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Episode 27: Teachers Leading the Way

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform for information exchange in which the Department highlights the work being done by transformative educators around the state. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading, and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. Thank you for joining us.

Hello and welcome to this month's episode of DOE Digest. In this episode we're going to be looking at the ways that teachers are leading the way in new jersey. At the new jersey department of education we believe that teachers should be involved in guiding education for their classrooms, schools, districts, and the state as a whole. In the first segment in this episode, I interview the 2021 State Teacher of the Year, Angel Santiago. In the second segment, I talked to three participants from different teacher leader endorsement programs about their experiences as teacher leader candidates. I can't wait for you to jump into this episode and hear about the amazing things happening in our state around teacher leadership.

Angel Santiago, 2021 State Teacher of the Year

Angel: My name is Angel Santiago. I am from Gloucester Township Public Schools located in Camden County. I'm a fifth grade teacher at the Loring Flemming Elementary School, and I am also the 2021 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year.

Ken: Excellent. Well, congratulations and thank you so much for joining me. I've had the pleasure of being able to talk to you a few times and I'm excited for other folks who haven't heard you speak yet to be able to hear you as well.

So, as you said in the introduction, you're an honored educator and I'm so excited to have you on board as a State Teacher of the Year. Could you just tell me a little bit about your journey? What it looked like for you to enter the classroom and just your experiences as you've been able to lead in your role as a teacher?

Angel: Absolutely. I mean it's been an incredible journey. I've been a professional for nine years, right? And I still consider myself at the beginning of this whole process. Before I got into education, I had a career in music and so I started college quite, quite late in my life. I was, uh, I was a 26 year old freshman [laughing] in community college. Worked my way up. I went to Fairleigh Dickinson University. You know, got my teaching degree.

Prior, I wasn't really sure where I wanted to go. I had a professor who kind of, you know, swayed me. It was almost like, and as cliché as it sounds, it was a calling, you know. It was like "yeah, I used to be that kid. I want to make sure that they have someone, a male, especially a male of color, Latinx male that they can look up to to see that, you know, we are positive figures, that we can combat some of this these negative stereotypes. And so, like, you know, I started teaching.

My first year, leadership wasn't in my...[laughing]...I was just trying to stay afloat, you know. I was just trying to really just connect with my students that year, and get used to the program, get used to the the district, which, you know didn't last very long, because the very next year I moved over to Gloucester Township and had to start the process again. [laughing]

And I had to say, there was bumps along the way. Right? There was there was a lot of, uh, practice and refining of my, you know, my pedagogy. You know, leadership positions weren't really something I was looking forward to, even though I was a "yes man." I said yes to everything. And I think that's, you know, where we kind of really carve out the story of the journey where I am now, is that prior to being New Jersey State Teacher of the Year, or even my School Teacher of the Year, I was just someone, because of my demeanor, who was going to be there for any of my colleagues. And that was an easy thing because they become like family to us.

But to my kids, I was going to be the voice for whenever they didn't have the voice. You know? Whenever they weren't invited at the table to have a voice on their education, on their behavior, it didn't matter. So they saw that I wanted the best for them, no matter what. When we succeed, we succeed together. When we fail, we fail together. And I, you know that comes off as an authentic and a personality trait of mine, because I've always been like that.

But, you know, I just kind of led in the classroom, started whenever they had a new curriculum, I knew that eventually we were moving out of the curriculum. So I'd be the one to raise my hand, or pilot that curriculum. And so whenever there was a void in a committee, or a void in a group or teamwork, I jumped into those positions. And sometimes I had to lead some of those positions.

But, you know, it's been an incredible journey that's been written for those little times where I didn't even look at myself as a leader, I just looked at myself as a supportive member. And then when you start to compile all those little those instances, then you start to see a building with {what} some might call leadership. But to me was just being a team member.

So, you know, it got to the point where, you know, last year, it's been over a year which is incredible. Last year, I was announced the Loring Flemming Teacher of the Year. And, you know, at that point I was completely happy with that, you know. I was, uh, I was astounded that my colleagues had put me in the running for that. And so I thought probably would never get this opportunity again. So I've done a lot of work within this school. Let me just shoot my shot for the Camden County Teacher of the Year. I put an application. I had, you know, obviously the letters of recommendation from my colleagues. They were easy to come by because we work so well together and they know that I have their back. And obviously I know that they have mine.

And so lo' and behold, I remember we had just got into quarantine last year, and we were teaching from home. And I didn't miss a beat because my students were ready to continue the learning process. And everybody was unsure and scared. And the thing I wanted to do was, you know, "let's just forget about what's happening on the outside world and let's just do this like we did during the class." I'm just on the computer just to keep everyone safe and  with me. And I got the call from, I got actually an email from Nancy in late spring, and then a call from John Bilodeau to  our district superintendent to confirm that I was the Camden County Teacher of the Year, in the middle of me teaching remotely. And I had to keep it a secret.

