Norwich teacher of the year loves second grade

Norwich — Veterans’ Memorial School second-grade teacher Katie Ruffo was prepared for the worst when a colleague asked her to come to the gym Tuesday afternoon because one of her students was distraught and crying during physical education class.

Ruffo ran to the gym to comfort the boy, when her class erupted with cheers and applause. There were balloons and signs reading “Congratulations Mrs. Ruffo, Teacher of the Year.” Superintendent Abby Dolliver handed her flowers.

“Shocked, overwhelmed,” Ruffo said of her immediate reaction, “but also very proud. I’m so glad my students were there to be the ones to tell me with signs ‘Congratulations Mrs. Ruffo!’ and they ran to me and hugged me.”

Her parents, Kathleen and Sonny Barnard, were there, along with her husband, Matthew Ruffo, and daughters, Tessa, 7, and Allie, 4, both Lebanon Elementary School students. Her aunt, Debbie LaChance, also attended the surprise celebration.

Dolliver asked the class why their teacher deserved to be teacher of the year, and they didn’t hesitate to say “because she gives us candy.” But Dolliver later said there was much more to the relationship Ruffo fosters with her students.

She turns the classroom into a comforting, family-like atmosphere, Dolliver said, and becomes a lasting role model for the students.

That was evident minutes after the gymnasium celebration, when Dolliver led Ruffo into every classroom at Veterans’ Memorial to announce the selection. Many older kids spontaneously ran up to her and gave her hugs. She knew their names.

“The impact she has had,” Dolliver said. “You could see it all the way up to fifth grade.”

Ruffo, 36, grew up in Norwich, attended the Greeneville School and Kelly Middle School, and graduated from Norwich Free Academy in 2000. She went to the University of Connecticut and knew she wanted to be a teacher. She credited her “amazing” teachers at Greeneville School for inspiring her.

Although she said she really can’t sing, Ruffo makes up songs for everything in class, from tying shoes to telling time and learning numbers. She gets a kick when high school students come up to her and sing her “How to tell time” song to the tune of Katy Perry’s “Firework” song.

In Norwich, the award comes with a summer homework assignment. Ruffo will be the guest speaker at the staff convocation at the start of the next school year, at the end of August. She said she likely will describe her basic philosophy of teaching and life in general.

“My big mantra, my big message to my kids is: Stop, think and love,” Ruffo said. “Before you make any decision in life, you need to stop and think about it and choose love. It works for even 7-year-olds.”

She has taught both second and third grades in her dozen years of teaching in Norwich, but second grade is her passion.

“Second grade is where my heart is,” Ruffo said. “It’s the perfect age. They’re young and innocent but starting to feel their independence. They still like you. It’s a great age.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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