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  • Writer's pictureThis Is Rutherford

This is Connie DeFazio

Updated: Jun 7, 2021

By Jennifer Ersalesi

Photo credits: Connie DeFazio

With over three decades in the Rutherford Public School District, Connie DeFazio has influenced a number of students and colleagues. As someone who believes in and understands the true value of the arts, especially music, Connie has found ways to share her love of music and inspire her students. This month Connie will retire from a career she holds near and dear to her heart. This is Rutherford spoke with her about her remarkable career and her plans for retirement.

Connie DeFazio

TIR: When did you start your career in Rutherford?

Connie DeFazio: I started my career in Elmwood Park. Then I was home for six years (with Maria and Marc) and then here, to Rutherford when Maria started 1st grade. I have only taught at Pierrepont - 31 years!

TIR: What are some of the various roles, outside of teaching vocal music, you have had in the district?

CD: Music director for our musicals, PTA liaison, Lunch duty (with other special area teachers), and Morning meet and greet.

"Wow, Mrs. DeFazio is the heart and soul of our arts programs here in Rutherford. I have had the honor of working next to her over my eight years here and she has been my biggest supporter. There isn't a day that goes by that you can't hear her voice echoing outside to the cars to 'Pull-up' or her telling the kids to 'put some DeFaz-itude in it when you are singing.' I have been blessed to work for our theater program here in the district and watch almost every kid she taught grow into adults. If you ever bring up Pierrepont the first name is 'DeFazio'. I think that truly shows her impact on the school district. Students remember a school and remember their music/ chorus teacher before many of their homeroom teachers. She has been my work mom since I walked into this district and I will miss her terribly," Fourth-grade teacher Matthew Vaccaro told TIR.

"My mom and I walk together every morning to Pierrepont School. When we come around the corner, we see Mrs. DeFazio helping out with the car drop-off lane. She always says, “Good Morning Family” and smiles. We will miss seeing her there, but know we will still see her around Rutherford," Phoebe Mazone, a Fifth-grade student at Pierrepont School explained.

Connie DeFazio and Matthew Vaccaro

TIR: Over the years, how have things changed? How have things stayed the same?

CD: When I started, Pierrepont was K-8, then 4-8, and now, 4-6. One side of town went to Union and the other, here to Pierrepont. The "littles'' (or "munchkins" as I lovingly referred to them), K-3, left first in 2005. This allowed students at Lincoln and Washington a true Lower Elementary experience with age-based activities which were not always possible when you have a K-8 school.

When the 7th and 8th grades left our building in 2016, that really changed the dynamic. We became a true Middle school. We met and started working with the new teachers (from Union) as they worked with ours. I wasn't sure about it at first, but I soon realized it was better to have an entire grade in one place. It was easier for the classroom teachers to plan and coordinate.

There were other changes too - more technology of course. Early on, the district had 3 NET days where parents and volunteers with electronics and construction skills spent three weekends pulling wires through the ceilings of every building for our new computer system and wires at the HS for the TV connections. This effort saved the district an enormous amount of money via a grant from Apple.

Pierrepont saw a new, larger faculty room, the library now has a classroom annex, the "arts area" put the music and art rooms next to each other and air conditioners arrived in most classrooms!!

Staying the same... What stays the same in education is that there is always change! There are always students to teach, but not the same ones every year. Working with incredible colleagues has been a blessing! But with time, teachers leave and new ones come. A circle of life - to use a musical reference. But through all of this, the importance of the Arts has remained constant. Through many administrations - the arts have retained their value and importance. This is not the case in so many districts around the state!

Photos of the Pierrepont School Production of the Lion King in 2016. DeFazio was the Musical Director:

Tierra Sherlock, RHS 2020 graduate, couldn't wait to tell TIR more about her music teacher and music director, "Not only did Mrs. DeFazio foster a love for music, but she also taught us about the power of commitment, hard work, and trust—leading by example every day. Mrs. DeFazio believes in her students, and through her encouragement and guidance, she helped us believe in ourselves. I wish her nothing but the best in retirement, however, she will never stop being a teacher to those who had the pleasure of being in her classroom and chorus. We carry the lessons she taught us everywhere we go, and they continue to help me with every new opportunity and every new challenge. Pierrepont wouldn’t be Pierrepont without Mrs. DeFazio’s leadership and love, and neither would its students!"

Former student, Morgan Sherlock, told TIR, "Mrs. DeFazio is one of the most impactful teachers that I’ve had- always encouraging her students with her love for music. I am incredibly grateful for her influence in my life."

