It was August of 1994 when math teacher Shonya Petrelli stood in front of her first classroom of students at Newton Middle School — she admits to being nervous and excited to begin her dream job — when the reality of the moment hit her. “I can remember that first day of teaching, looking around the class, seeing all of those young faces and thinking…I’ve got a home here. This is where I belong. At that instant I knew I loved them so much — but would I have enough to give all of them the best that they deserve?”
The answer, now 23 years later, is a definitive and resounding ‘yes!’
Just ask James O’Tremba, the Littleton Public Schools principal at Newton for the past 10 years. “I’ve been in education for 32 years. I’ve been a teacher, counselor, dean and principal…and she’s the best I’ve ever worked with. With her, it’s about her interactions with the kids inside and outside of the school. Kids want to be in her class. We had a little girl start school Monday and that afternoon as she was going home she told me, “my favorite teacher is Mrs. Petrelli!” That didn’t surprise me at all.”
As a young girl, Petrelli had aspirations to be a doctor after seeing her sick father improve with a physician’s guidance. “The doctor that oversaw his treatment was the most amazing example of care and compassion I could imagine. I knew he would do everything possible to help my dad, and I wanted to do that too. Later, when I realized I didn’t have enough time to go to medical school and be a mom, I still wanted to be able to take care of anyone that needed my help, and the classroom was the perfect setting.” When Petrelli started her studies at Metro State, she promised herself that she would complete a B.S. in science with a minor in math in less than four years — she finished it in two years. Her most recent degree is a Master of Integration of Technology.
At Newton, Petrelli teaches 8th grade math to students who require a more accelerated pace. This means her classroom can have 5th, 6th and 7th graders enrolled in the accelerated class with 8th grade material. “It’s a rigorous exploration of the prescribed comprehensive math curriculum as laid out by LPS, Colorado State Standards and Common Core. I include several large-scale projects that not only apply the mathematical
concepts to be mastered, but get the kids to apply purposeful thinking to the applications of real life success.” Petrelli feels it’s important that readers of this article know that she is just part of an incredibly talented and dedicated team of mathematics teachers at Newton, and is proud of their work and honored to be among them.
A popular project in her class is The Pythagorean Spiral, or Wheel of Theodorus. It lets students express their knowledge of math with the Pythagorean Spiral while discovering patterns of ratios. They have to create the mathematical drawing, determine the hypotenuse, show their work, look for patterns, write about their discovery and attempt to explain the ‘why’ of what they have found. They also study contiguous triangles, geometry, square roots, rational numbers, patterns, Pi, right angles, isosceles triangles, hypotenuses, legs and angles. Additionally, they do a historical study of Theodorus — using him as an example of a person called upon to ‘think’ and to prove, through math and its patterns, the existence of what was unknown and to discover an underlying pattern and system that holds the truth of what is seen in math; or in Petrelli’s words, “the beauty of math in the world around us.”
“At first the kids are incredulous, looking around asking themselves, ‘what is she talking about?’ But the beauty of math is everywhere. It's in what we have not taken time to look at, it's within our own body structure, and in the world of nature around us. It creates order and gives purpose and meaning, and its structure executes an exact purpose. It's all truly wondrous. So much of the wonder and mystery of life is constructed by mathematical principle and pattern,” said Petrelli.
Mrs. Petrelli brings laughter to her classroom, with Newton students Cadence A. and Alexander X.
To maximize learning, she has created a classroom where the kids feel safe, where they can be vulnerable and supportive of one another. They become a community. During a group math problem, bits of conversations between students include, ‘hey, let me help you with that’ and ‘that’s really a good job!’ There are plenty of smiles with comfortable chatter and laughter, but when it gets too loud, Petrelli simply says (along with a smile) “I’m waiting...” and the noise quickly settles.
With all of her teaching experience, Petrelli has mastered classroom management, but has also learned what kids need beyond the instructional bits. “What I would like for every student to know is that each of them...who they are as a person and as a learner...matters!!” she said. “What they have within them and who they are has great value and meaning, and they truly have much to give to this world. I want them to know that if they believe in themselves, work hard, take challenges and safe risks, their lives can hold tremendous growth, wonder and contentment.”
And her kids respond to this style. According to O’Tremba, The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) considers a median of 50 to be typical growth for a school or group, and the statewide median growth percentile in each subject and grade is the 50th percentile. The median growth percentile for Petrelli’s students is the 85th percentile. Additionally, 85.5% of students had a growth percentile of 50 or above. “Her growth is as good as it gets,” O’Tremba said. In addition to her full-time teaching role, she is a Member of the District PLC Building Leadership Team, is a Math Olympiad Sponsor and is a National Junior Honor Society Co-Sponsor. She organizes trips to a local nursing home so that students can visit with the senior residents and takes kids whitewater rafting during the summer.
She helps mentor new teachers, and shares hugs endlessly, even with the principal. “If I’m having a hard day, O’Tremba said, “she will come by and give me a hug and let me know that it’ll be okay…I mean nobody cares for the principal like that — we’re expected to have bad days!”
O’Tremba said, “She is definitely the most genuine, caring person I’ve ever worked with. She doesn’t just talk it, she lives it, she models it. She doesn’t just do it here, she does it outside of school too, always going the extra mile for somebody.”
“Teachers will tell you that it’s a tiring job because honestly, doing it with integrity, you need to be on your game and have your eyes open all the time. So when I look around the room I try to read each face and see what they need — Are they okay? Do they need something? Are they hearing me? Do I need to go back and visit with that child? Maybe that one needs a hug later.” Petrelli said.
Ella Wheeler, a 7th grader in Petrelli’s math class, shared her feelings about Petrelli as a teacher. “I know I’m really lucky to be in Mrs. Petrelli’s class, because she’s awesome! She makes me think, makes our lessons fun and she’s always encouraging us. I just love her, and I know she loves me.”
For the thousands of students that have filled her classroom since that first day in 1994, there is no question that her passion for teaching has made a generation of students better; evidenced by the number of former students that drop by during the year to visit her. And while the value of a teacher is something that is experienced differently by each student, the ingredients are the same for their success.
In Petrelli’s own words, “Good teachers must have a capacity to care about the lives of the children and I have been blessed to be in the company of many dedicated teachers who create educational instruction that meets the needs of a diverse student population daily. It’s an honor to teach, look after, guide, nurture, challenge and hold accountable these young hearts and young minds. I want them to know that I love them and care for them, but that I also have high expectations for them and expect them to work towards a level of excellence and growth, academically and personally, not only in the classroom while I have them, but for the rest of their lives. I sincerely hope I have been helpful in their growth and I want them to know how grateful I am that they allowed me to be a part of their journey. My life is better because of them. It’s that simple.”
Article and photographs courtesy of Bill Youmans