Find all of the most important pandemic education news on Educating N.J., a special resource guide created for parents, students and educators.
The start of the school year always brings anxiety for families and educators. This fall, add in plexiglass shields, temperature stations and marathon Zoom sessions and you’ll quickly understand why parents and students may be nervous.
That’s why we’ve called in the experts.
In August, the New Jersey Department of Education crowned 21 teachers of the year, one from each county. We spoke with all 21, the best educators across the state, and asked them to answer common questions, from how they prepared for an unprecedented school year, to their tips for families on navigating the new normal in education.
The teachers of the year vary greatly in their disciplines and background, with some who instruct physical education, English as a second language and special education. Some are at the beginning of their careers while others are veterans of the field.
And though their answers ran the gamut (here’s a sneak peek: use a pair of socks for a gym activity at home), nearly everyone surveyed included a variation on this theme: students are resilient and are adapting to the circumstances with grace and courage.
Here’s what this year’s crop of top teachers in the Garden State had to say to families:
“As a teacher working with students with disabilities, my biggest priority in preparing for this school year is finding ways to reconnect with my students and rebuild the relationships that my staff and I have with them,” said special education teacher Rachel Krementz, from Ocean Academy in Cape May County. “My goal for the first few weeks is to help my students readjust back to the school environment, especially with all of the new safety procedures and protocols that are put in place. Change is difficult for any student, but especially for my students. Preparing to handle all of the challenges that go along with adjusting to these changes is key within my prep for the school year. I am creating lots of visual supports, preparation videos, and social stories to assist in this process.”
“I think many of us educators have felt anxiety all summer just wondering what this school year was going to look like,” said business/technology teacher Jaclyn Terebetski, from Carteret High School in Middlesex County. “Although we all knew from the beginning it was going to look different, we still kept wondering just how different. With new guidelines and protocols being put into place daily, it has been hard to prepare but we always knew the end goal was to educate our children the best that we can. Educators are known for always over planning and having multiple contingency plans in place, and teaching virtually has been no different. Although our plans, approaches and activities may look different this year, our hearts remain the same…dedicated to our profession and students!”
“I have seen my level of preparation double for the first week of school this year,” said social studies teacher Christopher Butchko, from Montville Township High School, Morris County. “Not only am I creating new and exciting lessons for my students, but I am also preparing to become an expert with our virtual programs so that my students feel comfortable working with me in this environment.”
“This summer I began purchasing every book I could find on integrating social-emotional skills into my art lessons,” said art teacher Angela Mikula of Delaware Township School in Hunterdon County. “Now it’s a matter of organizing the lessons I’ve created in a way that I can deliver them both in person and virtually. Within 6 months, teachers have cultivated a whole new language that sounds something like, ‘I’m using a Bitmoji classroom in a Seesaw app for K-2nd and some Padlet in Google Classroom.’ My head is spinning.”
“I prepared for the school year by creating a website for parents and students where they can access any information about my class,” said fifth-grade teacher Kristina Messina, from Mt. Pleasant Elementary School in Cumberland County. “I also researched and read about different methods and strategies to make remote learning the most effective it could be at a distance. Lastly, I spent lots of time on within social media groups for educators collaborating with other educators and gathering resources that could be useful in the remote learning world.”
“Students have the biggest role to play during this time,” said math and engineering teacher David Coster, of Cedar Grove High School in Essex County. “They need to communicate their feelings, concerns, and frustrations to their parents and teachers. They need to let their teachers know what is working, and what is not working. They should share their classroom successes with their family members and personal achievements with their teachers. Each obstacle created by this pandemic should be seen as an opportunity for our educational communities to rally together to conquer.”
