Perth Amboy
 Perth Amboy fourth-grade educator named N.J. teacher of the year.
Lauren Marrocco’s smiling face and soothing voice cannot hide the fact that she is an extremely driven person.

“I hold myself to a very high standard because I feel that it is my responsibility to help my students learn and achieve. In order to accomplish that, I need to be the very best that I can be,” Marrocco says.

Marrocco’s high standards for herself and her students have been recognized – in October she was named the 2012-13 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year.

A fourth-grade teacher at Edward J. Patten Elementary School in Perth Amboy, Marrocco chairs the School Leadership and Staff Development Committee, serves as an educational leader for her district, has helped to revise curricula, and has assisted in the development of a district-wide lesson plan format.

In 2009, she completed her master’s degree in educational administration and supervision at Kean University while simultaneously completing the work necessary to earn National Board Certification in reading and language arts literacy.

Marrocco, a graduate of East Brunswick public schools, decided in the sixth grade that she wanted to be a teacher after participating in a career course. After determining that she wanted to work with children, she researched careers in medicine before selecting education.

Determined to improve

Marrocco began her career as a first-grade teacher at Edward J. Patten Elementary School in Perth Amboy, where she continues to teach today. She noticed that some of her students had an “S” next to their names. Always curious – and unafraid to ask questions – she asked her principal what that designation meant. When she learned that it indicated that Spanish was their dominant language, she threw herself into learning more about their needs as learners.

What she found was that every child in her class benefited from the strategies used to reach these learners: exposure to strong visuals, providing prior knowledge, and using organizers.

As a result of her work with her Spanish-dominant learners, Marrocco became interested in sheltered language instruction, which provides grade-level instruction while promoting English language proficiency. Marrocco even signed up for a weeklong training at Kean University on sheltered instruction to improve her skills.

“I realized from the training that I was doing a lot of the things they recommended already,” Marrocco says. “I felt more confident by having the training reaffirm my instincts.”

Eventually, Marrocco’s principal selected her to teach a class of sheltered language students. For five years, Marrocco taught the sheltered language class; three years ago, she began teaching fourth grade.

Throughout her 10-year career, Marrocco has pursued opportunities to improve her skills as a teacher. She credits the close-knit community at Patten with helping her succeed as an educator.

“There’s a really strong community at the Patten School,” Marrocco says. “Although I’ve only ever worked in this school, in this district, when visitors come here they say it feels like a family. We all work to fulfill our vision for our students by providing them with strong academics as well as the emotional and social skills they need to be well-rounded people. As a staff, we all work to model that behavior for them.”

Marrocco pursued National Board Certification because she believed it would be another important step in helping her to improve as an educator. She knew that the process would be a challenge, particularly since she was pursuing her master’s degree at the same time.

“People warned me that it’s typical to fail National Board Certification the first time. But I was very motivated to succeed. Since it is a nationally recognized program I knew it would help me become a better teacher.”

Marrocco continued to work full-time at Patten while she pursued these dual goals. She attended late classes at Kean University on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. On Saturdays, she worked on graduate school assignments and on Sundays she worked on National Board Certification projects.

“The National Board Certification process really made me question every decision I made in the classroom. Now, in my role as a teacher leader, I’m sharing that with my co-workers,” Marrocco says.

 Lauren Marrocco
Marrocco uses brain-based techniques in her classroom and hopes to focus on cognitive strategies during her sabbatical.

Embracing teachable moments

Marrocco’s training has helped her address the many educational challenges facing teachers but it also helped her deal with the unique situation caused by Superstorm Sandy.

Like many districts across the state, Perth Amboy suffered damage and displacement as a result of the storm. The district was closed for two weeks as a result of Sandy and fall break. This allowed the district time to repair damage to some of the schools; many Perth Amboy families were still without power.

Once school resumed, Marrocco made it a point to give her students an opportunity to talk about Superstorm Sandy.

“Many of our students were feeling anxiety, stress, fear, and when that happens, they can’t learn,” Marrocco says. “Every morning in our classroom we hold a morning meeting. The first week after the storm the morning meeting was all about the hurricane. I asked them how they prepared for the hurricane, what happened during the storm, and what did they see in their community. For example, we had a community clean-up day where more than 1,000 people volunteered to help clean up the waterfront. We needed to move past the scary part and focus on the way people came together to help one another.”

Marrocco brought in character education and asked students what they could learn about people working together and what they could learn from their experience of being afraid.

“As educators, we need to give our students strategies and tools to help them deal with their fear because this isn’t the only time they’re going to feel this way. We need to help them learn to manage their fear.”

Marrocco is very interested in brain-based research. She worked with Quantum Learning over the summer and she believes it has helped her focus on how children learn and how the brain responds to stress and anxiety.

“During my sabbatical, I hope to bring those topics into the forefront to help us address cognitive development and ways to promote student learning and teacher efficacy.”

“I’ve learned some incredible strategies to make students spend more time on task and to develop critical problem-solving skills. Using these strategies, students take more control over their learning and teachers act as facilitators. This is easier with older students, but it can be done in early elementary classrooms, as well.”

“I’m trying to create a classroom environment where it’s okay to take a risk; it’s okay to try something and have it not work out.”

Despite this goal, Marrocco has been modeling nothing but success for her students over the past few years.

A bittersweet move

As the New Jersey Teacher of the Year Marrocco will receive a rental car, E-Z Pass, $5,000 to help cover additional travel costs, a $500 clothing allowance, staff support, and a commemorative ring from NJEA, one of the primary sponsors of the state Teacher of the Year program. SMART Technologies is donating a complete SMART Technologies classroom to Marrocco’s school and is providing the necessary training to effectively implement the new materials. Educational Testing Service (ETS) provides funding to the teacher’s school district that enables the Teacher of the Year to take a sabbatical leave from January through June.

“It’s bittersweet to leave the classroom for the ETS-sponsored sabbatical,” Marrocco says. “I’m so lucky to represent teachers in New Jersey and all these amazing educators, but it’s so hard to leave my students.”

“I struggle with the title of Teacher of the Year because I don’t consider myself the best,” Marrocco says. “I consider myself someone who loves what she does and is always striving to be better. I have never hesitated to ask other teachers for help.”

When it came time for Marrocco to inform her students that part of the honor of being the N.J. Teacher of the Year was a six-month sabbatical that would take her away from them, she used the school’s character education model to explain that this opportunity would force her to step outside her comfort zone.

“I told my students that this year will force me to step completely outside of my comfort zone,” Marrocco says. “My comfort zone is this school and this classroom. But when you step outside your comfort zone, that’s when real learning happens. As your teacher, I can’t tell you to step outside of your comfort zone and then not do it myself.”

Despite her reluctance to leave her students and her colleagues and friends at Patten, Marrocco is excited about the opportunities she will have as the Teacher of the Year.

“I’m very excited that I will get to meet the president,” Marrocco says. “When my family found out, they were so excited that a Marrocco would get to meet the president. Now they’re arguing over who gets to be my guest at the White House!”

In addition to meeting the president, Marrocco is eagerly anticipating the opportunity to talk to future teachers. She wants to share her experiences so teachers will be better prepared to face the realities of the classroom. Hopefully, they will develop the kind of relationship that Marrocco has established with her students.

Despite her well-documented determination to succeed, Marrocco gives all the credit for her achievements to her students. “I tell my students: ‘you are the reason that I got this award.’”

Kathy Coulibaly is an NJEA associate director of communications. She can be reached at Kcoulibaly@njea.org.

>> Meet N.J.’s County Teachers of the Year