2020 Teacher of the Year Erin Gagliardi Ready to Tackle New Classroom Challenges
The age of COVID has brought enough uncertainties to classrooms this fall, but for Erin Gagliardi, the pandemic is just one more X-factor to add to the checklist. Gagliardi, this year’s American Battlefield Trust Teacher of the Year, is about to start a new job teaching a new subject at a new school in a new town.
Beginning in 2008, Gagliardi spent twelve years teaching social studies to students from fifth through eighth grade at St. Thomas Aquinas, a small Catholic school in Derry, New Hampshire. “I was the only social studies teacher, so they got me for four years, which was nice,” she explains. That arrangement allowed her to create a continuity of experience for her students that really reinforced their learning. “I had a little flexibility on how much time I could spend on something,” she says. The Civil War got particular attention. “I spend a good four months on it with my eighth graders,” she says. “I really got to dig deep.”
She credits the Trust’s annual Teacher Institute with helping her find ways to do that. Gagliardi attended her first T.I. in 2012, in Charleston, S.C., and has attended seven of them in total. “I went down knowing very little as a brand new social studies teacher,” she admits. “I left feeling so confident about what I was going to be teaching my kids. I can’t believe how much I learn. There’s so much—so much—for us at these events. I come back refreshed every year.”
One year, she came back with plans to create a Civil War research club with her close friend and colleague, Sue Gauthier. Seventh- and eighth-graders spent after-school time researching Civil War veterans from their town, working with the local history museum and local historian. The year finished with a field trip to Gettysburg. She’s also done projects inspired by “legacy trees,” costumed tableaus, a geography lesson from Shiloh, and units on racism, including the controversial topic of white privilege—all content she’s taken from the Teacher Institute over the years.
“It’s hard in this political climate for a history teacher to dig deep without a lot of conflict coming from parents,” Gagliardi says. “You have to find a balance and teach students how to study and interpret history through the past, not looking at it through a 2020 lens.” Often, she says, that can be harder for parents to understand than it is for the students.
Gagliardi traces her passion for history back to her own middle school social studies teacher. “My love of social studies started in grade six, Mr. Bostwick’s class,” she says. “We were studying Canada and Parliament, and I got to be the Prime Minister and teach the class for a week! I think I talked about that at home for the rest of the year!”
She also credits a high school Honors class in Russian history. “I didn’t do well in the class at all,” she admits, laughing. “But I fell in love with it then.”
College at Northeastern University and Notre Dame was eventually interrupted by marriage and motherhood, but Gagliardi later went back to finish, graduating summa cum laude from Southern New Hampshire University in 2008 with a bachelor of arts degree in child development. Shortly thereafter, the call came to teach at St. Thomas.
However, this past summer, budget issues forced the school to shutter—“the sweet little school,” Gagliardi calls it—and she found herself looking for a new classroom opportunity. This month, she'll begin as an English teacher in a small public school in Henniker, New Hampshire, where she’ll have three classes of seventh graders.
“I ran my social studies class a lot like a humanities class and did a lot of literary analysis and writing with my kids,” Gagliardi says. Her new assistant principal has given her the freedom to approach her new English classes the same way. “She told me that I can get the competencies and see how I'd like to meet them, and if I want to use historical fiction novels for the literature portion to feel free to,” Gagliardi says. “She's going to let me do what I love and take what I love and make the class work." She says she’s also looking forward to collaborating with the social studies teacher.
During her job search, one application asked her, “What makes an excellent teacher?” “It’s certainly not being an expert in the field,” Gagliardi says. “It’s almost something intangible that you can’t learn in a classroom, that turns you from a good or a great teacher into an excellent, fabulous teacher. I think the kids need to like you in order to do well. If they hate you as a teacher, they’re not going to want to learn for you.”
While she hopes she might one day find herself back in a social studies classroom, she’s excited about the opportunity that awaits her this year. Whether English or history, the key ingredients to any classroom remain the same. “Try to create an environment in your classroom of love and mutual respect and trust,” she says. “If they feel that connection with you, they want to please you and they want to learn and they want to do well for you.”
“Love them,” she adds. “Love your kids.”