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5 of NJ’s toughest teaching jobs, a look inside the classroom

They are high school students who dream of attending an elite college, kindergartners learning to read and middle school students with disabilities just trying their best to master telling time. And they are all relying on someone to guide them there: Their teacher. Teaching is an often challenging and misunderstood alchemy of art and science. But sometimes teachers are tested in extraordinary and unusual ways, forcing them to innovate on a different level.

NJ Advance Media this school year sought to find some of the more difficult and demanding jobs for teachers, visiting classrooms across the state to witness the daily trials firsthand. Educators and administrators had multiple suggestions for some of the more difficult jobs in different grade levels and various types of schools, and school districts selected specific teachers who agreed to be shadowed. From the kindergarten teacher in an urban district to the college professor teaching behind bars, the stories provide a snapshot of life inside the classroom for five of the more than 100,000 New Jersey educators who report to work each day.

Dana Tattoli: Special needs, special challenges

Dana Tattoli teaches her class at CTC Academy in Oakland. (Steve Hockstein | For NJ Advance Media)

Dana Tattoli’s question should have been simple for middle school students to answer. Holding a laminated paper clock with a royal blue hour hand and a bright red minute hand, Tattoli asked her class what the clock should look like if 30 minutes had passed since 2 p.m.

“For 2:30, where does the hour hand go?” Tattoli asked, her brown eyes widening as she finished the question. The answer didn’t come easily.

Tattoli teaches at CTC Academy[1], a private school for ages 7-21 in Oakland, Bergen County, where public schools send students with disabilities so severe that they can’t accommodate them. None of the students in Tattoli’s classroom can speak. Most can’t walk. Some will never have the dexterity to hold a pencil. With the wide range of disabilities at the school, teachers at CTC must be remarkably patient and perpetually upbeat while tailoring their lesson plans to each student individually. Tattoli, a cheerful 26-year-old, knew full well what she signed up for — she has two siblings with disabilities and left her job at a preschool three years ago in pursuit of more challenging work, she said.

“It’s the kids,” Tattoli said, explaining why she enjoys a difficult job. “They each have their own personalities and when you get to know them, you can’t help but want to make them better and want to help them out in any possible way.”

The hallways at the sparkling new school of about 70 students are lined with walkers, wheelchairs and other devices used to help students sit, stand and travel throughout the school. Nurses come in and out of the classrooms to help with nebulizer treatments or feeding tubes. It’s not unusual for a student to fall asleep during a lesson. After graduation, at age 21, most CTC students live with their families and are not independent enough to hold a job, Tattoli said.

“Our mission,” said Laura DelDuca, the school’s principal, “is to help our kids be the best they can be.”

No delay for school start times[2]

In Tattoli’s class of students in grades 6-8, each student has cerebral palsy, a motor function impairment caused by damage to the developing brain. The disability can carry a range of physical and cognitive affects — including abnormal reflexes, difficulty walking and intellectual disabilities — which present differently in each student. Because Tattoli’s 10 students each have different capabilities, she must differentiate how she teaches every one of them. She keeps five students and their personal aides in the classroom at a time while sending the others to physical therapy or other support programs.

To find an answer to her question about the clock, Tattoli asked each student to respond individually. She began with a 13-year-old girl who was beginning to fall asleep.

“We have to wake up, get that body up,” Tattoli said, asking the student’s aide to help her stand. The girl, unlike some of her classmates, has the fine motor skills to point with her index finger, so Tattoli held a black Velcro board with two cards stuck on it, one with the number two and another with the number six.

“Where does the hour hand go for 2:30?” she asked. The student fidgeted and sat back down. Tattoli asked the question again.

“Where does the hour hand go? Two or six?” she asked.

The teen stretched her index finger forward and pressed it against the two, earning a “good job” from Tattoli. Moving across the spacious room, Tattoli asked the same question to each student in a slightly different way, smiling and making eye contact with each of the students, who were arranged in a semi-circle around her. One student used her feet to control a computer and selected the number two from the options on her screen.

For another student, who struggles with range of motion, Tattoli took the cards off the Velcro board and held them far enough apart that the girl was forced her to cross her right arm to her left side of her body to point to the correct answer. It’s a routine Tattoli repeats day after day, question after question.

“Our teachers need to be incredibly creative, incredibly patient, empathetic,” DelDuca said. “(Dana) is just so optimistic and she honestly has expectations for each and every one of her students in her room to progress and grow.”

Lisa Fischman: Newark’s ‘new first grade’

Lisa Fischman teaches her kindergarten class at the Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Newark. (Ed Murray | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

Lisa Fischman has a monster in her classroom. His name is the More Monster and he eats, well, more. More potato chips, more pizza, more pickles, whatever food there’s a greater number of, the More Monster eats it, inspiring giggles from the children in Fischman’s class.

