When Jeanne DelColle was growing up in Willingboro, she imagined a future in which she was the female Indiana Jones. But her high school English teacher, Glenn Zuroski, pictured her in another field. “He was the one who said he thought I’d be a good teacher,” DelColle remembers.
Today, DelColle is considered not just a good teacher, but one of the best in a state widely acknowledged as having the most highly qualified teachers in the nation. In October, she was named the N.J. Teacher of the Year, 2011-12.
DelColle, a U.S. history and honors world history teacher at the Burlington County Institute of Technology, initially pursued archaeology and public service.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from Richard Stockton College and a diploma in politics and international studies from the University of Warwick, DelColle was working at a law firm in England when she felt that something was missing. She thought of Mr. Zuroski and decided to return to New Jersey and work as a substitute teacher to see if a career in education was right for her.
Her first call came on a warm, late spring day and landed her in an eighth-grade classroom. “The students tried to pull every trick in the book,” DelColle remembers. “At the end of the day, I was exhausted beyond anything I had  ever experienced, but I was also exhilarated because I had finally found a place where I could make a difference. I knew from that point on that teaching was my calling.”
DelColle pursued her teacher certification with the same intensity she brought to her earlier studies. She earned a bachelor’s degree with program distinction in liberal arts with social studies and teacher certification. Her first teaching position was at Willingboro High School, the same school she had attended. Mr. Zuroski served as her unofficial mentor .
In 2003, DelColle moved to the Burlington County Institute of Technology, a close-knit environment for students and staff. The students come from 43sending districts and many home-schooled students enroll for the excellent programs. In addition to traditional vo-tech programs such as cosmetology, horticulture, and mechanics, the school also offers engineering, law and public safety, and entertainment technology programs. At the end of their studies, students receive a high school diploma as well as the certifications they need to start their careers.
Bringing relevancy to the social studies
“My favorite area to teach is the Renaissance,” DelColle said. “I love bringing in the humanities, literature, and art. It’s not just facts; you can use these topics to hopscotch through history and  reflect on how these ideas affect the human experience in the past as well as the present.”
“Every morning we have a Philosophy Corner,” DelColle said. “It gives me an opportunity to get my students writing and thinking about a theme or quote and how it relates to their lives.”
DelColle keeps her lessons fresh by including her real-life experiences. She continues to work in the field of archaeology during the summer months. Every other year, she takes a trip to places like Jordan, Egypt, and Mongolia. Some of the excursions have been with  EarthWatch, an international non-profit organization that engages people worldwide in scientific field research and education. She funds these trips through grants and extra-curricular work and brings what she’s learned back to her classroom. In other years, she participates in projects stateside. In 2001, she attended the Dar al Islam Teachers Institute in New Mexico.
“When my students walk out of my classroom, I want them to look at the world around them, make their own decisions, and be aware of their place in the world,” DelColle said.
Closer to home, DelColle and her classes are working on a project examining Civil War-era letters written by a 17-year old soldier from Recklesstown (now New Chesterfield) who corresponded with his sister in Bordentown and cousins in New Egypt. It’s a partnership with the Burlington County Historical Society that is also permitting DelColle to engage her students in a conversation about the lives of soldiers over the years.
DelColle enjoys bringing projects like these into the classroom to help get her students thinking and talking about the lessons they can apply in their own lives.
“If you don’t know about art, music, and history, then you can’t be a good citizen,” DelColle said. “If you’re not exposed to these things, you don’t have a choice. You need to teach students art, music, and philosophy to show them how to make their way out of whatever’s holding them back. My students sometimes complain when I bring in so many different subjects, but I explain to them that you don’t live life one subject at a time so I’m not teaching it that way.”
A passionate professional
After 15 years in education, DelColle maintains a high level of excitement and interest in her work. She has been a presenter at the American Schools of Oriental Research Conference. She was a guest lecturer on daily life in ancient times for the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute. She has been a leader in technology education and led a cohort for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in her district. In 2010, she was chosen the Teacher of the Year by the N.J. Council for the Humanities and was named Outstanding Woman of the Year in Education by the Burlington County Advisory Council in 2011.
DelColle continues to pursue ambitious goals. In 2010, she earned her M.A. in liberal studies at Rutgers University-Camden, with distinction for her thesis, which focused on the links between archaeology, ethics, and education. She is currently doing other course work and hopes to enter a doctoral program.
As the N.J. Teacher of the Year, DelColle will spend six months on a sabbatical funded by Education Testing Service (ETS). She will be working with the NJ Department of Education in Trenton helping to provide a teacher voice. In addition, she will be touring the state and talking about education issues. NJEA is providing DelColle with a rental car, EZ Pass, $500 clothing allowance, staff support, and a commemorative ring. ING is providing $5,000 to help cover travel costs. SMART Technologies is donating a complete SMART Technologies classroom to DelColle’s school.
Despite the excitement of these changes, DelColle is already working on ways to stay connected to her students. She has created a Twitter account, @NJTOYMsD, and is encouraging students to communicate with her that way. Even so, she will be leaving some disappointed students behind.
“Because our school is on the semester system, I’ll be able to finish the semester with the students I have,” DelColle said. “But I already have students coming in with long faces telling me they were supposed to be in my class next semester. I explain to them that as the Teacher of the Year, my responsibility is now not just to them but to all the students in New Jersey.”
Kathy Coulibaly is an NJEA associate director of communications.