Kathleen AssiniKathleen Assini, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Delsea Regional Middle School and the 2013-14 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year, has a complicated relationship with textbooks.

Assini, a second-career educator, learned quickly that textbooks were not going to hold all the answers she would need to be successful in her new career.

“My fifth day of teaching was Sept. 11, 2001, in Milltown, Middlesex County.” Assini recalled. “My students had parents in New York City. In the face of what was going on just 35 miles outside our classroom, my students didn’t need anything from me that I’d learned in my education program. I realized that day that teaching is not about the textbook, it’s about the kids.”

A winding road to a successful career

Like many teachers, Assini knew at a young age which profession she wanted to pursue.

“From the time I was a little girl I knew I wanted to be a math teacher,” Assini said. “I was inspired by my sixth-grade math and language arts teacher, Mrs. Pastorini. She made me love school and inspired me to become a teacher just like her.”

Assini had always done well in school but after an illness during her junior year of high school she fell behind in math. She clashed with the college professor who was brought in to teach her algebra/trigonometry class.

“One day, she wrote something on the board that I just didn’t understand,” Assini remembers. “I raised my hand and said I didn’t ‘get’ what she had written. She told me that there was nothing to ‘get.’ In frustration, I began ripping pieces of the page out of my textbook and putting them in my mouth. The teacher asked me what I was doing and I explained that clearly the only way the information on that page was getting into my brain was if I digested it.”

Concerned that all college math professors would be like the one with whom she had conflicted, Assini decided to take secretarial classes during her senior year of high school, giving up on her goal of becoming a math teacher.

“As a woman in 1979, you were either going to be a teacher or a secretary,” Assini said.

After a semester at community college, Assini worked as a bookkeeper until she was told in an evaluation that, while she always got her work done well and efficiently, she was “too social.” That day, she went to a friend’s hair salon for a haircut. She liked the atmosphere so much that she decided to go to cosmetology school – even though it meant postponing her wedding for several months.

Following a year at cosmetology school, Assini went to work at a friend’s salon in Somerset County where she remained for 25 years.

By this time, Assini had married her high school sweetheart, Drew. Their first date was at the senior prom.

When their two children, Drew and Jamie, were younger, Assini’s career as a hair dresser was convenient. With a flexible schedule at the salon, Assini was able to volunteer at the school and coach athletic teams for her children. She served as class mother, PTA president and book fair chairperson, and often chaperoned class trips.

Assini’s son Drew played a large part in her return to her first love. An extremely intelligent child, he also always had a lot of energy, and that could be challenging for his teachers. One day Drew came home from school and announced to his mother that he had gotten in trouble with his teacher at school. “I don’t know what her problem is, mom, I was only hanging from the coat rack.”

On class trips, Assini would always be assigned her own child as well as some of his rowdy friends. One of the teachers suggested that Assini would make a good teacher’s aide since she dealt so well with these students. This got Assini thinking about her childhood dream of becoming a teacher.

In 1998, Assini went back to college and earned a bachelor’s degree and K-12 teaching certification in just three and a half years from Kean University, graduating summa cum laude. She credits advances in technology with helping her to achieve her goal while juggling all of her other responsibilities.

“Computers have made information so much more accessible for career changers – you can do research and homework at 11 o’clock at night, after you’ve put your children to bed. You don’t have to spend hours in the college library.”

She landed her first teaching job at Joyce Kilmer Middle School in Milltown before moving to Delsea in 2004. Assini has since earned a Master’s of Science in Education, 21st Century Teaching and Learning from Wilkes University in 2011.

Technology – which helped her to pursue a career in education – has become an increasingly important part of her career. While earning her master’s degree, she immediately applied everything she was learning in her classroom at Delsea Regional. When technology didn’t work out the way she wanted, she modeled dealing with those kinds of challenges. This was particularly important for her honors students, who typically have a hard time dealing with academic curve balls.

Assini also has assisted her colleagues as a technology mentor. She enjoys showing her colleagues how to use Edmodo, Prezi, Glogster, and other tools to make the most of the technology available to them.

