Princeton Prize for Distinguished Secondary School Teaching

In the Faculty Room of Nassau Hall, Director of the Program in Teacher Preparation Todd Kent (left) and Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber (third from left) honor four exceptional New Jersey secondary school teachers on Commencement Day. They are (from left) Irma Seltzer, Christene Willitts, Eleni Coyle and Sean Turkington.

Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications

DSST 2019 Nomination packet.pdf

Each year since 1959, Princeton University has honored at its Commencement four outstanding New Jersey teachers from public and independent schools for their contributions to the lives of the State’s secondary school students and to their school communities.

Princeton University honored the four 2018 outstanding New Jersey secondary school teachers at its Commencement on Tuesday, June 5, 2018.

This year’s honorees are Eleni (Helen) Coyle of Tenafly High School, Irma Seltzer of Bergen County Academies, Sean Turkington of Ridgewood High School and Christene Willitts of Lenape High School.

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

“Although each has a unique instructional style, the four teachers honored with this award share the common bond of a total commitment to their students,” said Todd Kent, director of Princeton’s Program in Teacher Preparation, which administers the award. “These teachers transform and enrich lives, and they remind us of the very important role that teachers play in our culture. They are an inspiration to both practicing and aspiring teachers, and the remarkable accomplishments of their students are the true measure of their skill in the classroom.”

The staff of the Program in Teacher Preparation, in reviewing the applications, considers recommendations from colleagues and students as well as evidence of the teachers’ accomplishments in the school and the community. From the initial pool of applicants, 11 finalists are selected and visited at their schools by Rosanne Zeppieri, a member of the program staff. The winners are then selected by a committee chaired by Elizabeth Colagiuri, deputy dean of the college, that also includes Kent; Stanley Katz, a lecturer with the rank of professor in public and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; and Steve Cochrane, superintendent of the Princeton Public Schools and a 1981 Princeton University graduate.

Princeton has honored secondary school teachers since 1959 after receiving an anonymous gift from an alumnus to establish the program.

Teachers honored this year are:

Eleni (Helen) Coyle

Physics teacher Helen Coyle is known for bringing real-world science into her classes at Tenafly High School. Whether she’s borrowing equipment from renowned labs to perform in-house experiments or leading field trips to research institutions such as Rockefeller University, Coyle is always in search of the latest scientific tools and research to incorporate into her teaching.

“Helen is on the cutting edge of STEM education,” wrote Catherine Paz, K-12 science supervisor for Tenafly Public Schools and a 1991 graduate of Princeton. “Her integration of highly regarded scientific institutes, experiences and professionals into our Tenafly High School culture has made the STEM fields come alive for our students.”

Coyle, a trained engineer, uses her extensive contacts throughout business, government and education to provide singular experiences for her students. She was instrumental in instituting SUNY Albany’s University in the High School program at Tenafly High School. She also is committed to her own learning, attending workshops and programs including the QuarkNet Data Camp at Fermilab in Illinois, to bring new ideas into the classroom.

To assist her 10th graders in developing research projects, Coyle participated in the Urban Barcoding Project at Cold Spring Harbor Harlem DNA Lab, then coached a small team of students to a Siemens semi-final award for their work assessing sulfur dioxide air pollution in New York’s Central Park through DNA barcoding of lichen specimens.

“We are the lucky recipients of Helen’s constant quest for knowledge in all fields,” said her colleague Robert Kennedy.

Irma Seltzer

For Irma Seltzer, learning a foreign language is about more than gaining proficiency in reading, writing and speaking. The Bergen County Academies Spanish teacher uses her classroom as a forum to engage students in current events and social issues, encouraging her International Baccalaureate Spanish IV and V students to stretch their language skills and their world view by debating and discussing a variety of topics.

“For me, the Spanish language is best taught when examined through the points of view of social relations, global issues, cultural diversity, history and beyond,” Seltzer wrote in her personal statement.

A native Argentinian with two master’s degrees in Spanish-language teaching from universities in Spain, Seltzer nurtures her students both as language learners and as global citizens.

“She completely changed how I view Spanish and my perception of what a Spanish class should be like,” wrote one student.

“We debate, argue, agree and disagree,” another student wrote. “Even my history classes don’t replicate the experiences I have in her Spanish class.”

Seltzer challenges not only her own students, but students throughout Bergen County Academies to view issues from different perspectives. Each year she oversees International Day of Acceptance activities, which include performances, workshops and panels showcasing different cultures. She also organizes the school’s annual participation in the Teens Talk Against Racism conference at Fairleigh Dickinson University. 

Wrote Giulia Zanoni-Mendelshohn, a district supervisor, “Every year, when I have the privilege to observe Ms. Seltzer while teaching, I leave her room feeling inspired and in admiration, reminded how impactful masterful teaching is on our youth.”

Sean Turkington

Sean Turkington is a “teacher’s teacher,” says Thomas Gorman, principal of Ridgewood High School. He’s also a favorite among students and parents, who push to enroll their children in his Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus classes.

On average, Turkington’s students score a 4.823 out of a possible 5 on the AP Calculus AB test and a 4.614 on the AP Calculus BC test. Over the years, about 88 percent of his AB students and 76 percent of his BC students have received a perfect 5. He also oversees the school’s Math Team.

“His understanding of mathematics and the needs of his students is exemplary,” wrote Rebecca Gattoni, a colleague. “He consistently motivates his students to be the best mathematics students they can be, and they respect him for this.” 

While he expects a lot of his students, he also provides them with the support they need to succeed. Every day during period 9, the last period at the school, which is optional, his classroom fills with students attending for further review.

Through a website and more than 500 YouTube videos, Turkington also has developed a reputation and following beyond Ridgewood. A college in Australia once asked permission to incorporate his recordings into its advanced mathematics courses.

“He has a natural gift for making mathematics exciting,” wrote a student.

Christene Willitts

Working with autistic students is a challenge Christene Willitts embraces joyfully in her role as a special education teacher at Lenape High School. 

“I am fortunate that autism found me over 22 years ago and has filled my heart with love from countless experiences with so many truly awesome students and families,” she wrote in a personal statement.

She credits her early experiences working in a group home with giving her insight into how to prepare autistic youth to thrive in their communities. It can take up to seven years for students to graduate from Lenape High School’s Autism Program, which Willetts designed and implemented. 

Aside from the usual curriculum of math, English and science, Willitts also teaches living skills, health and pre-vocational skills to ensure her students make a successful transition from high school to adult life. 

“The environment in her classes goes beyond hugs and high fives to designing lessons so specific and differentiated that all students can succeed,” said Principal Tony Cattani.

The program has become a model for other districts. Willitts also has taken care to integrate her students into the general high school population, planning and supervising work opportunities for them in administrative offices, the cafeteria, the media center and school store, where they can build practical skills.

“She takes great pride in her stewardship of the Autism Program and has poured her heart and soul into being a model educator,” wrote Amanda Cassel, supervisor of special education at Lenape High School.

Denise Valenti for the Office of Communications