Renata Relyea has carried a few roles in the district of North Colonie. She started as a fourth grade teacher at Forts Ferry Elementary School and then transitioned to an instructional coach for math and science. Currently, she is remotely teaching sixth grade science. She carries a master’s degree in educational psychology from The College of Saint Rose. She was born in the country of Czechoslovakia and escaped at the age of 4 with her mother and aunt by secretly traveling at night by foot to Italy. There she resided in a refugee camp in Italy and came to the U.S. legally through the sponsorship of kind individuals at First Presbyterian Church in Johnstown, NY.
Q: What is the biggest challenge to teaching remotely? Do you see it having any place in our education system going forward?
A: One of the greatest challenges is taking a hands-on course such as science and making it as engaging and fun as you would if you were in person. I try to find as many activities as I can, including investigations they can perform independently with common materials they find in their homes. I also try to incorporate projects so they can have fun and really immerse themselves in the science concepts. Students never cease to amaze me with their level of intelligence, talent, creativity and eagerness to learn. Going forward, I do see it has a place in our education system. Let me be clear, nothing can replace the face to face interactions and quality of learning from being together in the same space. I have learned to read facial expressions and body language so I know immediately when to clarify a topic or when to help a struggling student. This is not so easy over Zoom, especially when you have some students with their cameras off. However, I do see this can be helpful for creating a more flexible learning environment for families with challenging medical situations or students with jobs.
Q: How are the students — and teachers — dealing with COVID-19?
A: As well as can be expected. Some students are thriving just fine and some students are struggling more than others. I worry about my students all the time. I want them to have opportunities to make new friendships as well as deepen the ones they already have. I know that my colleagues and I have been working incredibly hard to build and maintain relationships with our students. This is vital in developing trust and a sense of safety for everyone. There is nothing more important in the world to me than creating a calm space as well as a space of trust. In my class, we talk about many things beyond science. We take the time to learn about each other so we can develop a sense of normalcy. As for the teachers and staff, we are working incredibly hard to develop lessons for remote learning and hybrid learning. We are the trailblazers for this new format of education and we definitely do our best to lift and support each other during this time. This pandemic has also created an enormous sense of gratitude for in-person school. I cannot wait to see my students outside of Zoom!
Q: That must have been a harrowing experience, travelling from Czechoslovakia. What is it you remember most about the journey?
A: I remember a sense of fear. My mom always told me that I sensed the intense danger of what we were doing so I knew to remain quiet. If I made a sound, we could have all been captured, jailed and/or killed. I also remember being told to “eat as much as you can now because you never know when we would see food again.” I also remember falling and scraping my knee at the fountains of Italy. This may sound strange, but everything seemed “gray” to me, as if there was no color.
Q: What were you escaping from? Escaping to?
A: We were escaping political persecution from communism. My family refused to join the communist party and we were constantly being punished for it in some way. We had property confiscated as well as a business. We had family members interrogated and jailed. What they did to my family was inexcusable and honestly, I weep every time I think about it. My mother also wanted me to have a life of choices. She wanted me to be able to choose what I wanted to be when I grow up. She also wanted me to choose where I wanted to live. We didn’t have those choices. Food was also a source of stress. You always had to stand in long lines for everything with very few choices to pick from. Getting an orange or an apple was an enormous treat for Christmas! To really help you understand this, when my grandfather visited us in the U.S. many years ago, he was utterly shocked by Price Chopper. He never saw so much food in his life. He actually stood there and cried.
Q: Who is one person, alive or dead, you would like to have lunch with and what would you talk about?
A: This question is always interesting to me as I have answered this at social gatherings before. I have responded differently, I guess, based on my mood of the moment. I have previously answered Jesus, Oprah, Robin Williams, Buddha, Harriett Tubman and Maya Angelou. Today, at this moment, it would be my grandmother. I would love to hear her stories about all of my ancestors, the trials, the joys, the courage, and beauty of my family. I remember how much she loved me and how she always made me feel loved. I want to know HER colorful story in rich detail. I really miss her.
If you would like to see someone featured in Five Questions contact Jim Franco at 518-878-1000 or [email protected]