Let’s talk about teaching

Kathleen Assini and familyIn her new role as state teacher of the year, Assini hopes to bridge the gap between classroom teachers and the people making policy decisions about education.

“I want to put the classroom teacher’s voice into the conversation about policies and procedures that are coming out of Trenton and Washington and seemingly from everywhere.”

Assini has served on numerous district steering committees convened to address grading and discipline, and is a member of the faculty council. She has been a leader and trainer for the implementation of professional learning communities in the district and from schools in the sending districts. In addition, she serves as the chair of the Professional Development Committee, and since Delsea Regional participated in the pilot program for the new teacher evaluation system, Assini was a member of the district training committee.

“As one of the first teachers in my district to be observed voluntarily with the new evaluation tool, I served as a guinea pig for my administrators and was able to calm the apprehensions of colleagues by speaking from personal experience. I want to be the intermediary who helps to calm people down on both sides,” she said.

Assini understands the concerns of her colleagues. “Teachers want to be perfect for our students and the Common Core and new evaluation procedures make teachers feel insecure.

“I tell administrators: please tell us that you’re struggling through this new evaluation process with us. Everyone thinks that it’s just teachers that are having a hard time understanding the new procedures and that’s not true.”

Assini is not a fan of increased testing. She takes pains to discover what type of learner each of her students is so that she can differentiate instruction to meet their needs. She remembers all too well the frustration she experienced as a high school junior.

“I find it so hard to fit in the tests I’m expected to give to quantify learning because I’m giving my students week-long, collaborative projects where they produce the learning. These types of projects are so much more in line with the kinds of projects they will face in the workforce and the kind of learning that gets them excited and engaged.”

Over the summer, Assini worked with another eighth-grade teacher to develop an assessment that included quotes from primary sources, maps, and content-specific questions.

“If we’re doing multiple-choice questions, we can’t get above a level two depth of knowledge,” Assini said. “Multiple-choice will never get us to a level three or four. So we added a second level of questioning to find out what information or skills led students to their answer on multiple-choice questions.”

Despite the increased emphasis on testing, Assini is fully committed to ensuring that her students know that she cares about each of them as a whole person.

“I feel my greatest contributions and accomplishments in education are the connections I have made with students. I measure my accomplishments in education not so much by the number of ‘A’s’ my students earn in my class, but by the safety and comfort they feel there, and their willingness to do their best even when it is not easy.”

It’s a family affair

In the evenings, Assini has taken on additional work as a teacher in Delsea’s alternative high school program. The program is for students who do not succeed in the typical high school environment. She uses a lot of humor to reach her students in the alternative program. “I’m trying to help them   learn how to learn.”

Assini’s children have certainly learned that lesson.  Each has followed her intoa  career in education. Her son, Drew, is a faculty member in the psychology department at Rowan University and a mental health counselor. Her daughter, Jamie, is a health and physical education teacher in Delran. Jamie’s husband, Shawn, is a history teacher at the same school. Jamie and Shawn have a son, Carter Michael, who is 18 months old, and are expecting a second child in March.

Assini’s husband, Drew, who supported his wife during every step of her professional journey, is a loss prevention director for Collins Family Markets, which operates ShopRite grocery stores in Philadelphia and Maryland. Now he will help her prepare for yet another role.

The New Jersey Teacher of the Year program is sponsored by NJEA, Educational Testing Service (ETS), and SMART Technologies. NJEA provides the Teacher of the Year with a rental car, E-Z Pass, $500 clothing allowance, staff support, and a commemorative ring. 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 also provides a personal computer.  SMART Technologies is donating a complete SMART Technologies classroom to Assini’s school and is providing the necessary training to effectively implement the new materials. In addition, SMART is donating technological resources to each of the five finalists for state teacher of the year.

In January, Assini begins her sabbatical working in Trenton with the N.J. Department of Education. She is most interested in working on projects related to the recruitment and retention of teachers.

“My goal is to return to my classroom after this year is over and bring all that I’ve learned and experienced back with me to my students and my colleagues.”

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