Giving Kids a Fighting Chance
Educators like Graduate School of Education Alumna Myra Cocolicchio-Diaz Evens the Playing Field for New York City’s Children
I wanted to teach in the Bronx. I wanted to teach kids who are like me, who had similar
backgrounds, and really give back to my neighborhood, and to give back to the people who grew up the way that I did.
Being a teacher is my dream job because it allows me to be able to be a part of someone else's story. And it allows me to see where they're going, what they've come from, and allow them to shine and give them voice.
My name is Myra Cocolicchio-Diaz. I graduated from Touro with a Master's in childhood education, and I just graduated with a School Building and District Leadership Master's.
I currently teach a kindergarten and first grade self-contained special education class here at CS 55, the Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in the Bronx. I grew up here near the White Plains section of the Bronx. The district that we're located here in New York City is one of the poorest
congressional districts in the United States.
You really see the inequities. So that means they're at greater risk of not being able to read, and write, and do math at grade level by third grade. And the research also shows it that they don't meet those things by third grade, they're not going to catch up.
So we have to do a lot in the elementary school level, especially for our at-risk students and our students with disabilities, to make sure that they're getting to grade level, so that they can go ahead and succeed and have the lives that they want to have.
What lies at the heart of being a successful special education teacher is being able to meet the children where they are, and understand them beyond who they are as a student. What is it that makes the development of a child with special needs a little bit different, and being able to figure out that puzzle with them, and figure out what is the best way that I can teach them in order for them to really grow and learn, understanding that there is a child beyond just the student, understanding who they are at their core.
We're doing these jobs not to take anything, but rather to serve the community, to help our communities out. I think that Touro College provides the students who go there with that foundation and being able to understand that everything we do is in service--that community and service is at the heart of everything that we do. And I think that's something that Touro instills in you from the day that you walk in.
I come to work because the moments where you see a kid struggling for weeks and weeks, and then, all of a sudden, they have that "aha" moment, and you're just like, wow, we got there. What's our next goal, and what are we going to do next? Those are the things that I live for.
At the time of the filming of this video, Myra Cocolicchio-Diaz was a teacher at CS 55. Since then she’s accepted a new position (and promotion) with the DOE that takes her out of the classroom, but broadens her reach and allows her to impact even more students and teachers, across NYC. The video and article are about her teaching position, but most importantly reflect the values, dedication, and compassion for students, educators, and learning that she takes with her in all her positions.
In one of the poorest places in the United States, an alumnus of Touro University’s Graduate School of Education is fighting to ensure her students have a chance at a better life.
Myra Cocolicchio-Diaz is a teacher for a kindergarten and first-grade self-contained special education class at CS 55, the Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in the Bronx. “I grew up here,” said Cocolicchio-Diaz, a 2012 graduate of GSE’s master’s in childhood education and special education, 1-6, and a 2021 graduate of GSE’s School Building and District Leadership program. “You really see the inequities here. My students are at greater risk of not being able to read or write or do math at grade-level by third grade. The research shows that if they don’t gain those skills by third grade, they’re not going to catch up. So, we have to do a lot in the elementary level, especially for our at-risk students and our students with disabilities to make sure they’re getting to grade level so they can go ahead and succeed and have the life that they want to have.”
“The thing that drives me to come to work every day is knowing that each and every day, each one of my kids in here are going to gain something,” continued Cocolicchio-Diaz. “Whether it be a new word, whether it be a mathematical concept, or whether it is just joy and peace and stability and love. I think that children always do better when they feel loved and understood.”
Learning from Her Own Teachers
Education was a natural calling for Cocolicchio-Diaz. “I've always had teachers who were always pushing me to do a little bit more and saw the potential that I had,” recalled Cocolicchio-Diaz. “And I'm still friends with my fourth-grade teacher. She came to my wedding. Those are the type of relationships that I had with the educators in my life.”
She attended Tufts University where she earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in child development and clinical developmental psychology. Cocolicchio-Diaz initially planned on pursuing a lucrative career in psychology, but she felt a calling towards the classroom. And once she settled on teaching, Cocolicchio-Diaz knew where she wanted to teach.
“I wanted to teach in the Bronx,” said Cocolicchio-Diaz. “I wanted to teach kids who were like me, who had similar backgrounds. I wanted to give back to my neighborhood and to give back to the people who grew up the way that I did.”
