Navigating a long career in education

By Kathryn Coulibaly

We’ve all seen the statistics about teacher turnover and witnessed firsthand the increasing difficulty of attracting and retaining certified staff and educational support professionals in public schools. It’s a nationwide issue, exacerbated by many factors. But there are also countless stories of educators who have decided to stay and fight—for the students, for themselves and for the promise of public education.  

Navigating a long career in education is full of many challenges, but also many rewards. The NJEA Review spoke with four educators who shared their stories of decades of service in public education.   

Roselle Park chemistry and physics teacher Raymond Bangs builds strong relationships with his students, getting to know them and their interests.

Raymond Bangs: The students are the focus 

When people hear that Raymond Bangs, a chemistry and physics teacher at Roselle Park High School, is in his 49th year of teaching, their reaction is a mixture of shock and admiration. But for him, the years are full of memorable students.  

“I’ve had the privilege of molding some incredible kids who have gone on to do amazing things,” Bangs says.  

Part of the reason that he has such strong relationships with his students is the way he treats them in the classroom.  

Bangs rejects the idea that education should stress routine, memorization, repetition, an emphasis on grades, and teaching for a test using a scripted curriculum. Rather, in Bangs’ classes, understanding concepts and making connections between previously learned material and newly introduced content is the norm.  

In Bangs’ classes, students design their own experiments under his guidance. For example, in the study of oxygen, students develop their own procedures for generating, collecting and analyzing the gas. If a team encounters difficulty, Bangs invites other teams to suggest different approaches.   

The students are encouraged to do their best and not be afraid of failure. He tells them “Failure isn’t failure if you learn from it” and “You never really fail until you stop trying.” Each lab extends over several weeks and generates further questions in the students’ minds that they are eager to investigate.  

Bangs takes a genuine interest in his students, which both the students and their parents appreciate. The affection and respect his students have for him is obvious when you observe how fully engaged each student is in learning.  

“I’m looking for hidden gems,” Bangs says. “Kids who have untapped potential. And then I try to put them in a position to recognize that in themselves. I’m also looking for the quiet kid who’s bored and needs someone to take an interest. With a bored student, I try to point out how the topic we’re covering relates to an interest they have outside the classroom, such as sports or music, and encourage them to explore those connections further. It’s so rewarding to see a student ‘blossom’ once their curiosity is sparked!”  

He also recognizes the challenges in education, particularly parents who advocate only for their child at the expense of the 26 other students in the class.  

“A lot of people want learning to follow the form they are used to,” Bangs says. “But there are many different teaching and learning styles. After so many years, adhering to one style can become repetitive and routine. I keep it interesting and fresh for myself and my students by leaning into my students’ creativity and ingenuity. If you build up their confidence, you get better results.”  

“I believe that student-centered and student-directed learning makes the learning process far more interesting and equitable for the students and far more energizing for the teacher.” Bangs explained, “The end goal is NOT that everyone learns the same thing. Rather, that everyone will become expert learners.” 

“If more teachers adapted these approaches” Bangs feels, “they would enjoy teaching their students more and be less inclined to leave the profession.” He has mentored new teachers and shared his innovative teaching methods with them and other colleagues over the years. 

Bangs sees himself as a steady, stable person in his students’ lives.  

“I put down roots and I’ve stayed,” he says. “I’ve got parents of kindergarteners asking me to keep teaching so their kids can have me! I can remember where some of my current students’ moms, dads, uncles and aunts sat in my classroom. Approximately 25% of the teachers and administrators in this district are former students of mine.” 

Another reason Bangs credits for his success in teaching is that he gets to know each of his students as individuals – their background, interests, and career goals. That way he can better guide them in choosing a college that would be a good fit. Without his guidance a number of his students would never have considered attending college. Many go on to careers in science research, engineering, medicine, and other STEM related fields. 

Bangs has kept abreast of rapid advances in science and technology by taking graduate level courses throughout his career. He has three master’s degrees and is currently a doctoral candidate in the Teacher Education and Teacher Development program at Montclair State University. His adviser and dissertation chair is Douglas Larkin. Bangs also networks with recent graduates while they attend college.  

“My colleagues often ask me how I maintain my enthusiasm after so many years in the classroom. I reply that I am inspired by my students. And it is so gratifying when former students come back to visit and say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Bangs, for changing my life.’”

West Orange school principal Marie DeMaio always wanted to be in education. As a teacher and a principal, she has spent 61 years in public education.

