Faculty Profile: Ursula Amatrudo, PreK 3 Head Teacher
January 13, 2021
Tell us about your path to Léman.
I grew up in Staten Island. In high school, I was part of an early teaching program where we would go into elementary school classrooms around the island and we would teach reading and writing skills. I loved working with children, but I didn’t think I wanted to be a teacher. I went to college at Fairleigh Dickinson University where I studied communication studies with a minor in broadcasting. While I was there, I got a job as a counselor at Camp Léman because I had experience working with children and I needed a summer job while I was in college. I worked that summer job while I continued studying communications. Then I started working at NBC at the breaking news desk, which was my dream job. I was there the day that Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy. It was the best day ever to work in TV news! But every day I cried that I wasn’t working with children. I hated sitting at the desk and I missed summer camp! So I decided then that I did want to become a teacher.
While I was working at Camp Léman, I was also a substitute teacher at Léman and I loved it. I left NBC and I started working at a small preschool on Staten Island while I got my degree in early childhood education at Touro College. I taught Kindergarten at a few different independent schools, and then one day I decided it was time to kind of come home to Léman! Luckily there was an opening in PreK 3 and I applied and was hired for the job.
What appealed to you about teaching when you were younger?
I was very much shaped by the teachers that I had. My preschool teacher instilled this sense of wonder and learning within me. I don't remember kindergarten or first grade, but I remember going to preschool and just the love of learning that my pre-K for teacher sparked in me, which is really special. That teacher set me up for success in learning. I always loved school after that. And I wanted to help kids love school, too.
Did you ever consider teaching other grades or were you always set on PreK?
There is something about these littlest learners, they just capture my heart. I don't think I could ever go above kindergarten, but you never know where teaching will take you, but I do see myself staying in pre-K throughout my career.
What is it about PreK 3 in particular that you enjoy?
Some of them have come from daycares or small preschool programs, but, for many of them, it's their first time being out of their house for an extended period. They're figuring out who they are in this new community. And for a lot of them, PreK 3 is when that first little flame flickers for learning, where maybe we're not learning to read and we're not learning that one plus one makes two, but they are learning how to be part of a community, how to function in a classroom, and they're just beginning to learn new concepts. At this age, they are so uniquely themselves and I love being a part of that. They're really coming into their own right now.
What changes do you see from the beginning of the PreK 3 year to the end?
I see a huge shift in their confidence. A lot of them come into PreK 3 very reserved and timid. I always say the first month of pre-K three is the quietest month of my life. They don't know each other yet. They don’t know the teachers or the classroom. So, you get to see them develop their personality and build confidence in themselves. That confidence is really what we work on in pre-K three. And by the end of the year, they are confident and so ready for PreK 4.
What do you like about teaching at an IB school and Léman specifically?
I love the whole child approach that we have here at Léman, and I think that that does come through from our IB program. In early childhood, we’re not just focused on teaching early academic or social-emotional skills. We are focused on educating the whole child. And I appreciate that because we’re creating global citizens that are ready to go forth in the world. You can't do that if you're just teaching to one part of them, you have to work on all the parts. I like the freedom to do that. And I like the community feel, especially in early childhood, it does feel like we are one big team. We are all working together to get these kids through their educational journey.
What's your educational philosophy?
I am a play-based educator. To truly be a play-based educator, you have to be committed to letting children play their way, not play in the way you want them to. I think that when we give children ample time to play in the classroom to interact and build that social-emotional piece. If you are truly committed to a play-based classroom, the time that the children spend playing is also learning time, rather than just the times that we sit and work on a lesson. If you can approach your lessons from a place of play, it helps the children feel in control of their day.
You learn a lot about a child through play and they can learn a lot about their environment through play. For example, when we learn about animals, we have a dramatic corner and I flip that totally into a veterinarian's office. We have x-rays of animals on the wall, and the children use tools to explore their toy animals. But when you let them experience something through play, they're taking it in on their own terms and it just really helps, and it’s more palatable learning for them. We have to meet them where they are and they're three and four when I have them, so getting to them through play is the most natural way to get there.