For SK Teacher of the Year, award shows importance of ‘kids first’ mindset

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — In the shadow of school officials planning to close Wakefield Elementary School comes a singular distinction this year with a kindergarten teacher selected to be the district’s 2022 “Teacher of the Year.”

Rebecca Duff, a long-time educator at the school, learned about her selection during a surprise announcement last week when the school’s students and other faculty members were assembled on the school’s lawn.

With the school on the district’s chopping block, the selection is also a reminder about the quality of education provided in Wakefield Elementary, said several veteran educators.

Safety, whether physical, emotional and social as well as sound educational approaches have been her priority, Duff said, noting that she’s sad about the current plan to close this small school.

The job of a teacher, said the 46-year-old Duff, is much different today compared to her vision as a teacher-in-training at the University of Rhode Island. Keeping students connected on many more levels is important today, she added.

“If students don’t have a connection to school, to learning, to feeling good,  and feel safe and supported, they aren’t going to learn,” said this life-long South County resident who currently lives in South Kingstown and has taught in several district schools.

Teachers today must always be monitoring the social and emotional issues that children — especially the young ones — present each day as a result of matters unrelated to their schooling.

Duff has also had that responsibility at the top of her daily list of tasks in the classroom, too.

Each day her class begins with a joke of the day to bring a laugh and then she does a quick social-emotional check by a showing of children’s hands and fingers.

One finger for happy, two for sad, three for silly, four for tired and five for cranky.

This helps her, she said, gauge the kind of day ahead and whether any underlying problems exist from home or elsewhere that need more attention than just a check-in.

“You have to be prepared. You never know what you’re going to have,” she said.

Duff said that she goes to school every day with the objective to be connected to her students to help them learn and feel safe in school.

Parent Kelley Young nominated Duff. She pointed to Duff’s understanding of individual children and concerns for students’ struggles in class with work.

“Ms. Duff consistently provides a safe and comforting environment for her students where they are allowed to make mistakes, grow and excel,” she said.

“I have four children, three of whom have had the privilege of being her student — one currently. For each of my children, she is intimately familiar with their learning styles, including their strengths and weaknesses,” Young said.

“It is truly amazing that her young students make such progress in reading and writing throughout the year. My son arrived to her class with letter and number recognition that was below his grade level, and has thrived under her guidance,” said Young, also an educator.

“Not only does she have a strong mastery of the kindergarten content, but her pedagogical practices truly support the multiple learning styles of all students,” she wrote to school officials about Duff.

Duff’s colleagues also see the selection as a pointed moment for the school and its value to students.

The school committee in January voted unanimously — with one member absent — to back a reconfiguration plan that would close Curtis Corner Middle School and Wakefield Elementary School within the next two to three years, moving the students in both to other facilities in town.

Duff can surely be called a shining example of Wakefield’s potential, said Principal Coleen Smith and former Wakefield Elementary Principal Michelle Little, who both have been mentors to Duff.

“I am so incredibly proud of her,” said school Principal Smith, adding, “She is solution-driven and advocates for her students all the time.”

She is well versed in early childhood development and the academic and social-emotional needs of all of her students, Smith said, adding that Duff “works tirelessly to meet each child where they are and provides quality, engaging instruction for their growth and learning.”

The principal also praised her for collaborating with colleagues on educational strategies, whether they are at her elementary school or other schools within the district.

“I am so pleased, but not the least bit surprised that a parent would nominate her for this award. She models what it is to be a lifelong learner and a quality educator and I am grateful to have her as a member of our faculty,” Smith said.

These kinds of comments didn’t surprise Little, also a mentor to Duff.

“She possesses a wonderful blend of heart and professionalism. She has always had a commitment to understanding and implementing best practices based on current research, especially in the area of reading instruction,” Little said in an interview following the announcement.

“She uses multi-sensory strategies, making learning fun while especially supporting language-based learning instruction. She has always wanted to keep learning herself and sharpen her skills to benefit children,” she said.

On hand to for the announcement in the school yard was new Superintendent Mark Prince.

“As adults, far removed from our last day of elementary school, we can still name our favorite elementary teacher. Years from now, these students will look back and remember Ms. Duff,” he said.

“Not because she taught them A-B-Cs or 1-2-3, but because she challenged and inspired them,

 he said. “She saw greatness in them before they knew it existed inside of them. Years from now, when they think of her, a smile will come across their faces.”