"Connie has always been a tremendous supporter of music education for all students in Rutherford. As a fellow Rutherford music teacher, I have seen the impact she has had on young music students first-hand and it is nothing short of remarkable. Her private piano students alone have amazed me with how well they play and understand music under Connie's tutelage. She will be missed but I wish her the very best in her encore career," Director of Bands at Union Middle School, John Brigante, explained.

Fifth-grade student, Avery Ben-Ami, at Pierrepont School spoke of one of her favorite teachers, "Mrs. DeFazio is an amazing teacher and makes learning fun, especially when we get to use the musical instruments online and in-person. I wish her good luck on her new journey! She will be missed."

"Connie has supported me since my very first day in Rutherford. She was my mentor when I first started at Union School and really helped me gain my confidence as a first-year teacher. We have worked closely together throughout the years to help grow and develop the choral program in the Rutherford schools. One of my favorite quotes from Connie is that she plants the seeds and then watches the students grow. She always instilled such a deep love of music in the students, and it was very apparent how much the students enjoyed singing as a result. She will be missed, but she leaves such an amazing legacy behind that she will never be forgotten!" Patricia Blanchard, RHS Vocal Music Teacher, told TIR.

TIR: What have you enjoyed most about being a teacher in Rutherford?

CD: "Most" is tough to answer. Some days it's the funny, interesting, talented students. Some days it's colleagues who keep you going, who share their ideas, who help you celebrate, and who are there when things get you down. But I think the MOST important thing was knowing that the arts are valued. The Arts are equal to other subjects. We are not just someone's prep period (as is the case in other districts), but rather, part of the entire educational "package."

The Principal of Pierrepont School, Joan Carrion, told TIR, "Connie is the most passionate educator I have ever encountered. Although she knew she was retiring at the end of this year she has continued to grow and adapt her delivery of instruction to maximize opportunities for her students. Almost daily she asks questions about 'how will this work next year?', 'what will be done about ‘x’ next year?' Her commitment to her craft and her students is unwavering. She will leave a huge mark and I think it is fitting that one of her students will be carrying on her legacy as Pierrepont’s music teacher."

"I am one of Connie’s former students. I did my student teaching with her, she is currently my mentor, and I will also be taking her job in September. I have a few quotes of hers from when she was my teacher. 'To be early is to be on time; To be on time is to be late, and to be late is unacceptable.' Another is 'Tie. Your. Shoes.' When I first called her to celebrate the news of me getting the music job at Pierrepont, she told me to make sure I can spot untied shoes from a mile away and I immediately had a flashback to second grade and her telling me to 'Tie. My. Shoe.' She has passed on a lot of her ways to me and I am so excited to fill her shoes at Pierrepont and spread that love for music that she did with me. As I’ve told her before, 'But I know I’m who I am today, because I knew you.' This is from the song “For Good” from the musical Wicked that she selected me to have one of the solos for at my eighth-grade graduation. That line of the song stuck with me forever. She is the biggest inspiration in my music teaching career and words could not thank her enough," Aaliyah Jordan, Pierrepont Vocal Music Teacher for the upcoming school year, told TIR.

TIR: What have you enjoyed most about being a choral and music director?

CD: My students will have this answer... Harmony. It's my favorite "H" word! There is nothing like the sound of voices raised not only in song but in harmony. This became so much more evident this year when we couldn't sing at all! Singing in a group is something that will last a lifetime. I'd like to hope that my students will remember our concerts and all those songs we sang as one of the high points of their time at Pierrepont.

"Connie wears many Pierrepont Hats and therefore has flooded us with many memories. Some preserved memories include the happy concert shirts, the cross-curricular engaging music classes, the highly effective lunch supervisor, and most memorable the traffic police 'Pull up'. Nobody can man a drop-off student arrival procedure like Connie 'Sarge' DeFazio. Connie is the definition of a team player and cares immensely about the students and the operations of Pierrepont as a whole. I believe she will still call me with ideas and concerns as a retiree because she does truly care and exhibits passion like no other. She will be missed.....This is not goodbye- 'I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello,'"Jessica Saxon, Vice Principal of Pierrepont School, told TIR.

TIR: Do you have a funny memory (or more) that you can share?

CD: When Christine Williams introduced me to "the new high school English teacher" who turned out to be a former student from my other district whom I hadn't seen since he was in 6th grade. "Hi Miss Di Menno", he said. "Do you remember me?" Years later, I was taking a continuing ed summer class (this specific class was not my first choice) and who was the teacher? Well, yes Michael Stracco (English teacher at RHS), I most certainly remember you! Not even two degrees of separation Kevin Bacon.

