5 questions for... Mary Elizabeth Fulco
WESTPORT — For Staples High School English teacher and student newspaper adviser Mary Elizabeth Fulco, being named Teacher of the Year by the school district last week was a high point after a difficult year.
Cody Thomas, an English teacher and Fulco’s fellow faculty adviser for the newspaper, died in January. His death was ruled a suicide. The rest of the school year, Fulco dealt with and helped her students cope with that trauma.
But for Fulco, those students are why she does the job.
Born in Connecticut, Fulco went to college at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, where she majored in English. She landed her first teaching job in Virginia, but three years later decided she wanted to return to her home state. Fulco applied for a job at Staples and is now in her eighth year at the high school.
“I can’t believe how quickly time has flown by, but it’s been really a wonderful experience,” she said.
Fulco holds a master’s degree in women’s studies and has completed the Northern Virginia Writing Project, which educates teachers on how to teach writing. This summer, she spent the month of July in Washington, D.C., at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Teaching of Shakespeare Institute.
Fulco chaperoned three Staples students on a trip to Singapore two summers ago, where she had the chance to meet teachers from all over the world.
“Staples spoils me,” Fulco said.
Fulco lives in Monroe with her wife, two dogs and two cats. She teaches one section of freshman English, one of AP Language for juniors and seniors and two sections of advanced journalism.
Q: What’s your favorite part about teaching at Staples?
A: The kids, the kids, the kids. They are a dream. These kids come so eager to learn, with so many talents, so many interests and they’re just a pleasure to teach. They come in and they’re ready to learn, they’re ready to go with you. And then I also inevitably always have students who are reluctant learners or who are struggling with English but they are still so incredible. My freshmen: I have the co-taught class and it’s one of my favorite classes that I teach. I always sign up to teach it because these kids come to me and whether they like reading or not, they’re all very desperate to learn and they’re desperate to succeed. When I have that breakthrough with a kid, there’s nothing better than that. It absolutely makes every effort that you make on their behalf worth it and they’re incredible, amazing children. I consider myself very fortunate to be here.
Q: Why is advising the student newspaper, Inklings, important to you?
A: If you were to look at my credentials, it might be questionable why I teach it, because I don’t have any background in journalism. I’m pretty open about it; it’s something that I learned on the job.
When I got here eight years ago, Stephen Rexford led the paper and was an incredible mentor to me, kind of just took me under his wing. He said, ‘You know what, you’re passionate, you’re interested. I bet you’d love journalism.’ So he invited me in to be an adviser and we have so much fun on layouts, and again, the kids own the paper. It’s theirs, it’s their creativity, it’s their work and there’s so much pride in them because it’s theirs.
So I guess what I really like is being the facilitator so they can do whatever they want to do. And so, after learning under Rexford, he left and went to the middle school and he started Ursus down there.
So now we have a great system; it’s amazing. He started a paper down there and we’re now getting kids freshman year that are passionate about journalism as a result of his work. So when I took over the paper, I had many years under other advisers to learn and to see how incredibly exciting and important the newspaper is and just how proud they are of the work that they do and the progress that they make from freshman year to senior year, when they really own it and they really understand and they’re amazing writers and they can talk to adults and have serious conversations.
Those are life skills and I think when we’re teaching journalism, it’s really about teaching them to be successful in life like almost no other class that’s offered in high school. So I’m really honored to be a part of that and to have kids come back from college or from work and tell me that journalism is still something that they draw upon in their regular life.
Q: What are some experiences teaching in Westport that are memorable for you?
A: I grew up on the opposite end of the state. I grew up in a small town called Putnam, Conn. And it’s a completely different world than Fairfield County. I remember arriving here and seeing the Smart Boards and seeing that if you wanted to order a book, you could order it. Just like that — no questions asked — you could get a book.
So the access to things and the support of education here is really quite remarkable. But I also think what I’ve learned since being here and what is memorable to me here is to keep in mind that kids are kids. These kids come to me and they are incredibly talented and they are incredibly driven but they also have needs and they have weaknesses. I think the moments that stand out to me are those one-on-one student-teacher relationships that get built over a period of time.
Journalism really helps me develop those long-term relationships with kids because I can have them for so many years. But sometimes it just happens in a class too. AP Language is one of those very intense classes where blood, sweat and tears are literally spilled in that classroom.
That bond that is created between kids and their teacher, those are the things that I remember and draw upon and get my energy from — really knowing these kids one on one is really remarkable.
Q: What does it mean to you to be named Teacher of the Year?
A: It’s hard to put into words, especially this year and the fact that it followed such a terrible year. Last year, my colleague and advanced journalism teacher committed suicide, and it was in January.
So I basically had half a year of dealing with that and kids struggling with that. Just hitting a very, very low point and really there is nothing that you can do about that, and then just struggling to find the strength every day to come in and do right by these kids and give of yourself and to be sure that you are there for them, as they are going through this really tough time too.
And then to then receive this acknowledgment, it’s a full swing to the other side. I can’t even say how touched and honored I am, especially knowing that I am only named this because of my colleagues’ recognition, which is just so meaningful to me to know that I have their support, their acknowledgement, their recognition that it was a very hard time, getting my kids through and getting myself through.
And also it’s wonderful to feel that appreciation for all the time and effort and hours and late nights that I’m here with these kids, that it doesn’t go unnoticed. I’ve been so moved by people who have emailed me — parents, students, former students, graduated students, faculty members.
I’ll be just walking down a hallway and people giving me a hug or telling me that they’ve appreciated what I’ve done, especially following such a terrible, difficult year. There are almost no words to describe how much that means to me.
Q: What are your favorite books and your favorite books to teach?
A: I like to read all sorts of things, but I’m an Austen fan and I’m a Shakespeare fan. I love the classics. I can get a really great chuckle out of Charles Dickens. So less about the modern readings, and I just devour the classics. I just absolutely adore them. (… For books I teach), I wrote my master’s thesis on “Frankenstein” and Mary Shelley and really love “Frankenstein.” “Pride and Prejudice” I have taught and really loved teaching. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” for a lot of kids it’s one of those books that they say, “Hey, I actually get this kid” or “Hey, I really like this book.”
For a lot of kids to have them even admit that they like it, that’s a breakthrough and something that gives me a lot of joy. Shakespeare is always fun because it gets them up and acting and that’s really interactive and great. I mean, there’s a reason I’m an English teacher. You don’t do this for the pay, you do this because you love it. You do this because you can find joy in whatever it is you’re teaching and I think it’s one of the things I love about working at Staples.
They don’t restrict you, they really give you the freedom to teach to your interests and to teach to your strengths, and that’s not something that every school system does. I think the kids are better because they have a teacher who really knows their stuff and gets to teach the things they really are passionate about. I think they’re so fortunate to have that.