Guttilla finds her voice by teaching Italian

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On the first day of class, high school teacher Roberta Guttilla asks her new students why they want to learn Italian, and loves to hear their answers.

“They tell me all these different stories,” Guttilla says. “They fell in love with the culture, they visited Italy once, they want to major in Italian in college. Or they say, ‘My great grandparents were Italian and never passed on the language to us.’”

Guttilla is an Italian instructor at York Community High School in Elmhurst, where this year she’s teaching five classes of different levels. She is also certified to teach Spanish and English as a Second Language.

A native of Palermo, Sicily, Guttilla moved to the Chicago area in September 2014, a couple of months after she graduated from college, to be with her now-husband, Vito Rubino. She became a U.S. citizen on Sept. 25, almost nine years after the day she arrived.

Rubino owns New Paradise Bakery in Chicago’s Northwest Side. He and Guttilla met when she came to visit her father’s aunt and crossed paths with Rubino, a friend of one of her cousins. The couple have two daughters, ages 4 and 6.

At first, Guttilla worked as an airport supervisor at O’Hare International Airport, where she managed Alitalia and two other airlines, she says. Eventually, she decided to transition to teaching.

“Teaching is what I studied,” she explains, “but I didn’t feel confident enough because I still had such a big Italian accent at the time. I needed to experience things a little bit more.”

After getting certified through the Illinois State Board of Education, Guttilla started teaching in 2020 at Scuola Italiana Enrico Fermi in Chicago. A year later, she was hired by Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205.

The best part of teaching is witnessing her students’ genuine interest and curiosity toward the language, she says.

There are plenty of fun moments, such as her student being stunned to learn that “cannoli” is plural, and that fettuccine Alfredo is not an Italian dish. There are also powerful moments, like when she received a thank-you card from a student who told her they could finally communicate with their grandparents, whose dementia had made them revert to Italian.

While most students are excited to learn Italian, a small percentage do it at their parents’ insistence, she says. “That’s when I have to help them find the motivation to learn the language. There is so much more than learning how to speak: you can understand a culture, understand traditions, understand where you come from — all the reasons why your parents are excited.”

Guttilla has a true passion for languages. She has studied French and Polish, and now Portuguese. “I really love studying and learning new languages. I think it’s interesting how each language has a different structure. I always try to learn a few sentences.”

She’s also passionate about learning new teaching strategies, such as how to foster group learning by building a positive environment where no one is left behind. She recently enrolled in an online master’s program through the University of Rome “Tor Vergata.”

Guttilla is especially proud that she and fellow Italian teacher. Jennifer Buono. received approval from the school district to organize a student exchange program with Italy. During spring break, the two teachers will travel to a town near Venice with a group of 16 students; a few weeks later, a group of Italian students will visit Elmhurst.

“All the families are very excited,” she says, “and we couldn’t be happier that this is happening.”


About Elena Ferrarin

Elena Ferrarin is a native of Rome who has worked as a journalist in the United States since 2002. She has been a correspondent for Fra Noi for more than a decade. She previously worked as a reporter for The Daily Herald in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, The Regional News in Palos Heights and as a reporter/assistant editor for Reflejos, a Spanish-English newspaper in Arlington Heights. She has a bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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