Profiles in Education: Kirsten Bertone — First-Graders, Yoga, and Making Connections
By Donald Gilpin
First-graders, yoga, connecting with others, and helping them — these have been the core elements in Kirsten Bertone’s life over the past 17 years.
A first-grade teacher at Riverside Elementary since 2001, Bertone had no doubts about the career she wanted to pursue. She’s following in the footsteps of her mother.
“Since I was a child, I’ve always wanted to teach,” she said. “My mother was a teacher, very well respected. She worked in inner cities, and the children were her life. She did a lot to help them — in school and out of school. In addition to the academic, she also helped them with whatever was going on emotionally for them and their parents. I was inspired by her.”
About 18 years ago, while Bertone was still in college, her mother became ill with cancer, and Bertone made a decision that brought her to Riverside and set her on her current life path.
“I wanted to follow my mother’s path and work with inner city students,” she said. “I actually thought I would work in Trenton, but life circumstances, my mother’s illness, and the need to be close to her — I chose this job because it was close to her and I could take care of her.”
Choosing to be where she could give her mother the care she needed “just seemed like the right thing to do,” Bertone explained. “I wanted to preserve her integrity and let her stay home and not go into a nursing home. So I went there morning and night to assist her so she didn’t always have strangers in the house.”
Two of Bertone’s professors at Rider University had children who had gone to Riverside. They urged her to apply there and to meet Bill Cirullo, the Riverside principal at the time. “Princeton wasn’t even on my radar,” she said. But on the recommendations of her professors, Cirullo invited her in for an interview, said he needed someone with a strong personality for a first-grade position, and she started at Riverside in the fall of 2001.
“A lot of things just happened based on fate,” Bertone said. “This was presented to me more than me seeking it out.”
With the first-graders at Riverside, Bertone is clearly in her element. “I think it’s a very important year, and I feel very special to work with them at this age. They’re very funny, so I’m always smiling. No matter what circumstances I’m in in my life, it’s always a pleasure to come here and work with the kids. It’s a gift.”
Undaunted by the challenges posed by working every day with a large group of 6-year-olds, Bertone described, “Teaching first grade is difficult. You have to get them from zero to 60 in one year. You have to be able to get them reading and writing. Everything gets done in first grade.”
And for Bertone the affective, emotional education is never separate from the cognitive. “It’s so important getting children to see themselves as learners and risk takers, getting them into the mindset of learning from their mistakes and realizing that there’s something to be learned from mistakes,” she emphasized. “All these things we instill in young minds in first grade.”
Yoga, For All
The death of her mother in 2003 opened a new phase in Bertone’s life. “It brought me to yoga,” she said. “I’d been doing it, but I really dove deep into yoga and meditation at that time, just to help process the sadness and grief.” And it was not long before Bertone decided to share the rewards of yoga, first with her colleagues, then with her students.
“For some time I did yoga after school with the teachers, then a few years ago the black box theater here opened, so I was given the opportunity to bring yoga to the children.”
A parent, who thought all children should benefit as her son had benefited from doing yoga, donated 40 yoga mats, which Bertone still uses with her students.
She described the scene when they go to the black box theater for yoga. “They really enjoy it. We turn the lights down and turn the room different colors. It might be blue for the winter solstice or red for heart-opening yoga practice around Valentine’s Day. They feel it’s very mystical. So they go in and relax and go into their breath work. They lie down in shavasana, which is the relaxation at the end of yoga. They take it very seriously. They almost transform when they walk into that room, and they become more calm, more in tune with what’s going on.”
She continued, “They’re listening. They’re following. They’re all in this rhythm together, and they take it very seriously, and over time I see their balance improve and their confidence grow as they do it.”
Bertone went on to mention long-term benefits of yoga training that her first-grade students can hold onto, after they’ve moved on from her class. “It gives them a point of understanding,” she said. “When things get difficult, they can draw back into their breath to calm themselves down. They can find that pause, that calmness within themselves. They can take a moment before speaking. It teaches them skills to settle themselves.”
The academic demands for first grade are significant and obviously a priority, but Bertone also believes strongly in the value of physical education, “and beyond the physical, I think it’s important that children are seen in different lights. Some see themselves as readers, some are really good in math, and some are physically strong. I encourage taking risks in different areas, so I have dance in the classroom and yoga in addition to the academic, so everyone’s trying things that may be out of their comfort zone.”
She added, “It builds a stronger sense of community, trust, risk taking, and just overall acceptance of what we can and can’t do.”
Bertone does not have a typical 9-5 work day. Every day before school, at 5:30 in the morning, after school at 5 or 6 in the evening, and on Sunday mornings, she teaches classes at Yoga Soul and Princeton Fitness & Wellness. “I’ve always been active,” she understated. “If I have nothing to do, I don’t know what to do.”
Jetta Hall Fund
In addition to her focus on the first-graders and her infusion of yoga into the Riverside community, Bertone also is in charge of The Jetta Hall Fund (JHF), which assists Riverside children and their families who are experiencing economic difficulty. Established in 1992 and named after a secretary who served Riverside for many years, JHF provides funds to support students for field trips, special activities, clothing or equipment needed for particular activities, and special exigencies during the holiday season.
“It’s just sort of a cushion,” Bertone said. “When we can do something, we try our best to bring equity into the school and to the families that need a hand.” Confidentiality is a priority, Bertone noted, and inquiries about the Fund should be directed to the Riverside principal, Mark Shelley, at (609) 806-4260. Contributions to JHF, in general or in specific recognition of a teacher, can be made through the Riverside PTO.
Bertone’s commitment to JHF is of a piece with her commitment to her students and her community. Shelley described her as “an excellent teacher who understands pedagogy and always helps her students grow academically, but even more importantly she demonstrates an exceptional ethic of care for all of her students as learners and as people. Her concern for all children is clearly evident in her devotion to The Jetta Hall Fund as a vehicle for helping families in the community.”
Bertone highlighted the values that help to shape her life. “I love working with children, and I love teaching. Making a difference in the lives of others is important. It’s important to see the whole child and get to know the families, hear their stories, not just working methodically but feeling that authentic connection with people. Some of the connections I build with families through Jetta Hall are very meaningful to me. It’s personal. We’re meeting people eye to eye and seeing what’s best for them and their kids.”
She summed up her work and life at Riverside. “We care for the whole child here,” she said. “That’s been our philosophy all along. All that I do here fits into this sense of family that Riverside has always encompassed.”