When Fischman starts drawing pictures of food on her whiteboard, the kids know what is coming: “He wants to eat things that are…,” she began.

“More,” the 5 and 6 year olds said in unison. The monster — a greater-than symbol with teeth drawn inside of it — is one of Fischman’s many creations used to blur the lines between playing and learning, a balance she’s been forced to master. Fischman is a full-day kindergarten teacher at Harriet Tubman School in Newark, one of the most challenging jobs in any environment. Amid a national push in recent years to increase the rigor of kindergarten, Fischman’s tasked with taking students historically at-risk of falling behind and setting them ahead of the curve.

“All the requirements and expectations of kindergarten have been amped up,” said Fischman, a towering 32-year-old who played professional basketball in Israel before becoming a teacher six years ago. “Kindergarten is the new first grade.”

Every school day, Fischman reports to an aging building just a few blocks north of Springfield Avenue in Newark’s central ward. Among the state’s oldest schools, Harriet Tubman School was built in 1875 — when Ulysses S. Grant was president. In Newark, like many other urban districts, Fischman’s students face tough odds. Newark’s state test scores for reading and math are among New Jersey’s lowest[3], and about one-in-four Newark Public Schools students fail to finish high school on time, despite a rising graduation rate[4]. At Harriet Tubman, some students arrive without the basic social and emotional skills expected for school-age children, such as sharing or potty training, principal Malcolm Outlaw said. For them, academic learning becomes even more difficult.

Nationally, the focus of kindergarten has shifted thanks in part to high stakes testing in elementary and middle school and the ambitious goals for “college and career readiness.”

“Kindergarten is not a mandatory grade in the state of New Jersey, but it where a child’s academic foundation begins,” Fischman said.

Where teachers make the most[5]

In a classroom where nearly every inch of wall space is covered by posters and students’ art projects, Fischman’s students are counting by 5s and 10s, reading short books and learning how different punctuation marks change the way they should read a sentence out loud.

“Let’s take a look at page 3,” Fischman asked a group of her most advanced readers. “Can you find a punctuation mark that shows us that we need to read with expression?”

One student pointed to a comma. Another to quotation marks. After Fischman told students to look at the end of the sentence, they found an exclamation point.

“When we see an exclamation point, it usually means that the writer is what?” she asked.

“Excited,” one student said before the group read the sentence together in their best excited voices. Even with the more rigorous requirements, Fischman tries to make kindergarten just as fun as it has always been. When her students count, they do it while dancing along to a music video she plays on her smartboard. When they read, they wear green, plastic witch fingers with long, pointy finger nails for singling out each word.

And the students probably don’t even realize when they are taking a test, Fischman said. To disguise what’s happening, she calls her exams “brain bombs.”

“I am the corniest person you will ever meet,” Fischman said. “I try to teach them the way that I would like to learn.”

The district considers Fischman’s class a model, Outlaw said. Teachers from across the district visit to observe her approach and see what they can incorporate into their own classrooms. Raising academic expectations for kindergarten without sacrificing students’ fun isn’t something every teacher can do, Outlaw said.

“It’s taken her a whole lot of work in order to do that,” Outlaw said. “Do you want to put in that time and effort to combine two worlds? That’s what it takes and that’s what she put forth.”

Jeffrey Linn: Breaking the language barrier

Jeffrey Linn, an English-as-a-second-language teacher, leads a group of students at Hillcrest Elementary School in Franklin Township. (Andrew Miller | For NJ Advance Media)

It was a school night many years ago, as Jeffrey Linn recalled, when he left work and drove to a nice Chinese restaurant in Franklin Township. Linn sat down at a table, but didn’t order anything. A dishwasher emerged from the kitchen and sat down across from him. In Mandarin Chinese, the two began a conversation about the man’s son, Linn said.

“It was his first time to hear anything about this child that he understood,” Linn said, recalling one his most unusual parent-teacher conferences.

In 27 years as an English-as-a-second-language (ESL) teacher in diverse Franklin Township, Somerset County, Linn has grown accustomed to working outside of the box. He’s directly responsible for students who could get lost in the shuffle – those who could all too easily slip through the cracks – and has helped the district reinvent the way it teaches the English language. In Franklin, a melting pot of a community, Linn, 54, has seen “every imaginable language, almost” pass through the hallways, he said. From the students who can’t speak a full sentence in any language to those who are fluent in English but have a dearth of knowledge of academic terms, every student each year comes with their own set of challenges, he said. The hardest cases, he said, are students who are trying to learn English while struggling with dyslexia or dysgraphia, a condition that affects students’ ability to write.

“You have to resign yourself to the fact that you are not going to have a really big social life,” said Linn, tall, bald and bespectacled. “You are going to come here early, you are going to leave here late, and you are going to go home and hit the couch.”

