Teacher of the Year
College of Education alum Rebecca Vitelli explains how UD prepared her to be Delaware’s top teacher
University of Delaware alumna Rebecca Vitelli has been named Delaware’s 2020 State Teacher of the Year. At age 26, she is one of the youngest nominees to receive the state-wide award, being nominated her first year of eligibility for her talent and commitment as a pre-kindergarten teacher in the Colonial School District.
During the next year, Vitelli will fulfill the many duties and obligations of her public role as Delaware’s top teacher. She will meet with legislators, community groups and educational organizations to advocate for the importance of high-quality early childhood education opportunities in Delaware. But Vitelli won’t let these speaking engagements distract from her true calling. On a typical weekday in her pre-k classroom at the Colonial Early Education Program in New Castle, Vitelli focuses on her students, providing evidence-based lessons for children in special education and their typically developing peers.
For example, before circle time, Vitelli takes a child’s hand and begins to sing the clean-up song, renowned among parents and educators.
“Through our many songs we help create a sense of safety, belonging and connection. We also embed a lot of language and motor skills through singing,” said Vitelli, who received a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education in 2014 in the College of Education and Human Development. Just one year later, she completed a master’s in exceptional children and youth with a concentration in autism/severe disabilities.
“One thing my work at UD really taught me was how every single thing you plan and do should be done with intentionality and purpose,” she said. “So even something that just looks like ‘singing,’ there is so much more going on in terms of targeting language, cognitive, physical and social-emotional skills.”
Career in special education
Student teaching was a turning point for Vitelli. She completed her placement with Maryann Koziol at the John G. Leach School in New Castle. Koziol’s students were mixed ages between three and five, and about half were special education, each with their own Individualized Education Program, or IEP.
“I was very impressed and touched by the environment — the programming, the compassionate and embracing inclusion model for children with special needs,” she said. “That’s when I knew I wanted to pursue a specialization in teaching children with severe disabilities.”
Vitelli applied to the School of Education’s innovative 4+1 program, allowing her to earn a master’s in just one year by starting graduate work during the undergraduate early childhood major. Because of her experiences in Koziol’s classroom, Vitelli chose to specialize in autism and severe disabilities and served her teaching placement at the Delaware Autism Program at the Brennan School, a school specially designed for students with autism spectrum disorder.
“It was very important for me to be able to apply what I learned in a true special-ed placement and get the hands-on experience,” Vitelli said. “To have that teaching experience in graduate school was incredible. I learned a tremendous amount from my field placements that really helped me feel prepared to start my career here.”