Union Township teacher ‘reps’ educators well on “Jeopardy!”

NJEA members were once again thrilled to see Jason Sterlacci, the 2016 “Jeopardy!” Teachers Tournament champion, on the famous quiz show—this time in the 2017 “Jeopardy!” Tournament of Champions in November. In last year’s appearance, the Union Township fourth-grade teacher came out on top after five rounds competing against teachers from across North America.

In addition to teaching in Union Township (Union County), Sterlacci is a 2002 graduate of Union Township High School. When he appeared in the Teachers Tournament, he was teaching at Burnet Middle School. He now teaches at Hannah Caldwell Elementary School.

Sterlacci is proud to have represented teachers well in the Tournament of Champions. He said that he is one of two Teachers Tournament champions to make it out of the first round of the Tournament of Champions, noting that many of the show’s regular viewers incorrectly compare the Teachers Tournament to the Celebrity Tournament, where the clues are less challenging.

“I made a promise to myself that I was going to do everything in my power to prove all of these people wrong when I got the chance to come back for the Tournament of Champions,” Sterlacci said.

He kept that promise with his win in the quarterfinal round on Nov. 7 and in his performance against the formidable Austin “Buzzy” Cohen, a New Jersey native who grew up in Millburn, in the semifinal round on Nov. 14. Sterlacci noted that message boards for the most dedicated “Jeopardy!” fans spoke highly of his appearances.

“The game itself was great to watch—quite a battle between Buzzy and Jason—proving that teacher champions can hold their own in a Tournament of Champions. One different category or a different topic for Final Jeopardy, and Jason could have easily won,” wrote one fan on JBoard, after Sterlacci’s Nov. 14 match against Cohen and Lisa Schlitt, a research biologist who works at the New Jersey Department of Health.

“Jason, if you’re listening, I was rooting for you, buddy,” another fan wrote in a discussion on Reddit.  “You did teachers proud.”

Cohen went on to win the tournament in the final round that aired on Nov. 17. Now one of “Buzzy’s” friends, Sterlacci attended a watch party here in New Jersey with some of Cohen’s closest friends and family.

Jeopardy contestants build a bond

Sterlacci said that contestants on “Jeopardy!” stay connected long after they appear on the show. In fact, while being interviewed for this article he was texting with seven fellow contestants. He has also become friends with the teachers against whom he competed in 2016 and those who appeared in the 2017 Teachers Tournament. Those friendships have given him a window into the struggles of his colleagues throughout the country.

“The last eight years have been hard here in New Jersey, but I’ve competed with teachers from Texas, Arkansas, Iowa and Florida, and it’s even worse for them.” he said. “The general tone toward teachers in this country has become toxic, and I just wanted to ‘rep’ for our profession as much as I could. While I didn’t win the Tournament of Champions, I hope I did something for teachers.”

Union Township Education Association President Ann Margaret Shannon is certain that he has.

“When Jason won the Teachers Tournament it felt like a win for everybody who works in a New Jersey public school,” Shannon said. “We could not be prouder of him, especially after how well he did in the Tournament of Champions.”

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