Russillo: ‘This is a huge shock’

Russillo: ‘This is a huge shock’

Smithfield High School chemistry teacher and science department head Elizabeth Russillo was named Rhode Island Teacher of the Year, and was celebrated during a school-wide assembly last Thursday. (Breeze photo by Jacquelyn Moorehead)
Smithfield educator named R.I. Teacher of the Year

SMITHFIELD – The Smithfield High School gym was loud with excitement as state and local officials announced Smithfield High School chemistry teacher and science department chairwoman Elizabeth Russillo as the 2020 Rhode Island Teacher of the Year last Thursday, May 23.

The day’s festivities began as a celebration of Smithfield High School’s accomplishments in the Career and Technical Education field, but changed when Gov. Gina Raimondo said she had another reason for being at the school.

“I don’t think you have the governor here just to talk about career and technical education. I’m here because of the amazing Mrs. Elizabeth Russillo, the 2020 (Rhode Island) Teacher of the Year,” Raimondo said.

Raimondo said Russillo was selected for the top honor because she is the embodiment of innovation and excellence in the classroom. Russillo has worked at SHS since 2002, and led the science department since 2010.

“Elizabeth Russillo embodies both of these characteristics in all she does, and that shines through in her students,” Raimondo said.

She said Russillo’s enthusiastic participation in and out of the classroom is commendable, a statement prompting cheers from the more than 200 students sitting in the bleachers. From teaching math, science, and coaching tennis, Raimondo said Russillo “does it all, and does it well.”

Russillo, a 38-year-old Johnston resident, said the announcement came as a shock. She bombarded with cheers and hugs from staff and her family. Her husband, SHS Spanish teacher Steve Russillo, and their two daughters, Gabriella and Brooklyn, joined the big winner for an embrace after the announcement.

“This is a huge shock,” Russillo said. She said she was flattered for the acknowledgment.

“It’s amazing. It’s cool. I’ve been really fortunate to work with the teachers in this district and outside the district,” she added.

A colleague of Russillo, Kristine Straus spoke about her experience in Russillo’s classroom when they first met. She said Russillo invited her into the classroom with a sly grin on her face and a room of giggling children holding hands.

“She asked me to join the chain of hands,” Straus said. With her other hand, she touched a metal ball. Straus felt a rush of electricity go through her. Russillo explained they had completed an electrical current.

“It was a lesson that I will never forget,” Straus said.

Straus said Russillo’s teaching sparks curiosity about science and inspires students in Smithfield to pursue a career in science. She’s also an example of a strong female role model in the school.

Russillo said her success was due to the support of the district’s teachers and administration.

Russillo said Supt. Judy Paolucci encouraged her to apply to be the Rhode Island Teacher of the Year after she was named Smithfield’s 2018 Teacher of the Year.

Principal Dan Kelley wrote in a letter nominating Russillo that she is crucial to the fabric of the school.

“One cannot walk through her classroom without seeing the unique and innovative experiential learning activities, coupled with extensive knowledge of current best practices. Elizabeth shines in her capacity as a leader in education,” Kelley said.

She will be eligible to represent Rhode Island as National Teacher of the Year. As Rhode Island Teacher of the Year, Russillo will work with the Rhode Island Department of Education, providing support to education around the state, and recognizing other teachers’ accomplishments.

At SHS, Russillo is a student council adviser and freshmen mentor-adviser. She also worked with teachers around the state in Fuse RI to teach blended technology learning and with RIDE as a Rhode Island Learning Champion, helping to revise state graduation standards and rubrics.

She also worked as an EdPrep fellow to improve educational pathways for aspiring teachers.