What makes a good teacher, let alone a great one?
One answer to those questions can be found in Room 237 of the Edward J. Patten School in Perth Amboy, where Lauren Marrocco -- New Jersey's most recent Teacher of the Year -- spends her days with two-dozen fourth graders and a calming hint of classical music in the background.
Ten years on the job, Marrocco's energy and purpose are evident in a classroom of bright colors and orderly lessons.
In an interview last week, the 32-year-old Marrocco talked about her path to excellence, a climb marked by a few stepping stones that are often overlooked in debates over teacher evaluation, tenure, and test scores.
A product of East Brunswick public schools, Marrocco attended Kean University, where she decided that teaching was her calling. But for all the courses in child development and pedagogy, the time she spent in the classroom observing and working as a student teacher were the most important to her growth.
That fieldwork was in the Perth Amboy school system, and she called her cooperating teachers -- Mary Santana and Brandi Caboy -- "the perfect role models of what teaching should be.”
“There is constant debate as to whether teaching is an art or a science, and it is important to have the knowledge and the pedagogy,” she said. “But I also saw in them the love of their students, the high fives they gave, the family dynamic they built in the classroom.”
She said the fieldwork was where a student teacher could see herself as a real teacher, the first steps in the journey. She now is a cooperating teacher herself, first leading her students and then stepping back to let them learn themselves.
“I know how important that is, giving them to the time to do it on their own and see what works,” she said.
Being hired at Perth Amboy actually was a stroke of luck for Marrocco, an opening that appeared at the last minute in her job search when another teacher took a maternity leave. Finding a place at Edward J. Patten was another piece of good fortune.
“One of the things that I always felt lucky about was the team that is Patten,” she said.
That camaraderie extended from the first-year teacher who was assigned to the other first-grade classroom to the mentor that every rookie teacher must have. Hers was a woman named Naemi Natal-Villegas.
“She helped me become acclimated, showed me the procedures, how to how to handle different situations,” Marrocco said. “That first year is such a whirlwind, so really important to have that person to lean on.”
The fact that Natal-Villegas was an experienced first-grade teacher, knew the curriculum, and followed the same schedule -- so there was time for shared planning -- was also key.
“It’s that hands-on experience, that in-the-moment coaching that really makes a difference,” Marrocco said.
Few of New Jersey's public school teachers -- whatever else their accomplishments -- are certified by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. At last statewide count, there were only about 200 in state, compared with as many as 19,000 in North Carolina, 13,000 in Florida, and 5,000 in Illinois. Nationwide, there are close to 100,000.
Marrocco is one of New Jersey’s 200.
Qualifying is an arduous process, easily taking up to a year, which includes essays and videotaped lessons. Most don’t pass in the first try. Marrocco dived in and said she found it as valuable as any of her training.
“It’s an incredible experience, maybe as difficult as my masters,” she said. (She received her advanced degree from Kean as well.) “It was looking at what I do, day in and day out to help those children. Every single day, I’m reflecting on what went right, what went wrong, what direction I need to go next.”
Nearly a decade ago, New Jersey made a push for more board-certified teachers and even offered to help financially with the $2,500 application fee.
But it has remained a tough sell, with only a handful of districts providing much incentive beyond that. Perth Amboy is an exception, paying its board-certified teachers an extra $4,000 a year. It has 13 in all, by far the most in the state.
Marrocco said she wasn’t aware of the financial bonus when she went through the process, but it helps.
“There is a reason they make it that intense,” Marrocco said of the application process. “It requires a commitment, a huge commitment.”
That was three years ago. Marrocco is now a 10-year veteran who few would blame for feeling good about what she knows about teaching. But she’s hardly stopping.
“It’s a matter of perspective, and realizing you can always learn more,” she said. “None of us are ever perfect at what we do.”
She said that attitude is infused in the school as a whole, where collaboration among teachers is part of the culture. One especially valuable practice at Patten is what are called “instructional rounds,” in which every teacher visits another’s classroom at least once a month to watch a lesson or share a skill or strategy.
“The major point is to again reflect on what you are doing and how you are doing it,” she said. “Just that time to articulate with one each other, what are your gems, what are my gems?”
Even supervisor's classroom observations, the central piece of any evaluation system, are more about improvement than judgment, Marrocco said.
“As long as it is not viewed as a ‘got you’ thing, it can only improve you,” she said. “And that support, it is not just happening when you are evaluated, it’s happening all the time.”
Even so, does she worry about being judged on test scores, too -- the eventual goal of the state’s evaluation system.
“As long as they look at where the children started from, I’m OK with that,” she said. “The children all come in at different levels, and when you know that and can bring them forward, well, that’s your job.”