2015 Distinguished Teachers Awardees Honored at Princeton University's 268th Commencement

Princeton University will honor four exceptional New Jersey secondary school teachers at its 2015 Commencement on Tuesday, June 2.

This year's honorees are Marcelino Garcia, North Brunswick Township High School, North Brunswick; Jennifer Kelly, Woodstown Middle School, Woodstown; Natalie Macke, Pascack Hills High School, Montvale; and Susan Spencer, Northern Highlands Regional High School, Allendale. 

The teachers were selected for the award from nominations from public and private schools around the state. The teachers will receive $5,000, as well as $3,000 for their school libraries.

"What distinguishes these four teachers is their capacity to ignite in their students a true passion for learning and to convey the intrinsic value of knowing and creating," said Christopher Campisano, director of Princeton's Program in Teacher Preparation, which administers the award program. "If, according to Maxine Greene, teaching and learning 'are matters of breaking through barriers — of expectation, of boredom, of predefinition,' these four exceptional teachers inspire their students to break barriers and overcome obstacles every day and achieve what was once thought impossible."

"What distinguishes these four teachers is their capacity to ignite in their students a true passion for learning and to convey the intrinsic value of knowing and creating," said Christopher Campisano, director of Princeton's Program in Teacher Preparation, which administers the award program. "If, according to Maxine Greene, teaching and learning 'are matters of breaking through barriers — of expectation, of boredom, of predefinition,' these four exceptional teachers inspire their students to break barriers and overcome obstacles every day and achieve what was once thought impossible."

The staff of the Program in Teacher Preparation selected 10 finalists, each of whom was visited at their school by a member of the program staff. Award winners were selected by a committee that was chaired by Dean of the College Valerie Smith. The panel also included Campisano, University faculty members Joshua Katz and Stanley Katz; Steve Cochrane, superintendent of the Princeton Public Schools; and Laura Morana, executive county superintendent of schools for Mercer and Middlesex counties.

Princeton has honored secondary school teachers since 1959. The University received an anonymous gift from an alumnus to establish the program.

Teachers honored this year are:

Marcelino Garcia

Students learning English as a second language have always found success in Marcelino Garcia's classroom at North Brunswick Township High School. But Garcia found that many were still struggling outside of his class.

"They struggled in their other classes, their social environment, at home, culturally and among the learning community," Garcia wrote in a personal statement.

That realization prompted him to create and implement a range of strategies to better serve his students.

In the classroom, he uses a combination of the latest technology and personalized instruction to nurture and motivate his students. His peer-tutoring program connects struggling middle school and high school students with trained peers. He created a biannual high tea that offers his students an opportunity to connect with others in the school community. Outside of school, he builds connections with parents through regular discussions about their children and opportunities for them to improve their own English skills.

"Whether you see him motivating students in his peer-tutoring program or having a one-to-one conversation with a struggling student outside a class, his time is spent advising, advocating and maintaining a sense of personal responsibility among the learning community," North Brunswick social studies teacher William Ojeda wrote in a nomination letter.

Garcia, who has been at North Brunswick for 11 years, teaches beginner, intermediate and advanced English as a Second Language (ESL) courses to students in grades 9-12. He is also the K-12 subject area leader for ESL for the North Brunswick Township School District.

"Struggling students do not want to fail and by starting the tutoring program and by choosing to approach teaching the way he does, Mr. Garcia has given so many of North Brunswick's teens the hope, and thus the determination, to better their lives and thus the lives of those around him," wrote junior Claudia Torres, who tutors classmates through Garcia's program.

Garcia said his experience has taught him that teachers shouldn't limit themselves to helping their students inside their classroom.

"I encourage every educator to open their doors," Garcia wrote. "We need to step out, we need to engage a bigger picture, and we need to see how each student has an entire matrix of learning opportunities."

Jennifer Kelly

Twenty minutes a day has made a big difference at Woodstown Middle School.  

That's the amount of time set aside each day, at the urging of eighth-grade language arts teacher Jennifer Kelly, for students to do independent reading.

But the independent reading program has become much more than just that 20 minutes. Kelly has worked to build classroom libraries so students can choose from hundreds of high-interest books. She brings best-selling authors into the classroom through video discussions and encourages students to give "book talks" of their own. She offers book challenges that keep students reading through the summer.

Kelly, who has been at the school for 22 years, said she was inspired to look for new ways to help students build a love of reading both by research that shows the importance of reading and by the struggle to draw the interest of students using traditional teaching methods.