Marie DeMaio: Adapting and growing  

On Sept. 1, 1962, Marie DeMaio walked into a second-grade classroom in West Orange and launched a legendary career. For 23 years, she taught second grade, earning her administrator’s degree without a specific timeline for using it. When the school principal was out of the building, she would fill in for him.  

The arrangement worked well for everyone, until one weekend when the principal got sick. The superintendent informed her that she would be filling in as acting principal. DeMaio was willing to help out, but not willing to leave her students. The superintendent overruled her, and she found herself behind the desk in the principal’s office.  

By April, the principal had recovered, but he elected to retire in June. That September, DeMaio was back in the principal’s office, no longer as “acting.” For the past 38 years, she has continued in that role.  

“You have to really like what you’re doing,” DeMaio says. “If there’s any doubt, then walk away. You have to walk into it knowing there are going to be ups and downs, good days and bad days. But if I walked into my classroom and I was down for some reason, the students would uplift me. The students would get me fully involved in what was going on in that classroom. That would immediately put me back to being the teacher and being with them. Everything else was secondary.”  

“A lot of people look at my long career in education—61 years—and say they couldn’t do it. But I always wanted to be a teacher. I love students. During high school and college, I tutored younger children. I could never see myself walking away from something I really loved.”  

DeMaio is honored by a scholarship fund in West Orange that has been named after her.  

“It is given out every year to a high school senior who came from my elementary school and who is going on to higher education,” DeMaio says. This scholarship will go on, whether I’m there or I retire. It’s a legacy.”  

For educators today, school in the early 1960s is difficult to imagine.  

“There were no computers and no SmartBoards when I started in 1962,” DeMaio recalls. “Everything was handwritten or on a typewriter. But I’ve grown with the new things that came about. I had to learn. We can all learn from each other in education. We need to embrace each other’s strengths and learn from each other.” 

DeMaio has no plans to retire. Her love of public education sustains her every day, and she urges other educators to keep a sense of perspective about their career.  

“I think you have to love the profession you’re going into,” DeMaio says. “If you love that profession and you want to be with students and see them succeed, that’s the most important thing. If you have that kind of an attitude, I think you’ll be able to weather any changes in education, and there will be many changes. But you’re here to teach these students and enable them to succeed. And always keep perspective. Otherwise, things seem overwhelming.”  

Paterson school psychologist Paul Tillman is active in his school, community and with NJEA. He is pictured at the 2023 NJEA Summer Leadership Conference.

Paul Tillman: Decades of caring for students’ mental well-being 

When Paul Tillman accepted a position as a school psychologist in Paterson 47 years ago, he was the first Black school psychologist in the district.  

At the time, Tillman was a recent—and very proud—graduate of Seton Hall University. He became hooked on psychology when his best friend Aaron Campbell brought him to a graduate class taught by Dr. Henri Yaker, the chief psychologist at Marlboro State Hospital. He combined his interest in psychology with education after working with Upward Bound students and as a counselor in the educational opportunity program.  

Tillman had been raised in Belmar, Monmouth County, a community with many Black professionals thanks to its proximity to Fort Monmouth. The Army was one of the few institutions that hired Black scientists. Many of those scientists made their home in Tillman’s communities, and their spouses often worked in education.  

An excellent student, Tillman recalls how his favorite teacher, Mr. Bitsko, would move him to the front of the class during exams so the other students couldn’t copy off of him. He earned A’s from Mr. Bitsko, but also 5’s, which Tillman says meant he was capable of doing better, a comment that frustrated him. When he asked the teacher to explain, Mr. Bitsko told him, “You won’t understand this now, but someday you’ll see that you are capable of doing even more.”  

After student teaching at Essex County College, he began his graduate studies at Seton Hall University. After earning two master’s degrees, he went on to work as a school psychologist in Orange and Newark. In 1976, Tillman was recruited to work in Paterson.  

“I was hired in Paterson as a result of a corrective action plan,” Tillman says. “Paterson had a school that didn’t accept people of color. The state got involved and the NAACP sued Paterson. After the investigation, they saw that psychology was one of the areas were there were no people of color.”  

“I faced serious racism and prejudice early in my career,” Tillman says. “It wasn’t anything I was unfamiliar with. Now, though, in recent years, I’ve been facing what I call senior and elder discrimination. That’s when districts start putting pressure on older staff to retire.”  

In 1982, Tillman earned a law degree from Seton Hall School of Law but after considering a career in law, he decided to continue working with young people in public education.  

