Natalie Belli: “Years later, my kids still tell stories about what they learned in Mrs. Belli’s class"
Natalie Belli, an English and Social Studies teacher at Marblehead Village School, is the subject of Marblehead Beacon’s final teacher feature. Well known for her sometimes unorthodox teaching style, Belli truly engages her students in meaningful conversations and encourages them to delve into thought-provoking ideas.
Belli currently lives in Marblehead, but she grew up in a small town outside of Syracuse, New York with her brother, who also has chosen to make Marblehead his home. Their parents – now both 89 years old – were very involved in their childhoods, and as Belli explains, both “went to every single one of my events, soccer games, and ski races.” Growing up, her family was quite religious, with her father often noting that “there’s a Bible in every hotel, and it’s the best-selling book out there.” Perhaps building on this foundation, Belli has spent a great deal of time learning about other religions and cultures, so much so that her students often say, “we don’t know what religion she really is because she knows so much about all of them.” Belli explains that her family was quite close-knit, always eating dinner together and prioritizing the values of kindness, hard work, and risk-taking. “I never wanted to disappoint my parents,” she says, “because they were just awesome.”
Throughout her early education, Belli was fiercely competitive, always striving to outperform her peers in both academic and athletic endeavors, and this energetic spirit is still very evident to this day. “Her love for learning and her students is unmistakable,” notes one parent, “and she inspires the children in her class to think independently. Mrs. Belli represents the very highest level of teaching.”
Belli has planned to enter the teaching profession since a very young age, although she tells a story in which a former teacher tried to dissuade her. As a high school junior, Belli was taking classes at nearby Syracuse University, and one professor was in the habit of failing student papers until the fifth or sixth iteration. Belli, by contrast, was able to get a passing grade on just her third. The professor, impressed with Belli’s literary ability at such a young age, asked about her future plans. When Belli explained that she aspired to become an educator, the professor’s response was “why would you want to do something like that? You have so much more to offer.” These words crushed Belli at the time, but she persevered, and eventually realized after just a few months in her first teaching job that she had picked the ideal profession.
Following high school graduation, Belli attended Hartwick College, majoring in English literature and education. She attributes her interest in the English language to her life-long love of reading. In particular, as a young child, Belli was a major fan of the Nancy Drew mystery book series, an obsession that at one point led her to attempt to solve a mystery of her own when she was staying at an inn for a ski race. Belli, seeing a man with a dangerous look about him enter the inn, thought “oh my gosh, this is it, he’s a German Nazi spy.” Later that night, she snuck into his room to steal his lamp, which she assumed had his fingerprints on it, only to be caught soon after. Her punishment was to have her books taken away, a fitting if ironic testament to just how valuable she considered them.
Lately, Belli has seen great value in the book The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, which discusses the detrimental effects of excessively protecting children from controversial ideas, and she has implemented many of its ideas and values in her classroom. One former student created a sign that says: “Mrs. Belli’s Room. Comfortable Conversations About Uncomfortable Situations.”
Belli’s classroom is always home to many unique projects that assist in students’ understanding while simultaneously enhancing the breadth of their worldview. In 2017, she and her students launched “Stay Bright at Night,” to create handcrafted reflective headwear for runners to improve their visibility to cars. Belli found a unique role for each student in the operation, for example delegating financial responsibilities to one student who struggled with the production process and thereby offering him real-life experience with managing funds from a grant. Across the board, the students learned the values of philanthropy, hard work, and fiscal management.
In an effort to expand access to quality discussions about literature beyond her classroom, Belli also runs a book club out of her house, a labor of love that she has engaged in for the past 25 years with multiple meetings each week for different age groups. The book clubs continued throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, with Belli hosting meetings in her backyard around a campfire. “The last thing that we needed was to be socially distant,” she says. “We should have been socially intimate but physically distant.”
Beyond her local students, Belli is also passionate about her work with students in Africa, particularly at the Mukwashi Trust School in Lusaka, Zambia. “The students there say that ‘we would love to just be in school all day,’” she explains, “it’s a fabulous school.”
Belli’s Marblehead classroom is decorated with memorabilia from her travels to Zambia and other distant locales all over the world, and she brings her broad cultural understanding to her local students in every lesson she teaches. She emphasizes her satisfaction with her life and the role she has played in educating so many students over the years, noting that her optimism and energy stem from her “ability to teach” because – above all else – “that’s my purpose.”