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‘Teaching is her life’

Brooklyn kindergarten teacher is inspiration to students, colleagues
New York Teacher

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Every student gets a chance to participate in the morning routine.
Jonathan Fickies
Every student gets a chance to participate in the morning routine.

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Dance breaks punctuate the schedule in DaBreo’s classroom.
Jonathan Fickies
Dance breaks punctuate the schedule in DaBreo’s classroom.
When Karla Jones’ son Nathan started kindergarten at PS/IS 109 in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in September 2017, he spent most of his time crying. Jones remembers how his teacher, Zenzile DaBreo, sat her down and told her, “We’re going to come up with a plan, and if you work with me, he’ll be at the top of the class when he leaves.”

Sure enough, Nathan is now a thriving 2nd-grader — a testament, Jones believes, to DaBreo’s steady guidance.

“She is a dedicated, excellent teacher,” Jones says, “and she deserves every accolade you can think of.”

In November 2018, thanks to nominations from Jones and several other parents of DaBreo’s former students, DaBreo was honored with the Sanford Teacher Award as the “most inspirational teacher” in New York State.

“She is inspirational to work with,” says Stefanie Castagliola, a 1st-grade teacher at PS/IS 109. “Teaching is her life.”

Castagliola, who is new to 1st grade, has looked to DaBreo for guidance in setting up her classroom and planning her early childhood curriculum. But DaBreo’s magnetic personality in the classroom is what has made the biggest impression on her fellow educators.

“She’s so fun and sincere, and the way students look up to her is absolutely amazing,” says Nikki Palermo, a paraprofessional who has done student teaching in DaBreo’s classroom. “She’s a role model to me.”

DaBreo, who is in her fifth year of teaching, went into the profession with a clear vision of who she wanted to be as an educator.

“I made a promise to myself that I was going to be exactly who I needed when I was a kid,” she says. “I wanted to be understood, heard, loved, to feel safe and to love school. I treat my students like I wish someone had treated me.”

In DaBreo’s bright, warm classroom, that means doling out lots of hugs, daily dance parties and occasionally a dose of tough love.

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PS/IS 109 kindergarten teacher Zenzile DaBreo says she tries to embody the motto
Jonathan Fickies
PS/IS 109 kindergarten teacher Zenzile DaBreo says she tries to embody the motto, “Every child deserves a champion.”
“Remember, you’re the one in control,” she says soothingly but firmly to a student who is wiping away tears of frustration. “So I need you to make good choices right now.”

DaBreo sees building relationships with her students as the foundation for classroom success.

“We only have two rules in my classroom: be respectful and be responsible,” she says. “My students respect me because they know I respect them. Making them feel empowered and valued helps them to learn.”

Ashley Reliford, whose daughter, Jeneel, was in DaBreo’s kindergarten class last year, says DaBreo’s connection with her students is her strength.

“She grows different relationships with each and every one of her students,” Reliford says.

DaBreo works to make her classroom an oasis of joy for her students. Entering students are greeted by mellow, uplifting music — singer India.Arie is a class favorite. For the morning meeting, DaBreo plops herself on the carpet as part of the class circle. When she starts their morning chant by drumming her palms on her lap and repeating, “I’m so glad I’m here,” at a faster and faster tempo, the students hang on her every word and join her in a buoyant chorus.

“In order for a child to learn and have a productive day academically, we first have to take care of them socially and emotionally,” she explains.

So after a round of writing practice on dry erase boards, it’s time for a dance break. In a red suit jacket and bright red heels, DaBreo shimmies alongside her students, who adoringly watch every move she makes.

DaBreo believes in setting her students up for success. During a writing activity in which students compare different characters from two picture books, she distributes three different kinds of paper that reflect varying levels of writing ability. When struggling students approach to present their work, she takes detailed notes to ensure their words are accurately recorded.

She’s also worked to develop classroom routines that instill a sense of leadership and independence in students. When the classroom phone rings, it’s not DaBreo but a kindergartner who answers it with a confident, “K-204, how can I help you?”

“She has command of her classroom in a way that gives autonomy to the children,” says PS/IS 109 Chapter Leader Martha Murray.

Above all, DaBreo says she seeks to embody the philosophy of educator Rita Pierson, who said in a TED Talk, “Every child deserves a champion.”

“Being a champion means that you show love and attention to children even when they’re showing unlovable behavior,” she says. “Those are the children who need the most love.”