"'Music can change the world because it can change people.' That's what Connie did - changed lives with her love of music and love for her students. Rutherford is fortunate to have had Connie as a teacher, bringing out the music in us all," Retired RHS English Teacher, Christine Williams, told TIR.

"Every time it was Tuesday I would be so happy because I knew that even though we were not in the music room, we were still going to have fun. Mrs. DeFazio has a special ability with kids and I just can't even explain how special she is. When she leaves Pierrepont we will be missing a big part of our school," fifth-grade student, Charlotte Ersalesi, explained.

TIR: What have been some of the highlights of your career?

CD: Being named 'Teacher of the year' at Pierrepont School. You really don't know what to think when BOTH your Principal and your Superintendent walk into your room at the same time!!! This was such an honor!! It was followed up with an article in the Bergen Record as a series of honored Teachers from other districts.

Morgan Sherlock, Sophia Rodriguez (accompanist) and Elijah Gomez

Another highlight was when three of my former students (see above) came to my 25th-holiday concert to serenade me with a medley of songs they had sung. Two sang and the third accompanied her own arrangement on piano.

Former student, Morgan Sherlock, told TIR, "Mrs. DeFazio is one of the most impactful teachers that I’ve had- always encouraging her students with her love for music. I am incredibly grateful for her influence in my life."

John Yap, Sophia Rodriguez (both seated), Connie DeFazio, Jon Pozar, Jihae Lee, Natalie Else, and Julia Dzurillay.

Brian Ersalesi, K-12 Supervisor of English Language Arts and Fine, Practical, and Performing Arts, was excited to tell TIR more about Connie, "I've known Connie since I was in high school. She actually stepped in for Mr. Mullins and conducted the choir at my high school graduation when he was unable to be there. I believe she had just been hired at Pierrepont at that time. In all of the years I've known her, she has embodied the perfect combination of musicianship and educator. Everything she does is student-focused to ensure that her kids not only get to learn about music -- but also learn about life and themselves. She is able to show kids that music is truly a life skill and prove to them why they need it in their lives in some form. When I was younger and just starting out, she was my champion -- I always felt like she was in my corner. I may not have seen her a lot, but she kept tabs on me through my family and friends. When I came home to Rutherford and took over supervisory duties of the music department -- the biggest and most passionate congratulatory hug I received was from her. And the feeling was understood: though I may now be her colleague, I was still (and always would be) one of her 'kids.' And I'm unabashedly proud of that. As a supervisor -- the lesson I will always remember was watching her teach a group of multiply disabled students. She created such tangible moments of joy for them through something as seemingly simple as music. When she walked into the room, their faces lit up at the promise of experimenting with a new instrument or dancing or clapping to a new rhythm. Connie gets it -- she knew it wasn't just about music for those kids. It was about a time where they could be free and fun and for the time she was with them, just feel the beat and feel free."

Musical instruments designed and created by DeFazio's students:

TIR: What will you miss most about being at Pierrepont School?

CD: I will miss my school family - the students and teachers.

"Connie DeFazio has been an outstanding educator and champion of the arts for decades. She has inspired students at Pierrepont School to embrace music and the arts. Her work has laid the foundation for the talented and successful choir programs in the District. Her passion, talent, and dedication are all extraordinary. We thank her and will miss her. but her contributions to the students and District will be long-lasting, " Jack Hurley, Superintendent of Schools, told TIR.

Courtney McManus, a sixth-grade teacher at Pierrepont School, spoke highly of DeFazio as well, "Connie DeFazio embodies what it means to be an arts educator. She found her passion early on and made it her career. When she wasn't teaching music, she was finding time to rehearse with her chorus students. I love walking by her classroom at lunchtime because it is a hub of excitement. The students love being in her presence because her passion sparks theirs. Not only that, but she balanced her career while being a working mother. With all of the hours spent in rehearsal outside of school, that is no easy feat! I will remember watching her lead her chorus students at the performances. She always sets the bar high for them, and they always meet it. The students can always expect a hearty dose of tough love (emphasis on the love!). On a personal note, Connie has acted as a mentor for me since I began at Pierrepont. I have affectionately referred to her as my 'work mom' because she has been one of my greatest supports. She has been a guiding light as I pursue my career in arts education. Her legacy will continue on in the art department as her last student teacher takes the baton and runs with it. Her presence will be greatly missed next year, but I know she'll be enjoying her 'local summer' down the shore--the ultimate reward!"

TIR: What are your retirement plans?

CD: First, I will start like I do every summer, with a hot fudge sundae and reading my yearbook. I plan to spend time visiting my granddaughter, have some additional time 'down the shore', and traveling to see friends around the country who have frequently said "come visit!" Now I can!

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