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Lifelong East Haven resident and Yellowjackets’ alum Liz Franco-Spano was recently selected as the town’s Teacher of the Year. (Photo courtesy of Liz Franco-Spano )
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Liz Franco-Spano has lived in the same East Haven home since she was born. A dedicated member of her community, Liz has also been teaching in the town’s school system for the past 35 years. This year, Liz’s teaching efforts earned her town-wide and state-wide recognition when she was named the 2020 East Haven Teacher of the Year.
Liz is a physical education and health teacher at both Momauguin and Ferrara elementary schools. She found out she had won her award via a Zoom call as animated fireworks flashed across the screen. Liz says that winning Teacher of the Year “means everything” to her and that she was honored to be chosen amongst a talented group of East Haven educators.
For Liz, teaching has always been about instilling life lessons to her students. In her 35 years in education, Liz has used her personal experience to implement one specific lesson that she feels both students and teachers alike must come to understand.
“One of my big things is to be kind and not to bully. I frown upon that. You never know what anybody is going through,” Liz says. “I know that growing up, not having a dad, it was difficult at school. Being an athlete, as a female, sometimes I was bullied and called a tomboy. I’ve always focused on that in school. I don’t want any kid to feel the way I did. That’s like a pet peeve of mine. Always be kind.”
Liz, a Class of 1979 alum, was a member of the softball, girls’ basketball, and girls’ swimming teams at East Haven High School. She was a captain for the basketball and swim squads and a four-year letter-winner in all three sports. In her senior year, Liz played for the first Yellowjackets’ girls’ basketball team to make the State Tournament. Liz was inducted into the East Haven Alumni Association Hall of Fame, an organization of which she is now the president, in 1997.
After graduating, Liz attended Southern Connecticut State University, where she played softball and basketball. During her sophomore year, Liz suffered a torn ACL while playing a pickup basketball game, ending her career.
When her playing days prematurely ended, Liz began to focus on the next stage of her life: becoming a teacher. She started at the middle school level before teaching at the high school and, eventually, elementary school. While working with kids of all different age groups, Liz always made an effort to connect with every student she met and help them in any way she could.
“I miss teaching high school, because I love teaching health. There’s a lot of students that come into school with mental illness now. I miss doing all that,” says Liz. “Middle school was the toughest. It’s a hard age group for a lot of kids. In elementary school, I teach physical education, and the kids love phys ed. It’s like I’m the mayor of the school. It’s different at every level.”
Diane MacKinnon has been Liz’s principal at Momauguin Elementary School for the past four years. MacKinnon calls Liz a great colleague and says that her being named East Haven’s Teacher of the Year is “long overdue.”
“Liz is such a dedicated teacher. She loves her profession, but she really loves the kids and the East Haven community,” MacKinnon says. “Our kids are so fortunate to have her. I’m so fortunate to have her on my staff. I know that I can go to her and she’ll never say no. She’s a team player and we are really proud of her. She’s a great person and a really dedicated and strong teacher.”
Outside of teaching, Liz participates in various camps and multiple fundraisers in East Haven. She worked at the East Haven Day Camp for 12 years and is now the director of a summer camp at the Silver Sands Beach Club. Liz says that working with kids year-round “is what I like to do,” and that she never gets tired of doing it.
In terms of fundraising, Liz played a monumental role in helping fellow East Haven resident Tracy Fucci obtain wipes to clean her dialysis machine. Fucci, who is blind, was unable to acquire wipes on her own. Liz posted on her Facebook page, asking if anyone could donate. Within a few days, Liz had helped secure 30 jars of wipes for Fucci. Three weeks after Liz’s Facebook post, Fucci was able to get a kidney transplant. Liz says that Fucci “is doing really well.”
“She is doing fantastic. I am so happy for her. I told her, when I got interviewed for the news, ‘You’re going to get your transplant. I feel it coming,’” says Liz. “I’m involved in stuff like that. If somebody needs something in the community, I enjoy doing it. I enjoy helping other people. My mom [Elizabeth Pellegrino] is 96 years old, and she has inspired me in every way possible. She raised five kids. She always said, ‘You always give back, and you always help.’”
Helping out the members of her community is a major part of who Liz is. Having lived in East Haven her entire life, Liz says that it’s a privilege to lend a hand to her fellow residents and an honor to be selected as Teacher of the Year in her hometown.
“It means everything. I love this town. I just love everything about it,” says Liz. “I love the shoreline. I love the people. I love the community. My husband [David] planned a parade for me, and it was just overwhelming. Being picked among the teachers in this town, that’s an honor in itself. There’s so many deserving teachers.”
In November, Liz is going to attend an event that will recognize all of the Teacher of the Year recipients in the state. An award will be presented to Connecticut’s Teacher of the Year, and that person will then be in contention for the National Teacher of the Year Award.
As she moves forward in her career, Liz plans to continue adhering to her golden rule and wants her fellow educators to do the same. Liz knows that it’s important to always be empathetic and try to understand what each student is dealing with.
“As teachers, we have to move with the times and move with the change. There’s a lot of change going on. But still, you never know what a kid is going through when they come into school,” Liz says. “I know that from growing up. Sometimes that kid is upset about something, and you don’t know. I always tell teachers that. Always do professional development. You have to be willing to change. You have to be kind and be understanding of your students. If you can’t understand them, it’s hard to teach. It’s not just about teaching. It’s about life lessons.”
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