DIRECTV honors Teacher Stories winner Joan Colalillo

  • Nov 13, 2014

Joan Colalillo DirecTV 2

For some time now, we’ve been telling you about DIRECTV’s ongoing engagement with the social action platform TakePart, specifically, their brilliant “Teacher Stories” initiative whereby students were invited to spotlight a teacher who’s had an impact on their lives.

More than 850 teachers have been honored, and last month, of that number, five teachers were selected by DIRECTV as winners for their outstanding achievements in math. Each received free DIRECTV service for a year, and there were also cash prizes for schools as well as sponsorship of a math project and/or a math-related field trip through

We were so intrigued by the praise heaped upon these winning teachers that we decided to learn more.

Meet Joan Colalillo (right), 1st-grade math teacher at Penny Road Elementary in Cary, North Carolina. She’s also taught 3rd and 4th grade and has an infectious enthusiasm for what she does.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What made you want to become a teacher?

When I was younger I was told by my parents that I wasn’t going to be able to go to college, so I entered the business world instead. I worked for a while in corporate America in administrative/marketing areas, even in NYC. However, I began to realize that my passion wasn’t there – it was rooted in my childhood dreams of being a teacher. So, I began going to school at night and worked during the day while raising a family, too. It was a long road but it is a story that I can share with my students about perseverance.

What have been the highlights of your career and maybe some of the biggest challenges?

Once I graduated, I decided that I could, in fact, realize my dreams, so I continued on to finish my Masters of Education degree, with a Reading Specialist certification. Then, I decided to tackle National Boards and passed! I became a National Board Certified teacher last year in Early Middle Childhood literacy. This past year, I surpassed even my own aspirations and was chosen to be a part of NC Governor’s Teacher Network, writing lesson plans for our teachers across the state, while continuing to work full time.

I am now in my 7th year of teaching and I am back in first grade. I love every minute with my “lovebugs” and they know it! Being named Teacher of Year at my previous school was another highlight, however being nominated by parents for this award is just confirmation of the hard work I do every single day to go above and beyond for my students and their families.

My biggest challenge is always finding enough money personally to do all the many fun and engaging things I want to do for them.

 Why do you love to teach math, and why do you think students need a solid foundation in the subject?

I love teaching math because it is so hands-on and really engages all learners. So many students struggling in, say, reading, can find success in math because it is so much more concrete. They can use manipulatives and become tactile learners to problem-solve and be critical thinkers. That is not as easy to do in other subject areas.

I love the confidence, excitement and joy that math success brings to my students. I love to see them get creative in the ways they approach a problem.

When my 3rd and 4th graders didn’t have a solid foundation in number sense and fluency, it truly impacted the curriculum that I needed to teach them and it was very difficult to fill in the gaps for students who missed that earlier foundation years before. Now, back in first grade, I hold high expectations for my students, knowing full well just how important my job is for their future success. It is a responsibility I hold with high regard as I do my job day in and day out.

Tell us about some of the ways in which you’ve engaged your students; how you’ve helped them reach that all-important “A-ha!” moment when they truly grasp a concept.  

I find fun and engaging ways to teach. My philosophy is that learning can be fun. Yes, it’s work, but I want my students to not only learn something for a day or week—I want them to retain it. One way I like to do that is with songs.

For example, students often mix up area and perimeter. But through a fun rap song I found online, my students were able to get up, get dancing and remember that fun song in their heads. I could literally see some of them in their seats bouncing to the rhythm as we took an assessment and they sang the song in their heads!

Then there are the times when students would realize that they were using multiple content areas – like, “WOW, Mrs. C, I just used reading in math!” Or, when we used live worms to investigate how worms react to light, and then we measured the distance the worms traveled on their desks. We had studied how to measure accurately for a while, and then I made them use it. It’s so much more powerful.

With first-graders, it comes in the forms of teaching addends and sums; and helping struggling students to identify the unknown.

After a multitude of math games and fun ways to teach addition and subtraction, something still wasn’t clicking for some students. That’s when I realized I could also use my balance/scale to really emphasize how the “=” sign meant that everything before the equal sign and everything after had to be the same value. We used counters and cubes and realized that we could find the sum by making sure our scale was in balance. Their eyes glistened a little as that spark of recognition hit! I was like, finally, they’ve got it! What a rewarding moment after weeks of work.

Being a math teacher is an effort in dedication, and constantly trying to find a variety of tools and strategies that students can use to help them be problem solvers. It’s games, interactive Smartboard lessons, manipulatives, songs, dancing, physical act-outs (like people ten frames) and so much more!

What have you learned that other teachers might find useful?

No matter what the grade level the most important thing you can do for your students is build relationships with them. If you get to know them, their likes and their dislikes, show how much you love and care for them, they will try ten-times harder to reach your expectations. Whether it’s math, reading or science, I challenge students to “raise the bar” at every turn. I encourage them to continue their learning at home and reward that extra work back at school. I already have around nine first-grade students that complete extra homework on their own almost nightly. Not because I ask them to . . . but because I have tried to inspire that love of learning inside them and they know just how proud I am of them.

Games and creative ways to get your material across are just a daily part of my teaching, making everything authentic and real to their world is even more effective. But nothing provides more of punch than the relationship I work on every single day with my students. None leave at the end of the day without a hug and an “I love you!” It could be the only time some of them hear it or get a hug that day. You just never know!

Do you have a favorite resource or website that you use for lesson planning or professional development?

Honestly, my favorite resource right now is Teacherspayteachers. Teachers that are in the field every day teaching their standards are the best sources for great material. I can often find great ideas on that site, as well as other wonderful teachers sharing their ideas on Pinterest!

I always LOVE a great idea!

Right now our school is implementing Model Drawing through Singapore Math, as well as stressing number bonds, ten frames and compensation to solve and compute. I’ve attended training with my principal, Mary Bohr, who is insightful and research-minded when she brings ideas the staff. I was invited to attend that conference, and the model drawing strategy for problem solving is eye opening. I only wish I had learned this way when I was in school. I highly recommend anyone looking into model drawing to take a workshop. You’ll be glad you did. It’s extremely effective for students that need that Concrete-Pictorial-Abstract representation in math.

Our kids deserve to be top in the world in math, too!


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 —Stephen Vincent D’Emidio