Lisa Orizotti is the leader of 25 six-year-olds — the members of her first grade class at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School in Anchorage. She is much admired by parents and fellow educators for her ability to inspire and form the hearts, minds and souls of those she affectionately calls the “little people.” Keeping the youngsters under control is an achievement on its own, but having them focused, engaged, and happy is something else.
“Students pay more attention when they are actively involved in learning,” Orizotti told the Catholic Anchor. “Our recent field trip to Great Harvest Bread Company was linked to a lesson about the science of bread baking, as well as reading the classic moral tale The Little Red Hen. When my students started writing their own Clifford the Big Red Dog books, we learned what it would be like to be an author and illustrator.”
For science and math, her class recently predicted how many pounds a pumpkin would weigh, estimated the circumference of the pumpkin, and then predicted the number of seeds inside.
“We then worked together to find the answers,” Orizotti explained. “This approach ensures that students are not only interested, but become more curious about the world around them, an excellent attribute to encourage in young learners.”
Orizotti has taught at Saint Elizabeth’s for nine years, but her teaching experience goes back much further. She taught at New Horizons Preschool in Anchorage for seven years, and elementary grades in Montana, her home state, for nine years prior to that. Saint Elizabeth’s, though, is her first foray into teaching at a faith-based school. Once afforded the opportunity to combine faith and teaching, there is no going back, she said.
In addition to teaching formal religion and catechism, Orizotti incorporates religious themes into her lessons throughout the school day. Children might learn a math lesson by counting animals on Noah’s ark, for example, or reading a book with a lesson about morals or virtue.
“Sometimes when I read a story with a character who isn’t acting nice, my students will speak up and say that he or she isn’t being ‘Christ-like’,” Orizotti noted. “The children openly weave their faith into our whole day.”
“Being able to connect faith with academics makes the whole circle complete,” she added. “The kids are very aware of who Jesus is and what choices Jesus wants for us in life. I don’t ever have to worry about offending anyone if we talk about Jesus. That’s why I teach here…I honestly don’t know if I could work again in an environment where faith wasn’t included.”
Orizotti is also an advocate for children acting as the “hearts and hands of God,” as she puts it. To this end, her students participate in community service projects. They may be only six years old, but Orizotti believes it is critical to begin teaching about service to others at a young age.
“One of my favorite field trips is our annual service project of collecting food donations and then delivering them to St. Francis House,” she said. “While there, the first graders dig right in and stock the food on shelves, bag potatoes and rice and learn about the importance of providing for others in need — that type of learning is just as important as math and spelling.”
PARTNERING WITH PARENTS
In a school known for its emphasis on parent involvement, Orizotti says such a partnership is critical to her students’ success.
“I feel spoiled when I talk about where I get to teach because I have amazing support from parents,” Orizotti said. “I know teachers who work in other schools who don’t feel that connection and it makes their job much more difficult … Parents and teachers are on the same journey and we want children to succeed, so working closely together only makes the path smoother.”
The family atmosphere is a key draw for Orizotti.
“I love the families here, the small community environment here. It’s why my husband Tony and I sent our own three children to this school,” she said.
Parents who have had children in Orizotti’s class quickly realize they will hear from her often.
“Weekly emails are the norm, though that is the minimum,” explained parent Kellie Thomson, whose two children both went through Orizotti’s class.
“Mrs. Orizotti is always sending personal updates about how your child is progressing, when they might have had an incident at school that could have made for a tough or exciting day, and making suggestions about what else your child might need to be successful,” Thomson recounted. “The communication is always personal, genuine, and sincere in her desire to make sure your child is living up to his or her maximum potential.”
St. Elizabeth’s leadership has high praise for Orizotti.
“Lisa is an amazing teacher,” Principal Kathy Gustafson observed. “She makes learning exciting and engaging for the students through her creativity. She is such a valuable staff member with years of experience in elementary education, and an inspiration to all of us at the school.”
WORKING WITH ‘THE LITTLE PEOPLE’
When pressed to list what she most enjoys about teaching, Orizotti’s face lit up.
“That’s easy! I knew since I was a little girl that I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “Working with little people who love you, appreciate you, and hug you makes me smile.”
She added: “Seeing the light switch turn on in a child’s mind when they learn a new concept like how to read a book or solve a math problem, makes my job worthwhile. I know that I have succeeded when that happens.”