and has been an organist and music director at four different Catholic parishes since he was 18.

Polletta received the district’s teacher of the year award at last Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting, where a larger-than-average turnout showed its support with a standing ovation.

Agostine said the selection process involved the input of all Region 16 principals as well as the Professional Development Committee, comprising about a dozen teachers and administrators. They solicited nominations from the faculty and the community and made their selection after hours of deliberation.

Agostine called Polletta a “role model” for other teachers.

“When John talks with other teachers about instruction, they listen,” he said. “He has expert power. He’s the ultimate professional.”