New Teacher of the Year Reflects Profession’s Uncertainties, Angst

John Mooney | October 4, 2013 | Education
Kathleen Assini asserts teachers want to do a good job, even as job is changing around them

NJ Teacher of the Year Kathleen Assini (left), with the rental car she was awarded for the year. At right is Lauren Marrocco, the 2012-13 Teacher of the Year."
New Jersey’s annual teacher of the year award is not short of praise for the honoree, singling out the way he connects with students or extolling her ability to make subjects come alive.

There was no shortage of accolades at Wednesday’s event. But Kathleen Assini has been named New Jersey’s Teacher of the Year at a time she and her peers face as many changes and uncertainties as they have in recent memory.

From what to teach to how to each it, the state’s 130,000-plus educators confront a new evaluation system, a tenure law with new teeth, the Common Core State Standards and all its attendant complexities, and the first rollout of nationwide online testing.

“I think part of the problem is that there are just so many things going on,” said Assini. “Teachers all want to be good at what we do, and with everything going on, we want to be good at it today.”

A history teacher at Delsea Regional Middle School, as well as at an alternative high school program, Assini spoke with NJ Spotlight on Wednesday after she was awarded the state prize, complete with a sabbatical and use of a rental car for a year so she can spread her vision of good teaching to all corners of the state.

For nearly a half-hour, she spoke candidly about both the pressures and opportunities facing New Jersey’s teachers.

The big pressures is the new evaluation system, which requires Assini — an ancient history teacher — to create new baseline tests for students to see how they progress over the course of the year.

She said it’s a worthwhile exercise, and a collaborative one. But it’s also new for many of her colleagues a discomfiting transition to more structured and standardized observations. She said slowing down the implementation would lead to better results.

“I think it is creating angst. I do,” she said. “Even for some good teachers, because they want to be great. If you tell them that they are only developing in something, you don’t know what to do because you want your kids to succeed.”

“And I think it’s hard because it’s all coming down at once,” Assini said.

As for capacity of the principals to do it all, she shook her head.

“I watch my supervisors and administrators try to fit it all into their day,” she said. “My supervisor had 18 observations to do in September, and that includes pre-observations and post-observation conferences.”

Still, Assini did not want to come off as complaining, and just a few minutes with this woman reveal a boundless optimism and energy for teaching and tapping a student’s interest and understanding.

Growing up in East Brunswick, she also laughs at how her own learning experience influences her now, conceding she is a dreadful speller and grew to fear the red ink that filled her papers as a child.

“I only use purple and green pens,” she said. “I don’t touch a red pen.”

And she definitely wanted to stay out of the politics of school policy, including its leading actor of the moment, Gov. Chris Christie. “Nah, that’s not my thing,” she said, shaking her head.

But she did say she’d like to hear more positive stories told about teachers, including their heroism and sacrifice. “They all think we work 8:00 to 3:00, but I don’t know too many teachers who are like that,” she said.

Assini said she’s not to worried about the new tenure law that has been at the center of Christie’s education platform. She knows much is made of provisions that allow schools to ease out weaker teachers, but she doesn’t see that as threatening to those doing their jobs.

“I don’t think it will be an issue for me, and most teachers, if they are fearing it, they need to know why they’re fearing it,” she said. “It’s not like somebody will come to get you. I think you’d really have to mess up for it to be an issue.”

The use of student scores on state tests to help gauge teacher performance is nerve-racking. But she adds that any good teacher wants to see a student improve, and this is another way to determine that.

The scores “are out of your control, and you don’t know what will be testing,” she said. “But most teachers start out the year saying this is where my kids are and I think they will grow. I actually think it is underestimating us.”

Assini, who’s been in the classroom for 11 years, didn’t follow the typical track into teaching. She was a hairstylist for 25 years, and returned to college at 42 to become a teacher, eventually graduating from Kean University in 2001. She went on to get her masters from the online Wilkes University.

The same day that it named Assini teacher of the year, the State Board of Education was hearing public testimony about a set of new code changes, including raising the minimum college grade point average (GPA) for new teachers from 2.75 to 3.0 — the equivalent of a B average.

Assini said she wasn’t so sure that was a full-proof method, worrying it may discourage some natural teachers from the field.

“How about it just from the junior and senior years?” she said. “Eighteen-year-olds don’t know where they are going or what they are doing, they just left home.”

“It’s those kids who are not straight-A students in their freshman year of college who can connect to a whole different world of students,” Assini said.