Although she is a middle school science teacher at The Cathedral School in Manhattan, Ourania “Roni” Rafaelidis often feels she is still a student.
“With science, there’s always something new going on—discoveries, new theories and explanations, real-life topics—that can be discussed in class. It never gets boring,” she said. “I enjoy keeping up with science developments by reading science magazines and books, and I like to share what I learn in the classroom.”
Rafaelidis emigrated to the United States from Greece at age 4 and lived in Astoria before completing undergraduate and graduate work at NYU and Queens College. As a student, she taught for a semester at Central Park East, an alternative high school, but has been teaching full-time at the Cathedral School on East 74th Street ever since.
Growing up, Rafaelidis said she had varied interests until one day she had an epiphany.
“It just hit me: I was really good at explaining things to people,” she said. “In high school I used to help my friend often in math, and I had tutored younger kids before in a variety of topics…I had loved biology in high school and thought that it would be fun to learn as well as to teach it.”
Her colleagues would agree that she has talent.
“She’s very diligent and conscientious and often stays late at school grading papers and preparing lessons for her students,” said Sonia Celestin, the school’s principal. “Roni hosts the school’s annual science fair and she is a major reason why our students progress on to prestigious city schools such as Stuyvesant High School and Bronx Science High School.”
Parent Tina Shafer Zizzo has seen how Rafaelidis inspires her students.
“She is charismatic and 500 percent devoted to what she does,” Zizzo said. “She’s strict about learning but she’s very involved and gets kids excited about science.”
Zizzo’s daughter Ariana has shown an unusual interest in science since taking Rafaelidis’ class, earning As and Bs in the subject.
“She comes home and talks about what she’s learned in class instead of maybe some video she saw on YouTube,” Zizzo said.
Rafaelidis says that a key teaching strategy is to show students her own enthusiasm for the material.
“I frequently tell kids ‘I love this topic,’ or ‘This is my favorite part of chemistry,’ or ‘You’re going to be amazed about what you’re about to learn today’,” she said.
Demonstrations, labs, trips and other visuals help make learning more concrete. Rafaelidis also likes to incorporate other subjects such as history, mythology, math, music and even English into lessons.
“It’s important that kids see that science is not self-contained, but is connected to all the other subjects they are learning about,” she said.
Knowing it takes a lot to keep middle schoolers engaged, Rafaelidis even occasionally morphs from teacher to actress, using different voices for a host and virus, for example, to inject a little humor into the lesson.
“This maintains everyone’s attention and I think it helps them remember the material better,” she said. “Now, does all this help them love doing homework?” she joked. “That’s a different story.”
Middle School Science, The Cathedral School
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