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NJ’s Teacher of the Year: From Armenia to Pascack Valley High

The first arts teacher to win the honor in more than ten years, refugee Argine Safari has found her passion teaching music

Argine Safari
Teachers of the year, from left, Kathleen Assini (2013); Maryann Woods-Murphy (2009); Argine Safari; and Chelsea Collins (2015)

Argine Safari of Pascack Valley High School was yesterday named New Jersey’s 2016 Teacher of the Year. She is the first arts teacher to win the award in more than a decade.

A 46-year-old Armenian refugee, Safari — who is an accomplished musician — was cited for her passion and knowledge as music teacher at the Bergen County high school. That was on full display yesterday as she accepted the award before the State Board of Education.

The following are excerpts from her remarks:

Bigger picture: “I am deeply honored and humbled to be representing the thousands of New Jersey educators. I am honored because I know I am only a snapshot of what is happening in my district, in my county, and in the state of New Jersey. I am humbled because I would not be standing in front of you if it wasn’t for the incredible support I receive from the community I am part of.”

A difficult journey: “I feel truly blessed. I have found my passion and calling in teaching after what was a difficult journey as a refugee and a long searching and self-discovery. I cannot imagine doing anything else than teaching, anything more noble and rewarding. I teach at Pascack Valley, a place where magical things happen, a place where I learn from extraordinary colleagues and students who constantly challenge me and motivate me to be the best that I can be.”

Every child is gifted: “I believe that every child is gifted and capable of becoming a lifelong learner . . . The more impossible the task, the more committed I am to pursue it. And when that impossible becomes a reality, doesn’t that feel great?”

Seeing ‘La Traviata’ as a child: “I still remember that last scene and I still get goose-bumps when Violetta dies in the arms of her lover … Verdi’s music is incredibly powerful, and it moves and fills me with awe and wonder. This is the feeling that cannot be described, the feeling that drives me and can’t be compared with anything else, makes me want to fill my students with the same passion that I feel.”

High expectations: “I have learned that setting high expectations and allowing students to achieve their dreams can do miracles. I have learned it is not about our teaching and us, but about our students and their learning. I have learned we should not take a single day for granted, but use it as an opportunity to inspire our students and help them discover their passions. “

End on Aristotle: “I have learned that teaching our students compassion and empathy is as important as teaching science, music, English, math. As Aristotle said, feeding the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

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