This year, for the first time, Linn is a veritable nomad of a teacher. Because of overcrowding at his school, Hillcrest Elementary, he has no classroom — not that it dampers his enthusiasm.

“I absolutely love language,” he said, sitting on a bench at the entrance to the school gymnasium.

U.S. News’ best high schools[6]

Franklin, like most districts, uses a push-in, pull-out model, which means Linn spends half of his time in his students’ regular class and the other half pulling them out for special instruction in an empty classroom somewhere else in the school. But unlike the traditional ESL method, the district leaves students in their primary classroom for reading and writing and pulls them out for science and math. Linn subscribes to a teaching method called Total Physical Response (TPR), in which certain words have a physical response that students do as they say it. He’s taken that approach to the extreme, or “TPR on steroids,” as his supervisor Julie Ochoa called it.

Every single vocabulary word Linn teaches is broken down into a series of hand motions students perform as they sound out each syllable. In a recent lesson on energy sources, Linn (in a portable classroom in a trailer outside the school) taught six third-graders words such as replenish and recreate.

“Now we have this word, nonrenewable,” Linn said. “Does anybody know what ‘non’ means?”

“Like, do not?” a student said. Linn asked the class to look at him as he shook his head back and forth.

“This is non,” he said, head moving left to right.

Then, he twirled his index finger in a circular motion twice and said “re.”

As the students watched closely, Linn completed the hand signals for “new” and “able.”

“Non-re-new-able. Non-re-new-able” the students repeated aloud, mimicking Linn’s hand motions.

“Because it’s non, you don’t have the ability to make it new again,” Linn explained to the class. “That’s the word nonrenewable, and it’s related to energy sources and it’s really important.”

The method is so successful that Hillcrest has begun using it in its regular education classes. Academic words such as identify, analyze and summarize are taught to all students, not just English language learners, with hand motions and phrases that will help students remember them.

“Now, the whole building pays attentions to those words in this kind of way,” said Ochoa, the district’s supervisor of ESL and bilingual instruction. “Jeff is making an impact on the entire population at Hillcrest, which is really wonderful.”

Aimee Babbin: Lofty expectations

Aimee Babbin teaches honors physics to sophomores at High Technology High School. (Ed Murray | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

Aimee Babbin’s job is easy. At least that’s what other people think, she said. In fact, it’s beyond easy, she’s heard. It’s the five-letter word that makes teachers cringe: cushy.

“You teach science at a science school,” Babbin said with exasperation, mimicking what she’s heard. “Your life must be so easy.”

Babbin, 31, understands the perception. After all, she teaches some of New Jersey’s smartest students in her physics and chemistry classes at High Technology High School, a specialized school for Monmouth County’s top academic performers. U.S. News and World Report has named High Tech the nation’s best school for science, technology, engineering and math three years running. Trying to meet her students’ lofty expectations, managing their colossal stress and answering a never-ending series of questions that go above and beyond her curriculum, sometimes leaves Babbin worried she’s not doing enough.

“Everyone wants to learn the most that they can from every single class and get the most they can from every single teacher,” explained Rachael Hutson, a fast-talking junior at the school who hopes to attend an Ivy League university. “The teachers have to adapt to that.”

High Tech, a pre-engineering academy in the Monmouth County Vocational Technical District, accepts about 75 new freshman students each year through a competitive application process that considers GPA and scores from an entrance exam. The families of students who make the cut expect results, so much so that many students pre-study their textbooks during the summer to gain an edge, students say. Most students at High Tech’s campus in Middletown Township dream of attending elite universities and have reason to believe they can get in — the school’s average SAT score was 1,506 out of 1,600 last school year, the highest in New Jersey.

If a student is on track to earn a grade lower than an 80 percent in a class, their parents must be notified, according to school policy, Babbin said.

“There’s not much fooling around,” said Aneesh Agrawal, a senior from Middletown Township. “Most of the kids are academically driven. That’s why they are here.”

How to go to a top school[7]

That drive is apparent in Babbin’s physics class. During a recent lab period, Babbin — better known as “Babbs” among students — bounced from lab table to lab table, answering question after question about how to charge a capacitor. Several times, students left their seats to stand behind her so they could capture her attention the second she finished answering her latest inquiry. By the end of the period, dozens of “Miss Babbin” queries were asked and answered. Often, students pose theoretical questions or seek higher-level discussions that typically wouldn’t be covered until college, Babbin said. When she first started teaching at the school, she would go on 20-minute tangents trying to explain complicated concepts. Now, she tells students to ask her during lunch, she said.

“I spend hours every night prepping,” said Babbin, who has earned a reputation as the laid-back, self-deprecating, joke-making cool teacher. “If I want my students to be working at a semi-collegiate level… I need to know the material inside and out.”

