First-Grader's Joy Drives A Future Teacher

Cassandra "Cassie" Matalavage '17, '18G still remembers a boy at the after-school tutoring program who refused to do any work. The first-grader had heard from his family and teachers that he "wasn't the smartest tool in the shed." He hated school.

"He just didn't believe in himself," says Matalavage, who has tutored elementary school students through Nazareth's Partners for Learning program for four years. "I remember telling him, we'll figure it out." After studying spelling together, he excitedly told her he did well on a spelling test and that his family and teachers would believe in him now: "I got my first 100!"

Matalavage says, "I was part of that. The joy that he got gave me such joy."

Rochester Teachers Association features Cassie

    Cassandra Matalavage connects with her students and emphasizes hands-on lessons at School 9. (2019)

    Inspired by her grandfather's struggle to speak clearly after a stroke, Matalavage had first thought of becoming a speech-language pathologist and helping elderly residents in nursing homes. But her tutoring experience — a part-time job that also fulfilled Nazareth's experiential learning requirement — led her to discover that she wants to teach.

    It's a great feeling to enter the Southwest Area Neighborhood (SWAN) community center in Rochester several times a week with other Nazareth students and have first- and second-graders rush to hug you and ask to work with you, says Matalavage.

    "I realized my calling was more with kids than with the elderly. It's really rewarding to have that feeling that they're looking up to you."

    The kids "really want to learn"

    Her tutoring experience gave her a new perspective on the lives of low-income families, on her own skills and strengths, and on how she can influence the lives of others. "I've noticed that the little kids I work with at SWAN really want to learn," says Matalavage, who was promoted to a site coordinator for Nazareth's tutoring program. "As tutors, we're able to show them that they have the potential to succeed in life and be whatever they want to be."

    Adam Lewandowski, associate director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Nazareth, loves seeing and hearing how students' community work expands awareness, challenges beliefs, and develops relationships with people from different backgrounds.

    "To me, that's the crux of it. That's the learning that occurs outside of a classroom," he says. Lewandowski leads small-group discussions and assigns written reflections — part of meeting the experiential learning requirement — for Matalavage and other students. Support from Lewandowski and his Center for Civic Engagement teammates is one of the backbones to her success, says Matalavage.

    Reflection crystalizes discoveries

    Matalavage says those reflections helped crystallize what she learned. As she wrote about her role, she realized she was not there just to help with homework but also to be a role model and friend. "We're building a relationship with them and showing they can be someone in life," Matalavage says. "I never realized how big an impact we had on the students until I reflected on it."

    In one reflection essay, Matalavage wrote that a young girl told another tutor about her home being broken into. "If she cannot feel safe in her own home, how can she feel safe at all?" Matalavage wrote. Another student told Matalavage that her mother works long hours and can't help her with school work. "As a tutor, I feel we have a responsibility to be there for them and not just simply be their tutor."

    That awareness changed how she approached her tutoring time when she returned as a sophomore. She still helped with homework, but she intentionally asked students how their day was and took a more playful, personal approach. "I engage with them more," she says.

    And they, in turn, engage with her. One boy even offered to help Matalavage with her homework — until he saw how thick her college textbook was.

    As a sophomore, Matalavage switched her major to elementary education. She added Spanish — first as a minor and then as a double major — spurred by her positive teaching experience while studying abroad in Valencia, Spain.

    Tutoring at a neighborhood center

      Service trip exposed what many take for granted

      One of her most powerful college experiences came on a service trip to Nicaragua, where she and other students volunteered in an orphanage, teaching English for a week. She saw children who didn't have enough food, had no electricity, and didn't have enough water to wash regularly. "I never realized how privileged I was. It's changed my perspective on life."

      Nazareth's Center for Life's Work — which includes the Center for Civic Engagement, Career Services, Internships and career coaches — helps students integrate classroom and service experiences with career preparation. The collaborative process often includes adjusting plans as experiences and learning help students discover or refine their understanding of what they're passionate about.

      Nazareth's career services staff connected Matalavage to job recruiting events, which led to two teaching job offers before she graduated. She declined those to go to grad school at Nazareth, taking advantage of a Teacher Opportunity Corps (TOC) grant and a clinical assistantship that together cover the cost of tuition. The clinical assistantship brings her into a second-grade bilingual class at Rochester's School 12 two full days a week, where she is enjoying conducting research on how short movement breaks affect students' learning and engagement. Partway through her master's degree, after a challenging job interview in Spanish, she was offered a job as a bilingual teacher to start in September 2018. She will complete her degree and add a bilingual extension first.

      "I'm excited for the journey and for learning with my students. You teach them the facts and academics and to become self-sufficient, and they in return teach you so much. It's such a joy to see how happy they get when they tell you something you didn't know," she says. "They're so open and kind-hearted. You could be a having the worst day and you walk into class ... and it all gets erased. Kids are just amazing."

      She hopes to teach students that their future holds great possibilities, just as she told the Rochester students at SWAN.

      "I want them to realize that they have a place on this earth," says Matalavage. "They're special and unique in their own way, and they can be extremely successful in whatever they want to be in life, just like my mom and my grandpa taught me."

      Born in China, Matalavage was adopted and raised in the Albany, N.Y., area by a single mom who "gave me the opportunity to have this really amazing life in this country."

      Matalavage's grandfather, who passed away in 2013, was like a father to her, a best friend, and an inspiration. She believes he would approve of her career plans.

      "He believed in me, and that made me feel I could be something someday," says Matalavage.

      Cassandra "Cassie" Matalavage '17 poses at Nazareth College

      Cassie Matalavage, spring of senior year. She went on for a graduate degree and had a teaching job lined up before she graduated, teaching special education students at a Rochester elementary school, where she incorporates lots of hands-on activities.

      It's clear she connects well with her students. "The amount of times I've been called Mom in this room is insane," she says in a Rochester Teachers Association video about her first year of teaching (on this page). In classroom discussions to work out conflicts, "The kids always say, this is our family."

      Her Naz experiences

      • Studied abroad in Valencia, Spain
      • Service trip to Washington, D.C., focused on homelessness
      • Service trip to Nicaragua
      • Four years of tutoring students at Southwest Area Neighborhood (SWAN) community center through Partners for Learning.
      • Winner of 2017 Alumni Senior Service Award, chosen by the Nazareth Alumni Board "for providing outstanding service to the community and being a model for civic engagement."