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Profile: NJ’s Teacher of Year Represents Next Generation of Educators

Salem County’s Chelsea Collins, youngest winner in recent memory, cited for enthusiasm for teaching, expertise in literacy

chelsea collins
Credit: Kathy Coulibaly/NJEA
Chelsea Collins

Who she is: Chelsea Collins, a sixth-grade language arts teacher at Woodstown Middle School in Woodstown-Pilesgrove, was named New Jersey’s Teacher of the Year for 2015-16. At age 29 and with just five years of teaching experience, she’s the youngest winner of the prestigious award in at least a decade. Coming from a rural part of the state, she also may be the first to help manage a small farm in her spare time.

How she was selected: Collins was chosen from among 21 county winners and five finalists, judged by a panel of experts and educators. Each finalist was required to submit both a written essay and a video, and each was interviewed by the panel.

Why she was chosen: Colleagues and reviewers cited her extensive knowledge of literacy instruction and her infectious passion for her students. She shares that expertise in literacy instruction in talks she gives to various groups outside her own school.

The passion for teaching is on display every day, says her principal, Allison Pessolano: “Her enthusiasm for education, she just exudes it in everything she does. Having a conversation with her, walking into her classroom, you can just tell she loves what she does and she loves the kids she works with every day.”

Art vs. science: “Chelsea is a great example that teaching is an art first, and she’s a great artist,” said Superintendent Thomas Coleman. “And what separates you from the pack is when you take that art and refine it to where she is really skilled at what she does.”

School “choice:” Collins seeks to inspire a love of reading by letting her students choose what they would like to read, whether it be in printed books, online resources, social media, or all of the above.

“To build a love in my students for reading, there are a couple of components needed: first of all, carving out time in the school day to allow students to engage with books, and also allowing them to choose books that interest them,” she said. “I’m a strong proponent of getting books into the classroom and the classroom library that we can talk about every single day.”

Print vs. online: “They do like to use devices, they’re allowed to,” she said. “But you’d be surprised that a lot of students still enjoy that hard copy.”

The farm: She was, perhaps, the first Teacher of the Year to refer to livestock in her acceptance speech. Collins and her husband Sean -- himself a high school teacher – run their own small farm in Pittsgrove. “We have cows, chickens, pigs, horses, peacocks, sheep, goats,” she said.

Quality of teaching: “I’m really excited about the state of teaching in New Jersey. It is rated the No. 1 public education system in the country, so there is no better time to be a teacher in New Jersey than it is today.”

Sidestepping the politics: “Today is to honor the great things that are going on in teaching,” she said. “There really are great things going on in the classrooms.”

The next generation: “I feel I bring the excitement and show what passion the young teachers have for teaching, and I hope to model how teachers can collaborate among ages and years of experience.”

What comes with the award: Collins wins a six-month paid sabbatical, including the use of a car so she can travel around the state to speak to fellow teachers. “I’m really looking forward to getting into classrooms and meeting lots of great educators,” she said.

In addition, she becomes a candidate for the national Teacher of the Year award.

Other finalists:

  • Jennifer Clune, a K-2 special education teacher at Jeffrey Clark School in East Greenwich Township School District, Gloucester County;

  • Michael Martirone, a ninth-grade social studies teacher at Egg Harbor Township High School in the Egg Harbor Township School District, Atlantic County;

  • Darlene Noel, a third-grade teacher at Green Street School in the Phillipsburg School District, Warren County; and

  • Kristine Shurina, an eighth-grade English teacher at Bridgewater-Raritan Middle School in the Bridgewater-Raritan School District, Somerset County.

Background: A Penn State graduate, Collins received her master’s degree in teaching from the College of New Jersey. She and her husband have a 3-month-old daughter, Ireland.

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