Ken: [laughing]

Angel: So, you know, I was emotional, so I had to kind of cut off the camera. We did this for this process, this Teacher of the Year and County Teacher of the Year process remotely with my cohort, who are incredible individuals. And I have to definitely highlight them. They are the epitome of what we talk of when we talk about teacher leaders. They are being highlighted throughout the state. So any one of them could be in my position right now and it would be well deserved. And so, you know, this year has gone by almost in a blur. I was announced the Teacher of the Year last October. It's been an amazing, amazing experience. And now I'm working with the Department, finding my groove here. I'm working on several different-- several different initiatives. 

Ken: So, as you have thought about being an honored educator and honored educators in the state, could you just tell me a little bit about what it means to be an honored educator and some of the programs that we have here in our state?

Angel: New Jersey does an amazing job at honoring educators, you know, who have contributed so much to this profession. And I would be remiss to not, you know, highlight the Office of Professional Learning, especially Miss Nancy Besant, who's behind the scenes making sure that we celebrate our honored educators. The program to which I belong to is the Governor's Educator of the Year Program. It's also known as, we say, New Jersey State Teacher of the Year, that recognizes teachers and educational service providers. And that's an annual honor. That's where you get your County Teachers of the Year and then your State Teacher of the Year. We also have the Exemplary Educator Program, which alternates every year based on,  believe, pre-k through fifth grade for one year, and then you have sixth grade through twelfth grade for the next. So it goes back and forth. And honors an individual in each one of those sections of education. Then followed up by the Milken National Educators Award, and that's a national program, I believe, that awards educators who provide leadership, who've engaged families and communities, and really contribute to the overall positive development of our kids. And I believe most of our programs do, they're promoting these teachers who are active in their communities, active in their child's life, or their student's life and active in their school as well.

We also have the Distinguished Cooperating Teachers Awards, which I think is very, very special, very awesome. You know, retaining teachers in the first five years, that's the most crucial time for our teachers to stay in the profession. And having that award and recognizing those individuals is quite an honor. Then there are other awards, such as the the Princeton Prize for Distinguished Secondary Teachers that celebrates middle and high school teachers. When you recognize these individuals, you know, they're not just these individuals for one year. I'd like to say that you become part of an alumni [laughing] of these honors. And so we have years and years of honored educators throughout the state, you know, who continue to to advocate for the profession, who continue to research and provide meaningful professional development for their peers. And not only in the state of New Jersey, but throughout the entire globe.

Ken: That's excellent. I know that in the past, we've talked a lot about that collaboration, how it's really kind of a group of folks coming together. And I really appreciate how much you exemplify that and have so far in your award term. And you've made this about really bringing people together and building community around educating the students in New Jersey. So thank you for that.

So another thing that we've talked about in the past is just this idea of equity. So as you think about teachers in the classroom, what does it look like to lead for equity as a teacher?

Angel: Absolutely. Obviously, you know, we're doing some work with the Office of Professional Learning and still setting up the conference for late summer revolving around conversations in equity. You know, equity is something that's very important to me because I can assure you right now that if equitable opportunities would have not been offered to me during my time as a student, I wouldn't be here right now. I wouldn't be an educator and I certainly wouldn't have been, you know, teachers...New Jersey State Teacher of the Year.

You know, it's something that for some of us, you know, we've lived through it. So we've seen...we've seen the inequities in our school. We've noticed it. But it's coming to the forefront now because of this difficult situation this country has been in. Right? Especially situations around social justice. And so when we talk about our leaders, our teachers, leading with an equity...equitable lens. Right? I think it really comes down to really loving the student, loving the student whole, not as an academic, not as a math student, not as an ELA student, but as a complete student.

So what does that mean? It really means that knowing your students and knowing where they came from. And being able to create and open up opportunities for them wherever you see present. And if you don't see opportunities, you're going to have to create them yourself. For instance, if you see an English Language Learner for the first time, you should be opening up your mind that this kid is going to be...this is an asset that they have. They already have one language under their belt. They just have to learn the English language. Once we understand that type of asset mindset, to know that every student brings something, the relationship, the rapport, that's authentic at that point. The parents will, you know, will love you for that. They'll definitely understand that they have another individual outside their immediate family that has their student's best interest at heart.

This is also a great time to really reflect and contemplate whether the material we are bringing to these students is relevant to them. Right? And if it's not, then our voices, our opinions, have to be heard during these curriculum meetings, during these meetings with administrative administrations, so that we can further the progress of an equitable educational system that works for everybody.

