Best Way to Overcome Diversity: Give Back! Says Kaitlin Roig Debellis
Best Way to Overcome Diversity: Give Back!

Lessons from Sandy Hook Teacher Hero

If the way in which you overcome adversity signals your level of motivation in the workplace Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis must be one of the most motivated teachers on earth.

On December 14th, the tragic day of the Newtown, CT, school shootings, Kaitlin’s fast thinking saved the lives of fifteen first graders. She packed them all into a three-by four-foot bathroom and kept them calm and quiet while the shooter killed 26 people including 20 children. One month later, when most of us would’ve still been experiencing shock, this young woman, now 30, created Classes 4 Classes Inc., a nonprofit organization that lets elementary school classes sponsor educational gifts for other classrooms. She believes that positive social change needs to start with the youngest members of society so her organization teaches K-8 students compassion, caring, kindness, empathy and other lifelong lessons.

A graduate of UCONN with a Masters of Education from NEAG School of Education, Kaitlin is a member of several honors societies, and was named New England Scholar in 2005. She began teaching first grade at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2007 and is now on leave to focus on her nonprofit.

Given last year’s tragic Newtown Shooting, how did you overcome adversity and promote motivation in the workplace?  

Motivation in the workplace begins at a young age
Motivation in the workplace begins at a young age

After experiencing this tragedy, immeasurable in its scope, I know there are no words of explanation and that there never will be. When I asked why, I heard silence in return. Sometimes we focus so long on what we can’t answer that we forget there are a lot of questions we can.  So for myself I had to look inward and ask: If there is no answer to ‘Why?’  then what does that mean? Where do I go from here? What is there to do? Those were two questions I could answer: I knew which direction to go, and I knew that there was something to be done. I needed to go forward, and I needed to create something positive for myself and my students, as to not let the destruction define us.

Time passed, days, weeks…(pause) Time is a funny thing, after enduring a tragedy, (do you know what I mean?) It just puts distance between you and it. It doesn’t diminish it, doesn’t change it, doesn’t erase it. It’s there. It’s constant. All one can do is to make the most of the good that is also abundantly around. Good and bad are both always present.

When I thought of my students, I knew we had to make a choice for ourselves, our nation, our world. If after such terror and destruction we were going to choose love, kindness, compassion, empathy, and hope, then I needed to find a way to teach this to my students. But at this point, I still had a large question to answer, and that was: How?

For myself, the answer to this was in founding Classes 4 Classes, Inc. This was how I gave control back to my students and myself. It was also how I came to find that this tragedy would not define my students or myself.

What advice would you give others to successfully overcome adversity ?

Things happen to us in our lives that impact us, influence us, change us.  We don’t have control over what happens to us, only in how we choose to react to it.  It is all in the power of positive thinking.

Perspective is amazingly powerful. Outlook determines how you react, or not to every situation in your life. You have the choice. You have the power.  You can choose to see the best in everything, to see the positive, to appreciate your many blessings. Having this perspective will make the challenges, hiccups, and upsets in your life so much more approachable. It will make the impossible, FEEL possible.

Tell us a little about Classes 4 Classes and what inspired it. Talk about a way of creating motivation in the workplace.

When we returned back to school in January the support from around the world was incredibly uplifting. So many gifts were coming into our school.

How you overcome adversity signals your level of motivation in the workplace.
How you overcome adversity signals your level of motivation in the workplace.

I stepped back and I realized that while my students were beyond deserving of all of these special gifts,  I needed to teach them a very important lesson. That in life when you get, you have to give. After all that is what makes our world a better place.

One afternoon I brought a large box a friend of mine had mailed to my class and I placed it in front of my class. I said to them, “This box is filled with things for us to use during recess,” and I started pulling out puzzles, games, balls, coloring books, markers…and their eyes grew wide.

I paused and then I asked them, “Do you know why someone sent this to us?” Their hands shot up and they started answering “Because they wanted us to be happy, “or “They wanted to be nice” or “They wanted us to have fun at recess.”

I told them, ” You’re all exactly right! Someone did this for us, for all of those reasons. In life when someone does something nice for you, you have to do something nice for someone else, and that is what we are going to do! We are going to find a class somewhere in the United States and we are going to make them feel the way we do right now…Happy”

Their eyes widened with excitement and their hands started to raise. They were so excited, ” Who are we going to help?” “How are we going to help them?” They asked. They were equally, if not more excited, at the thought of helping someone else, as they were for the gifts they had just personally received.

We then reached out to another class to see how we would help them, and make them feel happy. That is how the idea for Classes 4 Classes came to be!

What advice would you give others who are contemplating starting their own business and might be unsure about how to overcome adversity even when it’s different from the one you faced?  

It sounds very cliché, but you can do anything you put your mind to.

Persistence is key in meeting any goal. If you keep working hard, keep trying, always keep your goal in your forefront you will be met with success. You will always end up farther than where you started from. Always persevere.

“You must be the change you wish to see in our world.” Gandhi

We each have many gifts, and it is our job to share them.

You can connect with Kaitlin via Facebook

Twitter: @Classes4Classes

LinkedIn: Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis



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