"It is amazing to witness the transformation that can occur by letting go of the reins and empowering our students," Kelly wrote in a personal statement. "We are building a classroom of students on the path to being lifelong readers filled with passion, motivation and perseverance."

Chelsea Collins, a sixth-grade language arts teacher at the school, said Kelly's work has had a broad impact.

"Jennifer has changed a reading culture within our building, trading one of complacency for one that inspires students to read," Collins wrote in a nomination letter. "Jennifer leads her colleagues to inspire students through her careful and gentle nature. Because of Jennifer's pioneering push, students now make the choice to read."  

One of those students is Mackenna Brody, who is now a ninth-grader.

"In Mrs. Kelly's English classroom, it wasn't just about reading the book and getting the grade that we hoped for," Mackenna wrote. "To Mrs. Kelly, her job wasn't completed until each and every one of us left that classroom feeling enriched and satisfied with our own personal growth."

Natalie Macke

Natalie Macke's classroom at Pascack Hills High School is less a daily destination for classwork than a launching pad for exploring the world.  

Those explorations have taken her students to South Africa, Taiwan and China by videoconference for global conversations about science, and to a research ship off the Bering Sea, as Macke shared her experience as part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's "Teacher at Sea" program.  

Closer to home, her environmental studies students work alongside language- learning disabled classmates in the garden she established in a school courtyard. And members of the Climate Stewards program she created investigate climate science concepts and share their knowledge with other students and the community.  

"She opened to us the possibilities and opportunities in the world, while also opening our eyes to the goings-on in other parts of the world that we would not have had exposure to at this point in our young lives. By using her experiences and stories, she has changed our outlook on the world, both inside and outside the classroom," wrote senior Jamie Bodner in a recommendation letter.  

Macke, who has been at Pascack Hills for nine years, teaches chemistry to 10th graders and environmental science to 12th graders, along with an honors course on climate change through the Virtual High School.  

"Ms. Macke's classroom is a place where students engage in authentic scientific inquiry to develop 21st century skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, communication and creativity," wrote Aarti Mallya, supervisor of instruction in the Science Department at the Pascack Valley Regional High School District.  

Macke said her approach to teaching is driven by a desire for her students to better understand themselves and the world around them.  

"I no longer teach my students chemistry; instead I strive to find ways for them to view the world through a chemist's eyes," Macke wrote in a personal statement. "This fundamental change is so challenging that I find myself in the role of a student more often than a teacher. Learning the needs of my students, collaborating with colleagues and searching for authentic learning opportunities, I am always in search of new tools, new connections and new ideas for my classroom."

Susan Spencer

Numbers show Susan Spencer's impact at Northern Highlands Regional High School. Since she joined the school in 2008, 1,282 students have taken her psychology courses, making them the most popular elective offerings. Last year, 80 of the 148 students who took the Advanced Placement psychology exam earned the top score of 5.  

But numbers only tell part of the story. Colleagues and students alike say they appreciate her passion, her humor and her commitment to being herself and encouraging her students to do the same.  

"Susan Spencer is an outstanding teacher in the fullest sense of the word," Roberto Petrosino, supervisor of social studies and world languages at Northern Highlands, wrote in a recommendation letter. "She is dedicated to student academic success and the development of their emotional well-being. She is passionate about learning. She is a tolerant and deeply humane individual who richly deserves recognition for her professional excellence."  

Spencer, who earned her bachelor's degree in psychology from Princeton in 1995, has been a teacher for 17 years. She teaches college-preparatory and AP psychology as well as AP European history. Spencer is also the faculty adviser for the school's Gay-Straight Alliance Club.

"By creating an intellectually challenging and comprehensive curriculum while simultaneously maintaining a strong sense of her own distinct personality, Ms. Spencer has managed to create a classroom in which students are not only encouraged but themselves motivated to not just do well in a class, but to earnestly and passionately pursue their intellectual interests," wrote students Juan Valencia and Spencer Yan.  

In her personal statement, Spencer wrote that while she sees her impact in the number of former students who major in history or neuroscience in college or are still using the notes they took in AP psychology in college courses, she feels the impact she has made as an openly gay teacher has been most rewarding.  

"I have found that being visible and open allows students of all persuasions to realize that while there may be variations in sexuality and gender identity, far more qualities make us similar to one another than set us apart from one another," Spencer wrote.

By Michael Hotckiss, Office of Communications.