By Kathryn Coulibaly, NJEA staff
Argine Safari’s classroom at Pascack Valley High School is a hive of activity. Students enter during their lunch period to practice “My Shot” from “Hamilton” with a group or to play Adele songs on the piano independently. The walls are decorated with photos of previous classes and choral groups, family photos, and fluorescent collages commemorating performances. The stadium seating permits maximum visibility for the woman at the center of the action, even as a stuffed gorilla hunched over the drum set in the back of the room does its best to distract.
For the past 11 years, this has been the epicenter of Safari’s professional life, but her story begins far away, in Yerevan, Armenia. Safari and her twin sister grew up listening to their father play the piano and sing in their living room. Some of her earliest memories are of his voice filling their house with sound. As the girls grew, their parents would hold musical weekends and encourage them to sing and make music.
“My parents recognized our talent early on and encouraged it,” Safari remembers.
At 17, Safari left home to study musicology and theory at the world-renowned Moscow Conservatory. She thrived at the school, and developed a lifelong relationship with her professor and mentor, world famous scholar Dr. Valentina Nikolayevna Kholopova.
“Dr. K is my role model as a teacher,” Safari says. “She respects her students deeply, she pushes them as far as they can go, and then she supports them throughout their careers.”
At 21, Safari married her husband, Tigran. While working on her doctorate at the conservatory, Argine had their first child, a daughter named Beata.
Shortly after, the Safaris were granted refugee status and immigrated to the United States.
Their son, Areg, now a freshman at Pascack Valley High School, was born in the United States. Beata is now a student at Seton Hall University School of Law, and Safari’s husband is a vice president of a technology company in New Jersey.
Before becoming a teacher, Safari had a variety of jobs, including translator, insurance agent and even a stint on Wall Street.
As interesting as those careers were, education and the performing arts were her passion. She taught for several years at the Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy, an all-audition school, while gaining her business and finance degree from Brooklyn College. It was around that time that Safari helped a student who had lost her father in the 9/11 attacks prepare and audition for a top performing school in New York.
The student’s acceptance turned out to be a pivotal point in Safari’s decision to become a full-time teacher. She joined the Pascack Valley School District in 2005 after pursuing the alternate route to teaching through the New Pathways Program.
At Pascack Valley, Safari had the unique opportunity to build the choral program from scratch. She introduced several new classes, including Advanced Placement Music Theory, keyboard, and Music and Society, a cross-curricular course on music and its impact on society.
But the struggle has been, and continues to be, scheduling. Safari knows that because her class is not a core subject, she has to be flexible in order to provide the maximum number of students with the opportunity to pursue music. That’s why her classroom is always open, including during lunch and free periods, and her students are constantly working to refine their songs and learn new ones.
The songs Safari selects also reflect her worldview. Her students sing in a variety of languages and musical styles. Just this year, in addition to a song from “Hamilton,” students were preparing songs in Italian, Latin, Swahili, and a Christmas madrigal in English.
Their pursuit of excellence and respect for other cultures paid off for them when Safari took a group of students to compete in Ireland last year. Their tour guide happened to have his own radio station. The students gave him a CD with some of their songs, and he played their version of the Irish favorite, “Molly Malone.”
“The guide told us, ‘This is the best rendition of the song,’” Safari says. And, if visions of dozens of high school students touring Ireland give you heart palpitations, Safari says that the students received numerous compliments for their behavior, performance, and work ethic. Safari is not surprised.
“Music transforms us and makes us better people,” Safari says. “It connects people and everyone feels like they contribute to the final result.”
That spirit of cooperation doesn’t just extend to her students. Safari believes that collaboration is the heart of what educators do. She admits to peering into the classrooms of her colleagues to get new ideas, and she is especially looking forward to visiting the classrooms of the other county teachers of the year.
Safari also works collaboratively with her colleagues at Pascack Valley High School. This year, Safari is working with English, theater, and French teachers in the district to present a cross-curricular look at Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” that incorporates Charles-François Gounod’s opera, “Roméo et Juliette” and “West Side Story.”
In January, two days after the start of her sabbatical, provided to her by ETS as the New Jersey State Teacher of the Year, Safari will reunite with her students and colleagues to see Gounod’s opera at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Until then, Safari is building her students’ understanding and appreciation for the opera by teaching them the parts of the opera, who the performers are, and about the composer.
“I love exposing students to something they think they would never be interested in,” Safari says. “For the majority of them, this is their first opportunity to experience opera.”
Safari ensures that the first experience is magical and memorable. A member of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, Safari gets discount tickets for the best seats in the house.
“The opera is not like Broadway,” Safari says. “When you go to the opera, you need to know what it is about. You have to research in advance.”
Seeing the opera also influences her students’ approach to their own performances. “The power of music and live performances heightens the emotions,” Safari says. It also inspires them to do their best when they compete or present a live performance.
“My students are in a bubble—they don’t necessarily recognize how good they are, so these competitions and performances help them see why we are doing what we are doing and how it pays off,” Safari says. “It boosts their self-confidence and encourages them to put in even more effort.”
Seeing Safari recognized for her hard work and achievements has had a positive impact on her students. When the students stumbled over a song on the day the NJEA Review visited, one of the students urged the other students, “Act like you’re being conducted by Argine Safari.”
“You have to have really high expectations of your students, no matter what,” Safari believes. “They don’t know what they’re capable of. Our mission is to make them believe in themselves and to cultivate in them the value of hard work.”
Safari still credits Kholopova, her professor and mentor at the Moscow Conservatory, with inspiring her to be her best; ultimately leading her to be named the Teacher of the Year. Kholopova, now 80 years old, had invited Safari to present her teaching philosophy at an international conference in Moscow Conservatory this past February. After Argine’s presentation, she proudly told her, “I wish I was in your classroom to learn from you.” For Safari, there is no higher compliment, but the Teacher of the Year recognition comes close.
“I’m overwhelmed and so honored to have been chosen as the New Jersey State Teacher of the Year,” Safari says. “There are so many outstanding educators in New Jersey; it’s a stroke of luck for me to be chosen. But it’s an opportunity for me to talk about the value of education and the work that we do and to advocate for teachers on a whole other level.”
In addition to the sabbatical, SMART Technologies will provide Safari with the SMART Classroom Technology Package, which includes hardware and software. NJEA will provide Safari with a rental car, equipped with EZ Pass, to help her travel to speaking engagements and meetings across the state. NJEA also will provide complimentary access to all major NJEA workshops and training opportunities, a $500 clothing allowance, media training and communications support, and funding for a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with the other state teachers of the year and the president of the United States.
The 2016-17 New Jersey County Teachers of the Year are an impressive group of educators. NJEA applauds their achievements inside and outside the classroom. The county teachers of the year work closely together throughout the school year and continue their service to the profession after their terms are completed. Many offer professional development programs, speak at public events, and present at the NJEA Convention.