“I’m still not sure why you’d want to interview me. I’m not that interesting,” says Bree Aitoro. But I’m not fooled.
There’s something about the way she says it — with a slight lilt and meaningful pause — that sounds almost like an opening line in an Off-Broadway play or the start of a standup routine. Rather than being put off, I can’t help but think: What is she up to?
And then, seemingly right on cue, she breaks character, a borough-next-door Jersey accent cutting through the initial awkwardness, “I’m kidding — I think — how are you?” It’s the kind of warm and playful tone you don’t see coming. Instantly, I’m disarmed and smiling.
When you ask Aitoro who she is, she’ll first tell you who’s not. She’s not a teacher. She’s not a traditional school counselor, either. But what becomes clear over the course of our conversation is that, self-deprecation aside, Aitoro is actually a little bit of everything, which is precisely what makes her so qualified for her role at ECFS.
Aitoro is a licensed mental health counselor who works one-on-one with students in the Middle School to help them prepare for the various changes, both emotional and social, they’re facing at such a pivotal age. She also teaches Life Skills to the school’s 6th Graders. The course has always been part of the Middle School curriculum, but as the first full-time counselor in the Middle School, Aitoro revamped it, shifting the focus to feelings of identification and coping strategies.
“I think of it as a quick four-week introduction to how to overcome some challenges you’re going to face during Middle School,” she explains. “We talk about what might come up developmentally, how the feelings will start to get more intense, and how sometimes you won’t know how to deal with them, especially the difficult ones like sadness or anxiety or peer pressure.”
Because the class focuses on teaching students the tools they need for what’s inevitably coming, Aitoro uses it as a way to connect with students early on rather than as a traditional learning environment. “I’m not giving them tests or grades. We might do an activity or a group discussion, but it’s always interactive. Ultimately, they may not remember much of what I teach them, but maybe a year later, when they’re facing something hard, I want to make sure they know what to do and where to find me.”
Aitoro possesses that knack for toeing the line between earnest and witty, often taking a tone that’s just a touch theatrical. She’s the person you want to listen to because you just know she’ll say something insightful. And she’ll knock you off your guard, too. Throughout our interview, I keep catching myself telling stories of my own, as if just the act of getting to know her makes me want to share parts of myself.
Maybe it’s the melodic laughter, which seems to punctuate every other sentence. Or the quick, dry humor she hits you with when you’re least expecting it. Regardless, I’m not surprised when she tells me that as a child, she dreamed of becoming an actor like the ones in her favorite TV shows.
“My mom did theater, and I’d sometimes go with her into New York for her acting classes. But it definitely wasn’t for me.” (That laughter again.) “I went to college and took one real acting class, and I realized, ‘No way, this is not what I want to do.’”
Still, theatre and performance have subtly influenced much of Aitoro’s life, including her decision to move from a small town in New Jersey (“My graduating class was 110 people, if that, and that was from three or four different towns”) to study psychology at NYU. It’s also at the root of her love for the city itself.
“I remember coming here when I was three or four years old when I was obsessed with the movie Annie. So much of it was filmed around New York, so I was fascinated with walking down the same streets that they were walking down. My mom would say things like, ‘That’s where the building was supposed to be, but that’s not the actual building where they filmed it.’ I don’t even know if she was right or not, but I loved every minute of it.”
Aitoro and her family are close, and she’s eager to share childhood memories. Her mother, who worked as a waitress part-time when Aitoro was growing up, will get her undergraduate degree in psychology from Rutgers in May. She often calls Aitoro to ask for her professional insights as she works on class projects — and for help when she mistakenly deletes her papers.
If it’s her mother who taught her to fall in love with the city, her twin sister provided the emotional support and professional insight she needed to keep her there. After Aitoro graduated from NYU and was feeling unsure about what to do next, it was her sister’s career path that inspired her own.
“I always knew that I was interested in psychology, and I always liked working with kids — I was a camp counselor — but I mostly had the idea that I was going to have my own private practice. You can’t do that with only a bachelor’s degree, though — you can’t do anything with a psychology degree, honestly — so I really had no idea what I was going to do right after graduation,” she says, “My sister, though, had figured it out. She knew she wanted to be a teacher, and while she was going to grad school, she started working at an independent school as an assistant teacher and really loved it. I thought, ‘Wow, that sounds fun. Let me look into whether this is something I would do.’”
She’s the person you want to listen to because you just know she’ll say something insightful. And she’ll knock you off your guard, too.
Aitoro wound up at another private school in the city where she worked for three years. “It’s where I figured everything out about what I wanted to do. I realized I really liked psychology, I liked working with kids, but I also liked working in a school — but I wasn’t as interested in the classroom.” She lists these points almost as if she were counting them off her fingers. “There were no subjects that I specifically wanted to teach. It wasn’t teaching itself that I was passionate about. It was the connections I was making with the students.”
It’s clear that Aitoro has a knack for quickly sensing what she does best, what she doesn’t, and the moments where she can have the most impact. For her, that means building meaningful relationships with students early on, so that she can best help them later.
“My favorite part is when I get to meet with students who just come in because they want to talk about stress or issues that they identify themselves,” she muses. “I like my work best when they’re able to talk and de-stress and then go back to class.”
And so Aitoro isn’t a traditional school counselor or a teacher. She’s the person working behind the scenes — less Annie on stage, more backstage manager — to make sure every student makes their cue. And that, I’d say, is pretty interesting.