Bergen County ESP of the Year Eugene Wojna
By Eugene Wojna
I’m a teacher’s aide at Carlstadt Public School and go by “Mr. W.” because my last name is hard to pronounce. I’ll get a few students or staff who pronounce it perfectly the first time, and I’m stunned when they do.
I have a dual role at school. When I get there in the morning, I consider myself the doorman for pre-K through second grade. I make sure the students line up and get into the building safely. I enjoy greeting them and their families and take pride in becoming a familiar and trusted person for them. I have also started to build a reputation as “DJ Mr. W.” at the front entrance where I provide upbeat or themed music. It’s fun to get everyone energized!
Some of my favorite moments are talking to the younger kids. They have the most innocent and fascinating things to say. I sometimes encounter a little separation anxiety, but a smile and some words of encouragement usually help the kids overcome it.
Once 8:45 a.m. comes, I go upstairs to the third floor where I’m an eighth-grade aide. I’m assigned to work with one of the eighth-grade sections, which means I go to all their classes with them. I’m slowing down a bit, but I think some of the students are surprised that I can still hit a three-pointer in physical education class.
I enjoy hearing the eighth graders’ teenage viewpoints and being able to joke around while still getting the work done. I have come across students with great senses of humor.
Academically, I have the greatest impact in small-group settings for language arts and math. By working more closely with a few students I reinforce the teacher’s lesson and take time to break it down for them so they further grasp the concepts.
Encouraging independent thinking
I try to instill accountability and organization in my students. I want them to be independent thinkers who are able to use the resources available to get things done. I feel being a student is their “job” at this age. Working to the best of their ability to overcome the challenges they have with things like time management, due dates, collaboration and accountability, will help build a strong foundation for their lives in general.
There are always a few students each year you can connect with on a different level. Depending on their situation, they may need that extra person in their life, and you are able to have a special rapport with them. It is heartwarming when you’re out for a day or two they say they really missed you while you were gone. Or they say, “Hey, Mr. W, if you hadn’t helped me study for this test, I don’t think I’d have done as well.” That’s really rewarding.
I had the opportunity to be a mentor to a seventh-grade student. I believe that was the first time that a teacher’s aide was asked to be a mentor at our school, so I felt honored they saw the qualities in me to have that responsibility. I helped a student who needed additional guidance and support in order to keep them on track toward their goals and to be ready to be promoted to the next grade. I met with them a couple times a week and discussed whatever was on their mind. We set goals and talked about strategies to achieve them. It was a success!
From the corporation to the classroom
I worked in the corporate world for over 20 years. It’s a completely different mindset. I have a different motivation and purpose working as an aide in Carlstadt. I also see it as a way to give back to the district and community I love.
Having a daughter with special needs means that someone must be home and readily available to take care of her. My wife Colleen, who is an exceptional nurse, put her career on hold to be home when our daughter was younger. After I lost my job, we flip-flopped positions. My wife went to work full-time, and I took over the role of home-based caretaker.
I was all set to start another job, but it did not feel like the right move for me or my family. In a fortunate twist of fate, I went online and looked through the latest school board minutes. I saw on the agenda that there was a special education aide who was retiring and there was a new job posting for the position.
It had easily been several months since I last checked the board meeting minutes, so this was an amazing coincidence. My daughter attends a special-needs school and the hours and calendar match up perfectly with hers. I thought this was meant to be. I have a special place in my heart for students with special needs and felt I had something to offer these children. I applied, and they hired me.
The unique part of my story is how ingrained Carlstadt and the school district have been in my life. I was born in Carlstadt and have been a lifelong resident. I attended grammar school on the same land our new school is built on. When we got married, my wife and I bought a house in Carlstadt and raised two children here. I also served on the board of education for six years. My son and I actually had the same kindergarten teacher! I would have to do some research, but it is possible I’m the only person in Carlstadt who checks all those boxes.
ESPs are invaluable to students
Just being selected as the Educational Support Professional (ESP) of the Year at the district level was incredible since I work with a lot of caring and dedicated people. Many of the people I work with helped my children over the years and they have my utmost respect and gratitude. I was shocked when I was told that I’d won the award at the county level.
I want to congratulate all the district ESPs of the year in Bergen County. I know personally and professionally what it takes, and you are all remarkable and invaluable to your students and their educational communities.
I also want to thank those who saw qualities and actions in me that motivated them to nominate me for the district and county awards and finally, those on the committee who selected me Bergen County ESP of the Year. It is pretty amazing to know people recognize me in that way.