After moving back to New York, she began working as a substitute teacher. Her flair and passion for teaching was obvious and the school’s principal recommended she get a master’s degree. A fellow teacher recommended Touro and after visiting the school, Cocolicchio-Diaz knew the program was a good fit for her.
Passion in Touro
“There was so much passion in Touro’s Graduate School of Education,” she explained. “Every teacher had a passion for what they were teaching, whether it was math or science or social studies or reading. And there was this joy to them teaching about teaching and teaching you how to teach. I found that really appealing.”
Cocolicchio-Diaz also found a mentor in GSE’s Professor Timothy Belavia, an award-winning educator.
“He was the type of professor who made you see that it was important to find your niche and to follow it through,” remembered Cocolicchio-Diaz. “And when I took his class on teaching social studies with art, it was an eye-opening experience. You could see the joy he had every day: the joy of being able to teach other people and that joy of bringing new experiences to people and finding a way to make them take ownership of it. That was really something that I held on to.”
Cocolicchio-Diaz discovered her niche during the pandemic and shone as she found a way to reach her students.
Using Social Media to Reach Her Students
“We transitioned to online learning, but I realized that many of our students don’t have access to tablets or computers,” explained Cocolicchio-Diaz. “As the schools were closing, I wondered: how am I going to reach my kids? It was then that I realized something: their families have cellphones.”
Cocolicchio-Diaz organized a twice-daily story hour on Instagram Live taking place at 12 and eight p.m. “I’m not a social media person,” admitted Cocolicchio-Diaz. “You won’t find my picture on Facebook. Even though I’ve never posted anything personal on Instagram, I realized that Instagram Live was a way where my students could listen to stories and see their teacher.”
During each session, Cocolicchio-Diaz and her children read children’s books in English and then in Spanish. More than 1000 viewers tuned into the program with an average of about 40-60 viewers per episode with viewers tuning in from across America. The story hour earned Cocolicchio-Diaz accolades from her fellow educators, and she was featured on CBS This Morning's correspondent David Begnaud's Instagram Live program. Cocolicchio-Diaz also credited the sessions with forming a closer relationship with her students who now know members of her family.
Cocolicchio-Diaz said the secret to her teaching success has been to reach students where they are. “I understand them beyond who they are as a student,” she said. “I try to figure out the puzzle of each student and what is the best way to teach them in order for them to grow and learn.”
A Literal Model Educator
Last year, Cocolicchio-Diaz earned another prestigious accolade by becoming one of New York City’s model teachers. As part of the position, Cocolicchio-Diaz’s classroom is open to other teachers who want to learn how she runs her classroom and in turn, Cocolicchio-Diaz is able to visit other classrooms to help out teachers in need.
“They come to me with problems of practice, things that are just hard for them without feeling judgment or feeling that they're going to a supervisor that will rate them later on in the year,” said Cocolicchio-Diaz. “They know that I'm a colleague, that I'm an equal and we're here to learn from each other. And that really is the setup of the lab classroom and the model teacher position. Being able to provide a safe space for your peers to come and collaborate with you, to learn together. I learned from you, as you learned from me. I also look for feedback from them from what they see. And I will go into their classroom if they'd like me to, and I give them feedback about next steps to improve their practice. That's really one of the beautiful things of teacher leadership and the Department of Education.”
A Promotion to Help More Children
As the 2022 school year began and just after the filming of this video, Cocolicchio-Diaz bade her students a bittersweet goodbye as she took on a larger role in New York City’s educational ecosystem. As a behavior specialist through the Manhattan Regional Partner Center, under the NYC Department of Education Office of Special Education, Cocolicchio-Diaz now works with students and teachers across the Five Boroughs and helps develop individualized educational plans for struggling students and teaches educators the best practices for classroom management. While she said she will miss her classroom, Cocolicchio-Diaz said she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help use her skills on a wider level throughout the New York City area.
Her sentiments and values echo Touro’s.
“Touro University provides its students with a foundation to know that everything they do is in service to the community,” said Cocolicchio-Diaz. “Whether you are a Touro-trained nurse, doctor, or educator, it’s all for the community. As we enter into the 50th year of Touro's existence, we can see the products of the school and they know that being in service and being a part of the community is what it’s all about. It’s a really beautiful thing to be able to look at Touro as an establishment that instilled this vision in all of us—that community and service is the heart of everything we do. It’s something that Touro instilled in us from the day we walked in.”