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Some of NJ’s Top Educators Inspire Those with Passion to Teach

High-school students whose lives have likely been changed by teachers learn how to change other lives in turn

Gemar Mills
Credit: Mike Peters/Montclair State University
Gemar Mills was known as the "turnaround principal" when he ran Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark.

Teaching, according to some of its practitioners, is more a calling than a career.

It’s also an opportunity to change lives for the better, especially where educational opportunities can be few, but they also can be transformational.

For those considering teaching as a profession, that can be an inspirational spur to completing college and student teaching, and finishing a demanding course of study to attain a master’s degree.

But books and diplomas alone can’t make a great teacher, or even a good one for that matter. And yet, almost paradoxically, excellence in teaching can be learned. That’s one of the most important takeaways of the recent New Jersey Future Educators Conference at Montclair State University.

“There are three categories of teachers,” Geo Derice told a group of high school students who hope to become educators.

“One is teachers that are remembered for doing good. Second there’s teachers who are remembered for doing bad. And then there’s teachers who are not remembered at all,” he explained.

Derice, a motivational speaker, was one of 20 educators and presenters, who addressed 425 students from 31 high schools across the state, about the challenges and rewards of teaching.

For Argine Safari, New Jersey’s 2016-2017 Teacher of the Year, great teaching is partly a labor of love.

“You really need to know your subject matter and love it. Because when you’re knowledgeable and you love teaching what you teach it just transfers to your students and inspires them,” said Safari, a music teacher at Pascack Valley High School.

Former Newark principal Gemar Mills spoke about his journey as an educator and the reversal in grades, environment, and student morale that began under his tenure at Malcolm X Shabazz High School. He started as math department chairperson then became vice principal and principal of the school with a reputation for poor grades and fights.

Mills became known as the “turnaround principal” after implementing changes that boosted grades and increased attendance. He said that in the 2010-2011 school year, only 48 percent of students were proficient in language arts. Within one year that figure rose to 60 percent. During the same period, math proficiency climbed from 19 percent to 25 percent and acceptances at four-year colleges more than doubled from 23 percent to 50 percent.

Mills, who grew up in housing projects in Paterson, said he was simply doing what had been done for him. He wanted to attend college but didn’t think he’d be accepted. His high school physics teacher convinced him he could go to if he put in the effort and studied for his SAT.

She worked with him for three months and Mills said she saved his life.

“She was no different than a doctor who performs open heart surgery,” said Mills. “She just didn’t do it on my heart she did it on my brain. She undid the things that I was thinking I couldn’t do and then put in the things that she saw that I couldn’t see. She had the vision for me long before I could ever see what was possible. And so as educators and potential educators you all will have the same potential opportunity to change a life and understand that people are counting on you.”

The experience changed his goals.

students
Credit: Mike Peters/Montclair State University
High-school students listening intently to Gemar Mills at the recent New Jersey Future Educators Conference at Montclair State University.

"I just didn’t want to go to college anymore but I wanted to be an educator that did the same thing that she did that touched people’s lives, that made people believe that anything they want to do is possible no matter how far-fetched it is,” said Mills.

Derice spoke about his former high school gym teacher and football coach who helped him when he had just about given up all hope and contemplated suicide. The teacher gave Derice a chance to turn around his thinking and achieve his goals.

“Because he saw the superhero in me, he became a superhero to me,” said Derice. “And, I believe that each and every one of you have that same ability to go and do that for somebody else.”

The difference between effective and ineffective teachers was a focal point of Dr. Daniel Jean’s discussion with the students. The director of MSU’s Education Opportunity Fund Program asked them what made teachers memorable in positive and negative ways. They spoke about liking teachers who got their attention even by standing on desks but disliking those who showed favoritism or just partially taught a topic before giving a test.

As educators, Jean said there are responsibilities to continuously learn and grow, never lose sight of who they are working for and the impact they want to have.

He advised the ninth through 12th graders to start preparing their “educator swagger” now.

“It’s knowing your strengths,” he said, adding it means knowing the subject matter, imparting that knowledge effectively, and realizing what they need to improve upon.

They should already be developing a timeline for their career growth, he said, and personal and professional goals by connecting with mentors, reading literature, and researching.

And they need to decide if they want to be a classroom teacher, administrator, or counselor; what age group they want to teach; and how they will develop classroom management skills.

Professional development is something Safari firmly believes in.

“I am still constantly looking for better ways of teaching, for reaching out to my students in better ways, constantly improving myself,” she said. “And I don’t think that’s ever going to stop.”

Safari said her primary goal in the classroom is to get children to love music. She has started after-school choral programs, including an all-male a cappella group, planned friendship concerts abroad, and connected with choirs from other countries.

She also spoke about helping students make connections before taking them to see a new opera production of Romeo and Juliet. She collaborated with the English teachers who included playwright William Shakespeare in their lessons and French teachers who taught about the opera’s composer.

“I truly believe when you make the connections for your students that the subject you teach comes alive,’’ she said, adding teaching creatively helps students remember concepts.

Mills hopes the future educators will apply what they heard to their own lives and to those who are in their future classrooms.

“This work in education is extremely challenging,” said Mills, who is the chief education officer for The Future Project. “And we have to understand it, embrace it, and use it as motivation to be successful within it. Because it’s that drive, that perseverance, the resilience in this work that’s going to help other people that you’re responsible for reach their dreams, their goals and aspirations.”

“I feel like a lot of things happen to the young people’s minds in the community,” he said. “Their mindsets are sometimes stagnated by where they can actually go because people’s dreams have not made it to where they wanted to go. So they become what we call ‘dream killers,’” he explained.

“And so we need other people to help them believe, to say you can do anything that you want to do. And that is dramatic, and it is sometimes tough to undo the stuff that’s done every day in the home, outside the home, to and from school when you’re with them eight hours — to get them to believe that if you want to be the president you can be the president. If you want to create the next Facebook you can.”

Robin Traum's career is in the field of communications with extensive experience as a journalist, most recently as editor of two Patch news sites, freelance writer, and public relations and marketing professional.

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