Cool Teacher: Melissa Porfirio

A National Teacher of the Year finalist on her whole-child approach to learning.

By Kim Greene
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

Home-Visit Primer Interested in giving home visits a try? Porfirio’s top five tips for success.

• Remember that the main goal of your visit is to learn as much about the child from the family as possible—not to come in as an expert and teach them.

• Communicate with the family ahead of time that you’re not checking in on their living situation. You can put families at ease by offering to meet in a public place, such as a park or library, if they prefer.

• If you have a large number of students, Porfirio recommends looking at the time you have and deciding which students will benefit most. “Teachers get caught up in, ‘If I’m doing it for one, I’m doing it for all,’” she says. “Fair doesn’t mean equal. Fair means getting what you need.”

• Depending on your objective, you might consider bringing a translator for families that don’t speak English.

• It’s okay to be a little uncomfortable when you start doing home visits. “If you’re looking for something different in your practice, it’s worth trying,” says Porfirio. “What doesn’t challenge you doesn’t change you.”

There are two kinds of teachers: those who have always known they were going to teach and those who find the profession through a back door. Melissa Porfirio, a first-grade teacher at Crestwood Elementary in Springfield, Virginia, and a 2014 National Teacher of the Year finalist, admits she is the latter. “I’ve never said, ‘I always played teacher with my sister in the basement.’ It wasn’t on my radar, but I knew I wanted to do something where I could affect change in the world.”

Q | You were selected Virginia Teacher of the Year and then recognized as one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year. What was that experience like?
A | I couldn’t believe when I won in my building and county. I recognize my strengths, but we’re all our own worst critics! I realized this when I went to Arizona for the National Teacher of the Year Program Conference and talked to these incredible teachers who didn’t see how amazing they are. Being able to share platforms and network with others who are passionate about education is a rare opportunity. It’s too bad more teachers don’t get the chance to do this.

Q | How does your background in social work impact the way you teach?
A | I consider the whole child. In social work, if you come to a family that has a problem, you never look at just one person. You have to see the system that operates around them. It’s the same for the children in our classes. What is happening for them outside of the school walls affects who they are in class. It’s never just about that kid sitting in front of me and her test score. We’ve been in this crazy period—standards, standards, standards. It doesn’t matter if they’re the Virginia Standards of Learning or if they’re the Common Core. We’ve placed too much focus and emphasis on standards, mastery, and rigor and not enough on human interaction and relationships.

Q | What does the Responsive Classroom method look like in your room?
A | I am the teacher I am because of Responsive Classroom. Morning meeting is a huge part of the day. Students come to the oval carpet—though we now call it the “Oval Office” since I’ve been to the White House. The meeting starts with the morning greeting. We look one another in the eye and welcome one another on a daily basis. After the morning greeting, students share with a partner, small group, or the class. Then there’s an activity, for movement and reenergizing. There are also team-building activities, things like making a spiderweb with a string, that challenge students to help one another. Finally, we read the morning message; you can put tons of language arts in it. But morning meeting truly sets the tone for the day. On days when I skimp, I notice it immediately. Students thrive on the routine and what it looks and sounds like to be a successful classroom.

Q | Back to school is an important time for setting rules. How do you lay the groundwork?
A | We develop classroom rules together. It starts with something called “hopes and dreams.” Then we talk about what we need to do in our room to achieve them. We brainstorm what our class should look like. Later, we talk about what it should sound like, things like being silent when we’re lining up. The final piece is how we want it to feel in here. Normally, students say things like “a happy, warm, friendly, exciting, and comfortable place.” Everything for the rest of the year goes back to that. It makes it easy to call them out on their choices. For example, “You said you wanted it to feel warm and kind in here. Are those words warm? Are they helping us feel kind?” We do a lot of reflections, and they’re capable of it. You’re not putting out as many fires. You still have them, but you can refer to what students wanted the class to look, sound, and feel like.

Q | Tell us about your home visits to students’ families.
A | That’s my special sauce. It’s one of the ways I engage students, by getting to know them and their families. There’s an initial visit with every student. It opens up the relationship and is usually centered around a math game. In Fairfax County, we have more than 100 languages present, and math translates universally. That visit is about building a rapport and a relationship, helping the family to see that I truly care about their child outside of school. The home visits last anywhere from an hour to four hours. I go with the flow. Sometimes Mom will have to leave for work. Or I’ll be there for four hours—I’ve even had an appetizer and dinner! It’s totally dependent on the child and the family. 


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