“I understand and empathize with families experiencing some anxiety about this year,” said social studies teacher Jamie Warner, of Orange Avenue School in Union County. “Just like the Spring, we will work together towards the best and safest possible outcome. At the end of the day, we all have the best interests of our students at heart. Parents and teachers form a partnership and our goals are the same — we want our learners to have the best educational experience possible while being as safe as possible. I would emphasize the importance of checking in with our kids. It is so important for our students to know they are valued members of our school community and that their concerns and needs are being addressed.”
“As a teacher and parent, I empathize with both perspectives concerning the start of the school year,” said science teacher Michelle Williams, of Woodstown High School in Salem County. “Whether your children are learning remotely or in person, I think we all need to realize that our children are looking to us for guidance. It is normal to be nervous and anxious about a situation we have never dealt with before, so we shouldn’t dismiss those feelings. Recognize the concerns, then take steps to relieve the anxiety by coming up with a plan that works best for your family. When you or your children feel overwhelmed, step back and give yourself and them some grace.”
“One tip is to create stability and establish a routine wherever possible,” said Alicia Vilas, fourth grader teacher at Dr. Maya Angelou Elementary School PS#20 in Hudson County. “While educational plans are evolving, keep other parts of the day normal, such as keeping a schedule at home like when to eat meals and keeping bedtime rituals constant. If your child is learning from home, I suggest your child takes breaks at roughly the same time. Another tip is to create a learning environment at home. Find a spot in your home that minimizes distractions and signals to your child that it’s time to get to work. Of course, one must not forget to make physical activity a priority. Have your child take breaks often. Schedule time for exercise and play. Consider raising computers and tablets on platforms so kids can stand up while they work.”
“Don’t hesitate to ask questions,” said Angel Santiago, fifth-grade teacher in Loring Fleming Elementary School in Camden County.” If there’s something on your mind, ask. One of the highlights of remote learning is that we can actually have face-to-face conferences without being in the same room. Most teachers can accommodate almost any schedule with proper notice. Also, please remember we all have the same goals. The success of your child is our top priority. We are all in this together and we will make the best of the coming year.”
“Clear, organized, and structured routines are helpful in keeping instruction engaging,” said Courtney Kopf, science teacher at Belvidere High School in Warren County. “At the high school level, students are sometimes managing eight different courses at a time, so it quickly becomes overwhelming if there aren’t clear cut expectations among their classes. While maintaining routines, it is essential to vary instruction by offering a mix of whole group synchronous learning sessions, small group sessions, and self-paced individualized lessons. Consistent and quality feedback on student work increases engagement, while student choice allows students to feel connected to the curriculum. This leads to higher levels of student achievement overall.”
“I truly believe that students need to feel ownership in the classroom,” said Jami Centrella, English Language Arts teacher at Caroline L. Reutter School in Gloucester County. “When I teach students in person, one of the first things we do is develop our classroom rules. I have students determine our rules (with a little bit of direction) and consequences. As a result, I find students often follow them more than they break them because they are the ones who made them. When we switched to virtual learning in the spring, I had students develop their own rules and expectations for our live virtual sessions. This was a game changer for me. It impressed me every time when kids would come into our live session and immediately put themselves on ‘mute.’ I never had to tell them to do it. They just did because they determined that would be a fair expectation to hold for a live session.”
“Physical education is not just an important subject, but it is also an outlet for students, so the lessons need to be fun and something students can be excited about,” said Meghan Radimer, health and physical education teacher at Stillwater Township School in Sussex County. “We need to consider what students would be able to use and have access to at home, so I try to think of things to use like a pair of socks or a small stuffed animal, rather than gymnasium standards like a gator ball.”
“One of the biggest challenges for my deaf students during virtual learning is eye fatigue,” said Jessica Merz, special education teacher at Marie H. Katzenbach School for the Deaf in Mercer County. “As a teacher of the Deaf and hard of hearing, I use American Sign Language to teach my students, which is already demanding on the eyes. When you add in the mental and physical fatigue from sitting in front of a computer, it is critical that I plan accordingly. Some of the best practices to address this issue are to make sure my lighting is right, my background isn’t too visually distracting, and the background and images on my screen aren’t too busy. It also means providing breaks where students can walk away from the computer for a few minutes to rest their eyes, spotlighting the person who is signing to make for easier visual tracking, and using a split screen while sharing your screen so that the box displaying you signing doesn’t shrink considerably.”