Ken: That's awesome. And I love that point of kind of doing the advocacy work and also having those conversations with colleagues in the classroom.

Angel: Your history, your rapport with your colleague, is very important. So especially for our new pre-service teachers, you know, being that team member is going to work wonders later on in your career when you're asked to lean upon your colleagues, when you're leading an incentive, or you're leading a program. And I think establishing that rapport with your colleagues, them knowing that their interests, their best interests, is also part of you. And that school-wide climate of camaraderie with your colleagues, I think that's extremely important, you know.

And Loring Flemming, my fifth grade, and I'm not trying to say this to be  hyperbolic or anything, I have five fifth grade teachers who I believe, and many other teachers in that school, that I believe could be an honored educator, without a doubt. And I say that because, you know, authentic leadership relies upon the strengths of those who are at the top, right? So when you're leading something, you have to be authentic with those who you're leading. And I think leadership kind of goes both ways. If you're going to rely on them when you're taking the lead, you have to understand that this is a team and that you sometimes have to step back and support your colleagues. And really that's all based upon strengths, you know. We want to lead when we feel most comfortable. It's the most authentic time. And...but developing those relationships with your colleagues, with the admin. in the context of a school building, that's extremely important when you're talking about leading.

Transition to next Interview

Ken: The Teacher Leadership endorsement is somewhat new for our state. In this next segment, you'll hear from three folks who participated in teacher leadership endorsement programs. You'll hear about their experiences, and how they're thinking about the teacher leadership endorsement in terms of how it will play into their future, and how it's helped them grow in the present.

Teacher Leadership Endorsement Programs

Mary: Hi. My name is Mary Bozenmayer and I teach at Macopin Middle School in Passaic County. I'm currently a teacher of eighth grade physical science, and I've been teaching for eleven years. I'm currently enrolled in the NJTLC program {New Jersey Teacher Leader Certification} which is with NJPSA {New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association}.

Syreeta: Good afternoon everyone. My name is Syreeta Primas, and I am a first grade regular ed. teacher in a special inclusion setting in Pleasantville, New Jersey. I'm down in Atlantic County. I've been teaching about…almost nineteen years and I'm currently in the Teacher Leadership Academy through the NJEA {New Jersey Education Association}.

Ken: And Justin.

Justin: Hi everybody. My name is Justin Saxon. I teach in Northern Valley Regional High School. I'm way up in northern Bergen County, very close to New York. I am a seventh and eighth grade middle school special education teacher who currently teaches children with emotional disorders. And I recently graduated from the NJEA Teacher Leader Academy.

Ken: Excellent. Well, thank you all so much for joining me. I'm excited to talk about how teachers can lead the way, and in this case, specifically through the Teacher Leader endorsement. And I am thrilled to be able to hear about your experiences. This is a culmination of years and years of work, both on, you know, your ends as those who are completing and also those who have been thinking about what this endorsement could look like. So I just want to say thank on behalf of the Department for joining me today.

So could you explain what the Teacher Leader endorsement is and why it is that you joined the program?

Syreeta: Hi, I'm Syreeta Primus. Over this year's time we...from learning great coaching techniques, to learning all about pedagogy, learning about how to, you know, run groups and things like that. So it was just an amazing journey. But through this endorsement through the state we all... we're the first that will have this accreditation where we've been recognized as teacher leaders to help and assist different...and so it's new. So districts are going to be looking at ways on how to utilize the skills that we've been given throughout this period that we've went through.

Mary: This is Mary Bozenmayer. And the Teacher Leader program is definitely…it's brand new. And I'm personally enrolled with the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association (NJPSA).

And the program that I'm enrolled in kind of has three aspects to it. We have a really intense course of study where we're doing...we have classes three hours every week on all different sorts of topics. And we're learning from everything from running PLCs {Professional Learning Communities} to analyzing standardized testing results. On top of that, we also have ongoing teacher leadership projects that we're running in our districts and schools. And we're doing an internship with, usually, our principal, for the people in the cohort that I'm enrolled with. And ultimately, what it will end up being is an endorsement on my teaching certificate as a teacher leader. And right now my district doesn't currently have any recognition, I guess of that, because it's so brand new.

But why I joined it was just I really loved learning in general. And back in the spring, when we were all cooped up and everyone was on lockdown, I just...I was looking for what my next step was. I already had my master's degree and I wanted to learn more about how to be a better teacher and also, maybe, transition into a more leadership role in my school.

So there's kind of many different ways that I think this will benefit me, and my students, and my colleagues. So I joined it because, you know, we should all just always keep learning and I'm learning a lot as I go, as well.

