Belinda Battista studied forestry at Northern Arizona University in the early '80's, only to learn it wasn't the right career choice for her.
"I wanted to be a forest ranger," Battista recalled. "They put a chainsaw in my hands and said, 'Go climb a tree and cut some limbs.'"
Battista took a flight back to her hometown of Danbury, Conn., and worked at a daycare center, when she had another career defining moment.
"A mother said, 'Why are you wasting your time? Go back to school and be a teacher,'" she said.
Battista enrolled at Western Connecticut State University and wound up in the same profession as her high school sweetheart and current husband John Battista, who is assistant superintendent of schools in Monroe.
Belinda excelled in the classroom, embarking on a 28-year teaching career almost evenly split between Chalk Hill and Jockey Hollow middle schools. It culminated with her being named Teacher of the Year for Monroe.
Interim Supt. of Schools John Goetz attended a ceremony with her for the state's best teachers in Hartford in November, which featured speeches from Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and Connecticut Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor.
The superintendent from every school district in the state was on stage when teachers came up to receive their plaques and pose for a commemorative photo.
All Teachers of the Year are eligible to apply for consideration as Teacher of the Year for the State of Connecticut, but Battista did not pursue it.
"There is a lot of responsibility outside of the classroom — traveling to Washington, D.C., and Hartford," she said. "I didn't want to leave the classroom. Here is where I can make a difference and I want to be with my students."
The Connecticut Teacher of the Year works with legislators and has to have a platform. "It reminds me of Miss America," Battista said with a smile.
To be named Monroe Teacher of the Year, Battista said someone nominates a candidate anonymously and a committee of peers, administrators and a parent makes the decision in a confidential process.
"I have no idea who nominated me," she said. "When I think about all the quality teachers in Monroe, to be chosen out of these quality individuals is a tremendous honor."
Battista said she was surprised to learn she had been chosen in June.
"What's really so touching are the phone calls and letters from people I haven't seen in years congratulating me," she said. "It was very touching to have all of that outpouring. It's so emotional. It's just really overwhelming to know that people think that highly of me."
Among the responsibilities of being Monroe's Teacher of the Year, Battista made a speech at a back to school gathering at Masuk High School.
Staying on Her Toes
Over the course of her career, Battista has taught science and math. She loves when a student, who is struggling to learn a lesson, finally understands it.
"The most rewarding thing is that 'Aha!' moment," she said. "You can see their body relax and their smile."
Battista has seen the introduction of computers into the classrooms and then trained on how to use Smart Boards as education has changed over the past three decades. But aside from the advances in technology, she said the students are "pretty much the same."
"Certainly there are different social issues," Battista said. "But they're still kids growing and maturing. In school they can text each other instead of passing notes. Kids need to see that you're fair. That you're human. I can laugh with them."
Battista said her students have seen her express every emotion, though they've rarely seen her angry.
"They won't all be the same, but they can all do well," she said. "I only ask them to do their best. Do the best you can with what you're given and what you have."
What is Battista's favorite thing about teaching?
"Every day is so very different," she said. "You just never know what you're gonna get when you come in here. They keep you on your toes."
Life's Defining Moments
If Battista pursued a career as a forest ranger, she never would have rekindled her relationship with John Battista, who she had dated in her senior year of high school before leaving for school in Arizona.
"When I came home the connection was made," she said. "We've been married for 27 years and have two children."
The Battistas have two sons, Sam, a junior at the University of Delaware, and Alec, a junior at Pomperaug High School in Southbury. Sam is studying international relations and Spanish studies. He's living in Argentina to immerse himself in the language.
Belinda often thinks back to the comment made by the mother in the daycare center so many years ago: "Why are you wasting your time? Go back to school and be a teacher."
"I think of my students and wonder, 'What sentence am I saying to them that could change their life?'" Battista said. "You just never know."