“I’m really focused on the English-language-learners, because I’m an ESL teacher, so… the more tabs the students has open, the more programs and platforms they need to learn, it winds up taking so much time for them just getting used to those platforms and navigating and all of that and they’re not able to actually learn — the learning process is interrupted through the use of all the new technologies,” said Micki Cobos, English as a second language teacher at Somerville High School in Somerset County. “So definitely keeping it as simple as possible, using platforms and programs that you as a teacher feel comfortable with and the kids can really engage with.”
“My students really enjoy the opportunity to connect and work with their classmates on the Breakout Rooms that I’ve created for our live-streamed class sessions,” said Christina Gauss, Spanish teacher at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School in Monmouth County. “I never thought that I would see them laughing and asking and answering each others’ questions over a webcam, however they do, and we’ve managed to foster a sense of community in these first few days…. We will also continue to connect with the community on a local and global level. During the spring, we wrote and sent greeting cards to nursing home residents. I have students that started and ran a food initiative program for our greater Red Bank community. We also will connect with students in our sister school in Avila, Spain and will use our Spanish skills to gain an understanding and insight into their culture.”
“I asked my students for feedback during the pandemic, and I took to heart the comments they shared,” said Megan Williams, French teacher at Tenafly High School in Bergen County. “They told me that they appreciated having a consistent structure in how information was relayed and having flexibility in when assignments were due. Another common comment was that students did not like being on a screen in a Zoom call for the whole length of class time. They preferred having some independent work to complete first and then using a portion of our synchronous class time together to interact with their peers. Providing choices and flexibility to students and asking them for their feedback are ways for teachers to honor our students and make them feel more involved in their learning.”
“The pandemic has highlighted the fact that students are unable to learn efficiently when their social and emotional needs are not being properly met,” said Megan Graziano, science teacher at Clifton High School in Passaic County. “Many of our students have experienced stress, anxiety, depression, and other stressors throughout this pandemic, and, as teachers, it is important that we are able to recognize the warning signs and get our students the help they need.”
“It is now, more than ever, that society has realized how important we are as teachers in the lives of society,” said Lucia Giavatti-Dileo, Spanish and French teacher at Manchester Township High School in Ocean County. “Once we went virtual, our careers as educators was placed in the front line: people started realizing how challenging and rewarding teaching can be with their own children. It takes patience, love, organizational skills and willingness to learn from mistakes in order to soar above the obstacles of learning. Each individual learns differently, as we have seen not two people learn alike. Just like leaves in a tree in the fall are not the same, so are students. It does not matter how old a student is, what matters is how to teach a subject equally to every individual student.”
“One of my biggest lessons I have learned from the pandemic is the importance for student agency and student autonomy,” said Michael Dunlea, third-grade teacher at Tabernacle Elementary School in Burlington County. “There are some students who need assistance and guidance but many students are ready to take control of their learning and it’s our job to get out of their way. We must truly support the independently motivated students as much as the strugglers. When students have agency you no longer have to worry about engagement or classroom management. Learning needs to become more like a menu where students choose.”
“It was very interesting last year, to note that students who often struggled with in-person instruction prior to the pandemic, thrived in the virtual world, and vice-versa,” said Philip Pallitto, Enligh Language Arts teacher at Jordon Road School in Atlantic County. “This showed me that differentiation of instruction and content matters. Most importantly, though students need to interact with their teachers.”
As schools reopen across N.J., we want to know what is and isn’t working. Tell us about it here.
Josh Axelrod may be reached at [email protected]. Have a news tip or a story idea about New Jersey schools? Send it here.