Babbin knows firsthand the pressure her students face. She graduated from High Tech in 2004 before earning a chemistry degree and master’s in education from Monmouth University. To combat stress, she tries to lighten the mood with jokes, ends especially dry sentences with “Yay physics!” and taps her fingers together in a jokingly maniacal way when she stumps her class with a question. If everyone is wrong, everyone is learning, she said.

“Remember what I said about being wrong?” Babbin recently told her physics class. “It’s awesome. Now is the time to be wrong.”

In those moments, Babbin knows she is making a difference, something she wasn’t sure she could do when she first got the job.

“I was nervous that I wouldn’t be good enough for High Tech,” she said. “Honestly, that feeling doesn’t really go away.”

Michele Tarter: Teaching behind bars

Michele Tarter, a professor of english at The College of New Jersey, teaches a writing workshop at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Union Township, Hunterdon County. (Keith A. Muccilli | For NJ Advance Media)

That first class. The nerves. The pounding heart. Michele Tarter remembers it all so vividly, she said. It was 1998, and Tarter was a young professor at Eastern Illinois University with an idea to do something different. So, there she was in a classroom at a maximum-security prison. About 15 women, violent criminals and convicted murderers among them, formed a circle around Tarter and waited to learn about women’s autobiographies, she said.

“I must confess to you… when they came in, I thought ‘Wow. What am I doing?'” remembered Tarter, now a professor at The College of New Jersey.

Since then, Tarter has spent parts of the last 16 years going onto prison turf, under strict prison rules, to reach some of the state’s longest-serving inmates at New Jersey’s only maximum security prison for women. It’s a position so unenviable that TCNJ didn’t even have a program for teaching prisoners before Tarter asked if she could do it for free during her spare time, she said. Citing potential disruptions for inmates, the state Department of Corrections denied NJ Advance Media’s request to shadow a college professor teaching in a state prison. But Tarter agreed to share her inside story of teaching at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Hunterdon County because she wants people to know that prison inmates are worth teaching, she said.

“My experience has been that they are so hungry to learn that they are often much more engaged than a lot of my college students,” Tarter said.

TCNJ renames building[8]

For Tarter, the challenge of working in the prison has never been the inmates. The scary part, she said, is getting to them. It’s about a 40-minute process that starts with a metal detector and ends after three locked gates, two security checkpoints and one ride in a prison guard’s vehicle. One time, a TCNJ student coming to help Tarter teach was forced to take off her bra because of the wires inside and leave it in a locker, Tarter said. On another occasion, guards confiscated about $500 worth of supplies, including colored pencils and adult coloring books Tarter had brought for her class.

“The only fear that comes is with the guards, and when it comes I just go with the flow,” said Tarter, who stands about 5-foot-3-inches and 110 pounds. “I go in with respect and with the eye on the prize, which is I’ve got to get into that classroom.”

Tarter’s works almost exclusively with prisoners in maximum security, and her students have run the gamut from women who killed in cold blood to mothers whose only crime was not calling police after their son or daughter admitted to killing someone, Tarter said. Some of the women who take the workshop are serving life sentences and will likely never step foot outside of the prison again, she said. What the women are in for, Tartar said, doesn’t matter once they get inside the classroom, a square room with a chalkboard, a fiberglass window for the guards to watch from and the kind of white plastic chairs that can be stacked on top of each other.

Tarter has taught the workshop on women’s memoir writing in a variety of formats over the years, depending on her availability. Sometimes, it’s been a semester-long class that meets for three hours each week. Currently, she visits the prison a few times each year for full-day sessions, and the inmates receive no college credit. The classes usually begin with some reading, which the inmates then discuss, followed by quiet time for writing and, finally, time for sharing each other’s work. The goal, Tarter said, is to help the women achieve self-reckoning and healing through the written word. That’s exactly what happened for Cynthia Cupe, who was convinced of stabbing a woman to death during an argument in Newark in the summer of 1986, she said. Before Cupe took Tarter’s class several years ago, she felt like she had lost her voice, like her opinion didn’t matter, she told NJ Advance Media in a telephone interview.

Today, Cupe has been out of prison for about a year and is attending classes at Rutgers University. She credits Tarter with helping her heal and find her confidence.

“She didn’t judge us,” Cupe said. “She challenged us, made us feel like we were more than just our crimes, more than what we had been convicted of, that we were valued as human beings, that we did matter, that we pretty much still could find meaning in life.”

Adam Clark may be reached at

References

  1. ^ CTC Academy (ctcacademy.org)
  2. ^ No delay for school start times (www.nj.com)
  3. ^ among New Jersey’s lowest (www.nj.com)
  4. ^ a rising graduation rate (www.nj.com)
  5. ^ Where teachers make the most (www.nj.com)
  6. ^ U.S. News’ best high schools (www.nj.com)
  7. ^ How to go to a top school (www.nj.com)
  8. ^ TCNJ renames building (www.nj.com)
  9. ^

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