Princeton University honored four outstanding New Jersey secondary school teachers at its 2017 Commencement on Tuesday, June 6.
This year’s honorees are Peter Drozd of Union City High School, Emily Rock of Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing, Colleen Tambuscio of New Milford High School and Cory Terry of Ocean City Intermediate School.
The teachers were selected for the award based on nominations from public and private schools around the state.. The teachers will each receive $5,000, as well as $3,000 for their school libraries.
“All the finalists were distinguished in their own unique way,” said Christopher Campisano, former director of Princeton’s Program in Teacher Preparation, which administers the award program. “The four we honor with this award are truly extraordinary. A teacher’s presence and work have a special impact on the school community that transcends the classroom. Each teacher fills a void believing in the power of their students to make a better world.”
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, 10 finalists are selected and visited at their schools by Rosanne Zeppieri, a member of the program staff. The Award winners are then selected by a committee that includes, in addition to Campisano, University faculty members Joshua Katz and Stanley Katz; Steve Cochrane, superintendent of the Princeton Public Schools; and Laura Morana, New Jersey state Department of Education acting chief academic officer.
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:
Students and staff know Peter Drozd, teacher of robotics and engineering at Union City High School Academy for Enrichment and Advancement (AEA), as the “robot man.” AEA is a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) school that offers courses in computer coding, engineering, robotics and architecture. Drozd has been diligently building the “E” in the STEM academy since it opened eight years ago.
After participating in a National Science Foundation-funded program to teach high school teachers about robotics, Drozd set to work establishing a robotics club at Union City High School. This quickly grew into a formal course at the school and, when AEA opened, he was put in charge of the robotics program at that school. He has since developed the program to the point where there is a robotics team in every school in the district — elementary, middle and high school.
Drozd has a clear philosophy of teaching and considers himself a guide, rather than just a teacher of robotics or engineering. He provides students with the information and tools they need and allows them to grapple with those tools.
“When students are exposed to and encouraged to find answers and solve problems, nothing can or will hold them back,” he wrote in a personal statement.
AEA’s STEM supervisor, Nadia Makar, wrote that she attributes her students’ great accomplishments not only “to the fact that [Drozd] is a phenomenal teacher, but also to the fact that he has that extraordinary ability to motivate students beyond any conceivable outcome.”
“[His] enthusiasm and dedication were so contagious that I found myself pursuing a degree in the engineering field, the subject Mr. Drozd teaches in high school, without having any prior interest in said field,” noted Steven Li, a former student.
Amanda Smith, a biology teacher at AEA, praised Drozd’s efforts to spread engineering programs throughout the district so that students get a chance to whet their appetites and experience engineering at a young age.
“The impact Peter is going to have on future generations in the district will only compound what he is already accomplishing here at the high school,” she wrote.
Emily Rock teaches English to both freshmen and seniors at Oakcrest High School, but she has a special affinity for her first-year students.
“Freshmen are both innocent and inquisitive,” Rock wrote in a personal statement. “They know nothing, and they need everything. Somehow, over the course of a single year, I guide them through the complicated world of credits and hall passes, teach them Shakespeare and help them make good decisions.”
To help eighth-graders make the leap from middle school to high school, she founded a district-wide program that helps with the transition. In two years, the program has yielded improvements in students’ grades, attendance, behavior and attitude.
Erin Chiappini, a Spanish teacher at Oakcrest, praised Rock’s skill in the classroom.
“I was so impressed by the integration of relevant pop culture and mass media into her lesson and by the elevated level of questioning, critical thinking and discourse she expected of high school freshmen,” she wrote. “Her passion for her subjects is obvious to all who enter her class, whether she is helping her students relate their own lives to the prototypical hero’s journey while reading ‘The Odyssey’ or fencing with a Nerf sword to help bring Mercutio’s death scene vividly — and comically — to life.”
She is also “a teacher who teaches less from the guidance of a particular curriculum or unit plan, but instead to the potential she sees in students’ humanity,” wrote Joe Costal, English and social studies supervisor.
Former student Mariah Matthews wrote that Rock is “an ally to students from marginalized backgrounds” and that she has “educated and empowered many.”
Matthews wrote that Rock’s classroom was a “safe haven” and that “she always reminded me of how special and powerful I was and would become.”
Colleen Tambuscio realized when she was in high school that she wanted to be a teacher of the Deaf.
After speaking to Deaf members of her community, she “discovered that Deaf education could be isolating for deaf people in public schools or isolate them from the world if they weren’t properly integrated with their hearing peers,” she wrote in a personal statement.
Now, as a special education teacher and a general education social studies teacher at New Milford High School, she creates “a positive, nurturing and empowering environment where students feel comfortable achieving academic success,” she wrote.
Tambuscio is also a leading voice in Holocaust education, both in New Jersey, as founder and president of the Council of Holocaust Educators, a statewide professional development organization, and nationally. Shortly after arriving at New Milford High School 14 years ago, she established a Holocaust education curriculum, which now includes two elective classes — “The Holocaust, Genocide and Human Behavior” and “Contemporary Genocide: A Call to Action.”
She also leads students on annual trips not only to the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., but also to Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland. They visit Holocaust sites, interview survivors and family members, and learn from experts in the field.
“Student participants, from varying ethnic and religious backgrounds, see the clear connections from the past to the present day and apply those universal lessons to their ability to be a citizen in a democracy,” Tambuscio wrote.
Former student and trip participant, Justin Alexander Flores, wrote that he has “stood up to intolerance, gained the ability to empathize and learned how to remain devoted to my passions, regardless of naysayers” because of Tambuscio’s involvement in his life.
Michael Polozzi, New Milford’s superintendent of schools, noted that Tambuscio embodies the “ideals of community, knowledge and enlightenment in the service of others … through the complexity of her actions and the degree to which those actions inspire her students to reach out beyond themselves in ways that enrich humanity.”
Cory Terry has always been passionate about the natural world and connecting with it. She majored in psychology at Princeton and received a certificate in teacher preparation, graduating in 2004.
Years later, as a middle school science teacher, she shares “her bliss — the natural world and how we relate to it — with budding teenagers,” she wrote in a personal statement. “Not every student is going to go on to be a biologist, but every student can apply biology to their lives in their own way. This goes for any branch of science we cover.”
Carrie Merritt, her colleague at Ocean City Primary School, praised Terry’s sense of “wonderment” and said that she “possesses a rare zeal for the sense of wonder. She marvels in the science of how the universe works and gracefully balances an innate quality to understand the inner workings of the individuals and community that she influences.”
“She took the time to show us the value of what we were learning each day and made sure that no student was left behind,” Shannon Decosta, a former student, wrote.
Terry is also known for her leadership as the varsity field hockey coach at Ocean City High School, her alma mater. Under her guidance, the team won six South Jersey titles and three state titles, and she has been honored as the South Jersey Rookie Coach of the Year and the South Jersey Coach of the Year.
“She models reliability, punctuality, organization, academic growth and service to the community,” wrote Geoff Haines, principal of Ocean City Intermediate School.