Justin: I would love to piggyback off of Mary and Syreeta. Syreeta and I went through the same program. And it was great to hear Mary communicate, you know, her desire to learn about teacher leadership, as well as her program. And, you know, I was pretty blessed with the fact that I got in on this in 2017, the first year that New Jersey had the New Jersey Teacher Leader Network, where a group of districts, and universities, and colleges around the state came together to develop these programs. So I really learned a lot about teacher leadership itself.

And everything really focuses around the domains. There are seven teacher leader domains, you know.

  1. Fostering a collaborative culture.
  2. Accessing research.
  3. Professional learning.
  4. Facilitating improvement in instruction.
  5. Data.
  6. Family.
  7. Advocating for student learning in the profession.

So these programs will really be involved in focusing on those, and how to implement those.

Ken: So the Teacher Leader endorsement is fairly new for New Jersey. There's a lot of kind of uncharted territory in terms of what this looks like for folks who join in. So how do you see it playing a role in your future as you think about yourself as a professional, as an educator, and as a person?

Justin: Love that question. It's changed the trajectory of my career. When I got involved in it at the beginning, I started to develop a vision as special education teacher, understanding that "hey, there…teacher leadership is a vehicle that provide professional learning focused in special education, which is such a need for school districts." So that was really kind of my motivation. And I see it, you know, that's going to be the focus of my future. Like we've been discussing, the endorsement has great potential and really brings shareholders into what I call the "sacred space of education," which is in learn...the learning space. So you have leadership in the learning space, it's going to make all the other shareholders make more informed decisions, which is really powerful.

Syreeta: Syreeta Primus. I would have never put myself in a position saying that I was a teacher leader. That was something I never looked for, aspired for. I just knew there was a job that needed to be done, and I was one of those people that just, "okay, you got to help." And I always, you know, I came in as a non-traditional teacher, so assisting other teachers is really important to me. And so my father, he has these dreams of me being a principal and all that kind of great stuff. But at the end of the day, I love to stay in the trenches and work with our fellow teachers. So when Miss Amanda and, you know, Mr. Rich had approached me about this opportunity, I kind of drug my feet on it at first, because again, I didn't see myself in that role. But throughout the time, and Justin can definitely attest to this, we grew so much over that year. And it just opened so many doors of things that I already was doing as a leader, but I didn't put it in a leadership category.

And so I think it was important so to start helping other teachers pull out what leadership is in them. And to, you know, help them become the great leaders that are in there. Because there's so many teachers doing great things, they just don't always get recognized for it. And just being able to being recognized by my, you know, superiors and, you know, the administration, and them trusting me to do some really amazing tasks.

Again, there's so many leaders that are in the crevices, in the cracks, but we need to pull them out. And one thing about this this opportunity that I had, it helped me start shining the light on folks that would never get the light shined on them, and push them to the forefront to do what they're called to do. And that's be great teacher leaders.

Mary: Overall, Syreeta—this is Mary—overall, Syreeta and Justin really hit on a lot of the things that I would have mentioned. As far as my personal future, I definitely did not ever imagine myself being in a leadership role either. I absolutely love teaching middle school. And I come from a lineage of teachers. My mom was a science teacher as well for many, many years. And what was really interesting for me talking about my future, I came into education a little late. I'm—I came in alternate route eleven years ago. And I've really learned a lot on the ground. And this program is helping me see a lot more beyond the walls of my classroom. You know, the running of the school and all the aspects outside of what I've had to know about teaching eighth graders about science. And I love that. And I think that at some point, when I might be at a point in my career where I say "I don't know if I want to be in the classroom every day with middle schoolers anymore," [laughing] this could really lead to an opportunity transitioning into a coaching role, or some other aspect of leadership where I can still have influence on students and learning.


Ken: On behalf of the Department, I'd like to thank you listeners for engaging with this episode. I'd like to thank all of our guests for taking time out of their busy days to talk with me about leading the way as teachers, as well. Thank you to the Office of Recruitment, Preparation, and Recognition, as well as the Office of Professional Learning at the NJDOE for helping me to plan out this episode. And thank you to Elizabeth Thomas for creating the transcript for this episode and making them accessible to all.

Please join us for the April 20, 2021 #NJEdPartners Twitter chat. Angel Santiago, who you heard from in this episode, is going to be guest moderating the chat and we'll be talking about leading the way as teachers.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat.

You can subscribe to the podcast channel for DOE Digest through your iPhone in the Apple Podcast app, or wherever else you listen to podcasts, so that you can get new episodes when they are released. Also, please leave us a review through the Apple Podcast app on your iPhone; it is the best way to help new listeners find us.

Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed discussion of resources are not endorsements.

Thanks so much for listening.

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