• Thomas Jefferson Arts Academy

Teacher of the Year

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Robert Fontaine

Science Teacher

My venture into education was predominantly driven by teachers I have had in my life...some good and some bad. I will start with the bad teacher. It was my first year in an all-English-speaking school. I was a 13- year-old scrawny freshman with thick eyeglasses who did not speak the language very well. Back in those days, we did not have in-class support or ESL services. Lo and behold, one morning, my English teacher decided to ridicule me in front of the class by yelling that I could not spell the word "the". She made sure to run her red ink all over my paper with circles and x-marks. Her behavior left an indelible mark in my mind. You see, to a francophone learning English, writing phonetically is quite common and very helpful. So, 13-year-old me spelled the word "the" as I heard it which is "de" in French. She could have taken the time to learn that this was my first year in an English-speaking school. Even back then, I knew that teachers like her were doing an injustice to our education system.

Now, to the good educator. Mrs. Goberna, on the other hand, did it correctly. It was my Sophomore year: she taught Biology and changed my life. Mrs. G was the quintessential teacher that understood how to relate to her students (for the record, she is the reason why I got a degree in Biology, worked as a microbiologist, and planned on attending medical school). She recognized my affinity for sciences and applauded my rapid improvements with English. She took the time to recognize that I spoke three languages fluently and she knew that with time and effort my English writing skills would eventually catch up. Mrs. G always encouraged me to do better.

I once heard my father say, "There is no such thing as a bad student...only a teacher that hasn't found a way to teach that student". That blew my mind then and it still does to this day. Though we were not very close, his statement always influenced my approach to teaching. As an environmental science teacher, everything I teach is correlated to the world around my students. My fathers' statement also helps me understand that pedagogical tools do not always work as intended in the practical real-world classroom.

Whenever I am informally mentoring a new teacher, I always tell them to never forget two words, "respect and connect". I am essentially telling the newbie that students tend to make a connection with teachers they feel respect them. That in turn, will organically create an increase in classroom engagement. Barreling through a lesson with a "my way or the highway" teaching style is a recipe for disaster. By the second day of the school year, my students know that I will greet them at the door with a "fist bump and a smile" as they enter, and leave, my classroom. This mindset also spills into the hallways. I cannot tell you how many students run up to me just to get a "fist bump and a smile" even if they are not on my roster.

A teacher teaches until they retire but a true educator worth their weight in salt knows that their job is never really done. Our words can change lives by either uplifting and healing or ridiculing and destroying. Teachers need to understand that minding 'language' and choosing 'tone' are part of their primary responsibility. Simply going through the exercise of teaching "the curriculum" without genuine concerns for the tacit messages we are transmitting to the youth is a tremendous disservice to them.

Words matter.

Educational Service Professional of the Year

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Adam Rodriguez

Mathematics Coach

Math has always been my passion. When I was getting my BA in theoretical mathematics, I noticed that I was the only person of color. For this reason, I decided that it was my mission to get more students of color in the STEM fields. I joined Teach for America right after graduating college because our missions aligned. After my TFA training, I was placed in Elizabeth, NJ to teach mathematics, and have been in the district ever since.

I like to take an exploratory approach when it comes to teaching math. Students engage in activities that allow them to have math discourse in small groups, look at patterns together, and generalize their observations. Afterwards, we practice the content together before working on a problem set individually or in a small group. This approach allows students to struggle together, collaboratively support each other, and learn as a functional unit.

My message to other educators is to recognize the power of your influence on your students, knowing that your impact can change their lives for the better.