By Kathryn Coulibaly
Walking into Nikki Silva’s colorful third-grade classroom at Nathan Hale Elementary School in Carteret is like walking into a hug. The students, most of whom are smiling broadly, are either engaged in a “do now” at their desks, handing in homework or flocking to their teacher’s desk to tell her about something that happened last night, share a funny anecdote or find some comfort on a tough morning.
Silva expertly balances the personal one-on-one attention her students crave with keeping the entire class on task and motivated. As Silva says, by this point in the school year, the students know there is a time for them to talk and a time for them to focus on tasks.
Silva is focused on creating a differentiated classroom where every student is reached and everyone feels successful. She works to cultivate a family atmosphere. Social-emotional learning is a major component in her practice.
“I make sure that we set a tone of respect right from the beginning,” Silva said. “Respect for each other, for me, and for their classroom.”
At the beginning of the school year, Silva convenes a class meeting and the students develop a classroom pledge that they recite every morning to remind them of their commitment to themselves, to learning, and to each other.
While most mornings look like this one, Silva experienced a very different kind of day on Dec. 7, 2018.
“We had an assembly and the commissioner of education was coming, so we were all so excited to meet him,” Silva recalled. “We had a flash mob all ready to go. He started to talk and said he had a special guest. Before we knew it, he introduced Jane Foley, the senior vice president of the Milken Family Foundation.”
The Milken Family Foundation Awards honor outstanding educators. Recipients receive $25,000 to do with whatever they like and an opportunity to network with other Milken recipients at a conference.
As Foley spoke, Silva’s students and colleagues nudged her and said she was going to be the one named, but Silva vehemently disagreed.
“But then my heart started pounding and I thought, what if it is me? Then they said my name, and time stood still. It was the biggest shock of my entire life,” Silva remembered.
Silva does not know the criteria for the award, why she was named, or how the foundation even found her. However, Silva’s colleagues are confident they know why she was selected.
“Nikki Silva is an extraordinary teacher,” said Rosa Diaz, superintendent of schools in Carteret. “She epitomizes the title of teacher. She believes in encouraging her students and she motivates them by creating lessons that are engaging. But perhaps most importantly, she creates a loving atmosphere that enables the kids to be critical thinkers while also challenging them. It is all about the atmosphere that she creates in her room.”
Nathan Hale Elementary School Principal Erika Barrett agrees.
“Nikki makes a tremendous difference, not only in the lives of her students, but also in her school community,” Barrett said. “We know what a talent we have in her. She’s a role model for her students as well as her peers. She’s just an amazing ambassador for our school district, as an educator and as a product of Carteret public schools.”
“Students need to know that they are valued,” Silva said. “Growing up, my parents were my biggest cheerleaders. I want to be that for my students.”
One of the activities that Silva does with her students is based off a book they read together called No Excuses by Wayne Dyer.
Silva says that moral of this book is that no matter what gets in their path, students need to know that they can overcome it.
“I get teary-eyed when I read it to them because I really do believe in them. I’m not just teaching them math, English or social studies. I’m teaching the whole child. If they come in and seem sad, we’re not starting the lesson until I talk to them and find out what’s going on.”
Silva’s students have embarked on extremely ambitious projects. They have built their own Olympic games with recycled materials. They used basketball mini hoops to learn statistics and fractions. Using Google Expeditions, students have been able to “visit” the solar system.
Students also take an active role in their education. Working with Silva, they set goals for their learning and work to be included on her “Wall of Fame” for students who reach their goals.
When things get too stressful for them, Silva lets her students use the “cooldown backpack,” a backpack filled with relaxation aids such as putty and glitter-filled water bottles.
Silva grew up in Carteret, so teaching at Nathan Hale Elementary School has brought her life full-circle. She is proud to teach alongside teachers who taught her.
As a senior in college, she interviewed for a teaching position at Nathan Hale and could not believe that she was going to get to teach in her hometown. In an amazing coincidence, New Jersey Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet hired Silva in Carteret in 2005 when he served there as principal. Diaz was the vice principal at the time.
Today, Silva serves on committees addressing curriculum, data, school climate, district strategic planning and English/language arts. She and previous Milken recipients in the state helped the New Jersey Department of Education plan the first statewide equity conference, which was held last July. She also mentors new teachers and is actively engaged in professional development in the district.
Silva, a graduate of Montclair State University, balances all this with her responsibilities as a wife and mother of two daughters, but she has other dreams that the grant money will help her pursue.
“It’s really not about the money; the honor is enough and more than I ever dreamed of,” Silva said. “But thanks to the financial award, I’m going to get an opportunity to work on a book idea I have and have been trying to pursue. I was also able to donate some money to the Carteret School District, paid off some student loans, and put money toward my daughters’ educations.”
“I truly love my job and getting to teach here is my dream come true.”
Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Since 2002, 30 New Jersey educators have been named Milken Award winners. The most recent, Daniel Willever, a geography and history teacher at Ramsey High School, was named a Milken Award winner in December 2019. NJEA applauds Willever, and all his fellow Milken Award winners, on this achievement.
Several Milken winners have been featured on “Classroom Closeup NJ.” Asterisks appear next to the names of those who have appeared on the show. You can watch their episode online at classroomcloseup.org. Search “Milken” to find their segments.