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Teacher of the Year Cathy Marziali: All in the Family

Name: Cathy Marziali
Award: 2008 Department of Defense Education Activity Teacher of the Year
Teaches: Spanish and Italian
Teaching Since: 1987
Studying at Walden: Doctor of Education

There’s an Italian proverb that reflects the life philosophy of longtime educator Cathy Marziali: La famiglia à la patria del cuore, family is the homeland of the heart. In Marziali’s case, however, “family” doesn’t just mean her husband and two children: It’s a word that encompasses all the small people who’ve entered her classroom in the last two decades.

It’s always important to me to build a sense of community. When school starts, I tell my kids and their families, “When you walk into this classroom, we treat each other like family. We’re here to help each other,” says Marziali. Her mothering, tender approach to working with kids is only part of the reason that she was named the 2008 Teacher of the Year representing the Department of Defense Education Activity.

The idea of becoming a teacher first occurred to Marziali when she was just eight years old, it was largely thanks to a teacher she’d had who was extra maternal. “My third grade teacher was wonderful,” she recalls. “She was the kind of teacher who gives you those warm feelings. She built the kind of relationships that are so important in a classroom when you want to get kids to learn. I wanted to be just like her.”

After graduating with a degree in psychology and then spending some post college years in Italy (where she met her husband), Marziali returned home to Hanford, California, and answered an ad placed by a local school. When they found out she spoke Italian, they told her to take classes to get credentialed and asked her to work with Spanish-speaking elementary school children in order to help transition them into mainstream English classrooms. She didn’t speak any Spanish, but by semester’s end she knew enough to do conferences without a translator. “The kids taught me,” she says.

Most of what she’s learned about teaching has been ascertained on the job. “My teaching was all through games and song. Little kids, they’re sponges,” she says. Her experience as a mother has also informed her work in the classroom. “A lot of teaching foreign language comes from what parents do automatically. Just look at someone talking to a baby. You say, ‘Oh, look. Look at the ball. See how it bounces.’ That stuff comes to us naturally, I think.”

Marziali has worked extensively in bilingual classrooms. In 2004, she moved to Italy to teach Spanish and Italian to English-speaking children of American military personnel stationed there. This year, she moved again, this time to Germany, where she is working as an assistant principal at an American Department of Defense school.

At Walden University, Marziali is studying educational technology. She believes that educators shouldn’t malign technological advances. “There are these rules about not having your cell phone at school or taking your iPod out of your bag, but if these are things that kids are using, then why should we confiscate them? We need to find ways to integrate them into the curriculum,” she says.

For several years, she’s been teaching a computer program that is most often seen in business meetings: PowerPoint. Even with this, there is a family element: At the end of last year, Marziali had her first graders give PowerPoint slideshows about their lives and their families at an assembly with their parents, in Italian, no less.

At the end of his presentation, one shy boy started crying. “I couldn’t figure out why he was so upset, so I went over to see him, and he said he was crying because he was gonna miss me,” Marziali recalls. The moment turned into a group hug.