URI alumna named 2024 Rhode Island Teacher of the Year

East Providence first-grade teacher Aimee Couto selected for honor

KINGSTON, R.I. – July 17, 2023 – The children in Aimee Couto’s 2022-2023 first-grade class at East Providence’s Whiteknact Elementary School know firsthand that she is one of the best, if not the best teacher in Rhode Island.

“She is confident and fun. She is very loving, but she is also tough with us,” Halaya Soares said. Brandon Weeden agreed, saying, Ms. Couto “has fun with us. Even when something is hard, she always helps you.”

Bryce Santos said, “every day is fun,” and Aubrey Mead added, Ms. Couto “always makes sure you are doing things right. She is confident in herself and in her skills as a teacher.”

TO THE LETTER: Aimee Couto works with her students on letters and sounds.

But if you ask Couto about being recently named the Rhode Island Department of Education’s 2024 Rhode Island Teacher of the Year, she will tell you, “I am just a first grade teacher who loves her job. I just get to represent all of the great teachers in East Providence and across Rhode Island.”

The 1996 graduate of the University of Rhode Island, who earned her bachelor’s degree in fine arts, was honored during a ceremony at her school attended by Gov. Dan McKee, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, Rhode Island Education Commission Angélica Infante-Green, East Providence Superintendent Sandra Forand and 2023 Rhode Island Teacher of the Year Lisa Leaheey. 

SHE’S THE BEST TEACHER: Halaya Soares, left, and Aubrey Mead talk about their teacher Aimee Couto.

In the coming year Couto will work with the Department of Education on strengthening professional development and classroom engagement around the state. She is also eligible for the 2024 National Teacher of the Year Award.

During one of the final days of the school year, the classroom shared by Couto and co-teacher Amanda Baptista, was abuzz with laughter, excitement, smiles, hugs and hands-on learning.

“We combined our classrooms after COVID-19,” Baptista said, “because we work well together. Aimee is amazing, dedicated and passionate. She is always looking to try something new each day. We have a ton of fun.”

A HUG ALWAYS HELPS: Student Halaya Soares and her teacher, Aimee Couto, share a hug.

The end of the school year is an important period for Couto, her fellow classroom teacher Baptista, and all of her colleagues.

“This time of year is especially important for teachers and students because we are looking back at the growth that our students had. When I talked with my fellow teachers, I said we need to do more, we need to get them further. I asked, ‘What more do we need to do, what do we need to do differently next year?’ I am always looking back.”

But even though Couto constantly strives to do better by her students, she is proud to say her students progressed steadily throughout the year. “We are reading and writing,” Couto said. “First grade is so magical, because the children are on the cusp of just pulling everything together.”

As children with broad smiles asked for hugs, Couto happily obliged.

“I love it. I just feel so fortunate because you get these students when they are young and they are so awesome and amazing,” Couto said. “Affection is so important because that’s how they know that we care about them and love them. They feel safe. They are willing to take risks, and when they take risks, that’s when the learning happens. I feel like my students, no matter what their backgrounds are, have the ability to learn and take advantage of opportunities.”

A HIGH FIVE AND A SMILE: Brandon Weeden smiles as he gets a high five from teacher Aimee Couto.

Couto also loves the diversity of her students. “It’s a beautiful rainbow, it’s just gorgeous. It’s not only the color of their skin, and their backgrounds, it’s what they bring to the classroom. We want them to express that.”

She has been teaching in East Providence for 13 years, 11 of them at Whiteknact elementary. She facilitates programs dealing with positive social and emotional development at Whiteknact, serves on the school improvement team and is the district’s Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) facilitator.

Saying she comes from a long line of teachers and that she always wanted to work with children, Couto talked about coming to URI and her decision to study art and art history.

“I had a passion for art, and my parents said, go and study it. And see what might grow from it. They were supportive and they didn’t say I had to do this or that. My parents said ‘Go, and have a phenomenal four years, learn and grow, which I did.”

A self-described military brat who was born in Alaska and lived in Hawaii, her family ultimately settled in Paoli, Pennsylvania, after which she left to play soccer and study art at URI. She was a four-year player for the Rams and also worked at the URI Fine Arts Gallery.

URI is where she met her husband Adam, a fellow 1996 URI grad, who did the public address duties during her soccer games. “He wanted to go to UNH, but he got waitlisted, and I turned UNH down. So he came to URI. That’s how we met. I tease him saying, ‘Honey we were supposed to meet.’

“We lived across the hall from each other in Hopkins Hall. Thank God for coed dorms, right?”

After graduating from URI, Couto did some computer art, worked as a business manager for a local company and started her family with Adam. At that point, the former nanny, camp counselor and pre-school teacher realized she wanted to resume working with children and went to RIC to earn a bachelor’s degree in education.

She has nothing but praise for URI, and is excited that one of her three children, Jacob, who is studying kinesiology, will enter his sophomore year in the fall.

Couto, who lives in North Kingstown with her family, said, “URI is the best, and we are big supporters. We are down there all the time. We go to football games, soccer games, and we have season tickets for basketball. The things URI is doing–the buildings, and the programs, are so exciting. But while URI is growing, there is still the beautiful quad.”

And yes, her URI fine arts degree comes in handy in the classroom.

“We do a lot of arts and crafts, a lot of creating, because I have that part in me. I naturally allow my students to benefit from that as well. My students have sketchbooks in which they color, draw and explore. It’s something I enjoy, and it allows them to express themselves.”

She says her childhood and the frequent moves for her dad’s military career are what fuel her interest in reading and the language arts.

“I credit my childhood with my passion for literacy,” Couto said. “Because we moved every two or three years, I always struggled with reading. As I have studied and taken many courses about the science of reading, I have come to realize that my teachers didn’t have the knowledge to help me progress, especially when it came to those frequent family moves. It’s why it’s so important that we come up with a national right-to-read act so we are all on the same page.”