Tillman is a founding member of the New Jersey Association of Black Psychologists. He is active in NJEA and attends professional development and advocacy workshops. He is active with the NJEA Members of Color Network in his local association and statewide.  

Tillman is a familiar face for Paterson’s students. He worked at Eastside High School for many years and is now at the elementary level.  

“One of the things that I’ve always done is visit the entire school,” Tillman says. “Sometimes, that’s hard, but for me, it’s an everyday type of thing. Everyone in the school knows me.”  

Tillman believes that educational support professionals are underutilized by other school staff.  

“They’re the people who are boots on the ground. They know who is coming and going, what situations are occurring. When it comes to mental health, they need to be brought into the picture. I’m friendly with everyone so if support staff see anything, they tell me what’s going on with a student.”  

Tillman has worked hard to open the door to others over the years, mentoring other staff and helping to get other Black psychologists hired.  

In his 50th year in education, Tillman says that he’s made it a lifelong practice to be involved as a Cub Scout leader, mentor and community servant.  

Over the years, Tillman has worked with other long-term educators, including an art teacher who taught for 53 years and a physical education teacher who was still working well into her 80s.  

“I love what I do,” Tillman says. “You have to seek inspiration out—there are inspirational people everywhere.”  

Nancy Siegel has seen many changes in her 57 years in Millburn public schools, but she still believes in the power of public education.

Nancy Siegel: Stay and fight 

Nancy Siegel was a recent college graduate with a job offer from McGraw Hill to work on any one of five magazines that interested her.  

Dr. Charles King, the superintendent of Millburn Public Schools, knew her mother, who was an elementary teacher in the district.  

“Dr. King called me into his office and told me that he had a problem,” Siegel remembers. “He said that if he could get a guarantee from McGraw Hill that my job would be waiting for me in a year, would I consider working as an English teacher at the middle school. I told him that I would consider it if McGraw Hill agreed.”  

Dr. King produced an official letter from McGraw Hill assuring Siegel of their commitment to her, and Siegel began to prepare herself for a year teaching English. Although she did not have certification at the time, that wasn’t a requirement. In the second week of August, Dr. King called her back to his office. He told her that she would be a guidance counselor at Milburn High School instead.  

“He told me, ‘You’ll learn how to be a guidance counselor,” Siegel says.  

That conversation took place 57 years ago, and Siegel has worked as a guidance counselor ever since.  

“My family’s emphasis has always been on education,” Siegel says. “My mother was devoted to being a teacher. I knew the people in this district, and I figured it out.”   

From the beginning, Siegel wanted to change up how things were done, which led to some conflicts with others in the department.  

“I was the odd man out in my department,” Siegel says. “At that time, counselors were not doing what I was doing. I had an open-door policy. I invited students in to talk to me in groups.” 

Despite being a high-achieving district with a 98% acceptance rate into four-year colleges or universities, Siegel saw how many of her students were struggling.  

“The students I remember the most are the ones who I spent time with trying to make them feel good about themselves,” Siegel recalls. “If you can make someone feel there is something worthwhile in who they are, then that is the only thing that matters to me as an educator.”  

“I may sound idealistic, but I think you have to go through the world feeling that there are ideals you have to live up to,” Siegel says.  

Like many other educators, Siegel remembers a time when educators were treated differently in their communities.  

“For me, the hardest part has been adapting to a very different world,” Siegel says. “Education used to be highly respected. Teachers are being slammed in every single way. Parents swearing at me that they’re paying my salary so I should be doing what they want, and they are demanding unrealistic things. You have to make up your own mind and decide, am I going to fight this or am I going to walk away? If you walk away, I think you’ve given up.” 

Siegel maintains a passion for public education and a belief that the work that she and her colleagues do matters very much.  

“I mentor young teachers, and I spend a lot of time with them trying to get them to stay and fight,” Siegel says. “They’re crying and overwhelmed. What upsets me is they believed in something and now they’re questioning if it was worthwhile after all. We can’t have them feeling that way about education.”  

Finding a way through 

What each of these veteran educators expressed is a focus on their students, a profound belief in the power and promise of public education and a realistic view of the ups and downs that everyone will face in their lives, in every career. But each of them holds the belief that the work they do with New Jersey’s schoolchildren matters very much and is worth fighting for.

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to She can be reached at

ESP members with long careers in education 

If you are an educational support professional who has had a long career in education, we want to hear from you! Please email and share your story.   

NJEA’s administrative members

You might be surprised to learn that NJEA represents some administrators. While many principals are represented by the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, some choose to be represented by NJEA.