Learn more about the 2020-2021 New Jersey County Teachers of the Year:

What is your name & job title?

My name is Rachel Krementz and I am a special education teacher at Cape May County Special Services. I teach fifth through seventh grade students with disabilities, most of whom are on the autism spectrum.

Do you love your job? What do you love about it?

I absolutely love my job. Most of the time I don’t feel like I am going to “work” but rather, I am going somewhere that I love to be. I love my job because of the connections that I make with my students. My students are unique in many ways and I love being able to help them find their voices. I enjoy watching their personalities grow and helping them succeed academically, socially, and emotionally. Every day is different; I go into every day not knowing what to expect. It keeps me on my toes and keeps me constantly motivated.

I also love my job because of the family of colleagues I work with. I work with some of the most amazing teachers, administrators, therapists, case managers, aides, and paraprofessionals. You walk around the hallways of our school and are just in awe of the magic that happens. Everyone is so dedicated to the students and their specific needs, and it is truly an incredible place to work.

Tell me about your students.

All of my students are classified with a disability, mostly autism spectrum disorders. Some of my students are non-verbal or non-vocal, while some of my students utilize a picture exchange communication system or utilize a communication device to speak. Other students are working on strengthening their vocalizations into sentences. My classroom is language based and everything we work on centers around growing the students’ language and communication skills. Our class sizes in the autism program are small, typically 6 students per classroom. Right now my classroom has 6 students and 7 paraprofessionals, a teacher’s aide and myself so my students get lots of individualized attention to help with all of their intensive needs. It is truly an honor to work with the students and their families, they teach me so much more than I can ever teach them.

Tell me about a project related to your work that you’re really proud of.

When I began working in my school district we had multiple autism classrooms, however each classroom was utilizing different curriculum and assessments and there was not a lot of continuity between each classroom. As our autism program grew, I had taken over as our program’s PLC leader and with the help of our administration and the addition of a full time BCBA, we have been able to collectively come together and strengthen our autism program. Now, we all utilize similar curriculum, based on the needs of our students. Our behavior tracking systems and student assessments are the same in each classroom and follows the student as they travel from grade to grade. While I definitely cannot take full credit for how much our autism program has grown, I am proud that I was a leader during this transition and I had a helping hand to making our program what it is today.

What is your connection to your union/local association?

I was a building union representative for 3 years and this past year I took over as vice president of our local association. Our former president and vice president, who dedicated over two decades to our local association, both retired at the end of last school year so I instantly had giant shoes to fill, but it was a rewarding experience. I was also the chair of our negotiations committee this past year and we just ratified our new contract in May. It definitely was a learning curve jumping from a building representative to vice president, but I have truly enjoyed being able to represent my local and advocate for our members. As a teacher, I have always felt that I am a good advocate for my students, so it was really rewarding to be able to channel that advocacy towards the amazing people that I work with.

Why did you choose a career in public education?

Growing up, both of my parents dedicated their careers to helping others. My mom worked for over 30 years for the division of mental health as a social worker and my dad spent most of his career working as a public defender. I watched them both devote their time to ensuring others were treated fairly and advocating and fighting for rights on behalf of others, so it is definitely in my blood to follow that same type of path.

I knew from a young age that I wanted to work with children, but I realized when I was 12 or 13 that teaching might be the route for me. I began helping to coach my younger sister’s swim team practices and I realized that I was making a difference. I was helping the swimmers (8 years old and under) learn the strokes and build their stamina in the water. Watching them succeed in the pool at a young age really just clarified that teaching was the route for me. My choice to work in the field of special education was a little bit more personal to me. My younger sister is diagnosed with a learning disability and I watched her go through the public education system. While most of her experiences were positive and she was fortunate to have lots
of great educators, there were times where she struggled academically and socially. As I watched that growing up and as I realized that my career choice was going to be education, I also realized that my purpose in life was to help students with differing needs reach their full potential. There were flaws in the education that my sister received, and I do not want any of my students to fall through the cracks as my sister sometimes did. That personal experience helped to shape, and continues to shape, how I approach each day in my classroom. It gives me the ability to look at the child from both the educator’s point of view as well as the family’s point of view, and I feel that I am able to connect with them so much more because of that.

Looking back on it now, I am so fortunate that I had those experiences that led me to becoming a teacher. I go into every day looking forward to going to work. While some days may be harder and more stressful than others, I truly love my job and love working with the staff, students, and families to help enrich their lives.

Have you had a teacher or educational support professional who inspired you?

I have had multiple teachers who inspired me in each stage of my own education. I grew up in Estell Manor, which has a very small population of less than 2000 residents. My elementary school was K-8 and our class sizes were small. My graduating eighth grade class only had about 30 students. The teachers I had in Estell Manor really got to know their students, created those connections, and was able to relate all of the learning through those personal connections. I feel like I received such a strong education because of that close-knit family that we all became.

In high school, I had one English teacher in 11th and 12th grade, Mrs. Langley, who really inspired me. She always pushed me to set the bar higher than what I had in my head and she really gave me so much confidence in my work, specifically in my writing. She made literature fun and really connected with her students. She taught me to set high expectations and I strive to set high standards for myself in the classroom as well as for my staff and my students. I credit some of that to Mrs. Langley and her belief in me. I am now able to relay that confidence to my staff and to my students and it yields great results. I still keep in touch with her every once in a while through Facebook.

In college, at The College of New Jersey, I had two professors that I will always remember: Dr. Blumberg and Dr. Petroff. They both are leaders in the field of special education and both have done amazing work at TCNJ. They started a college transitional program called Career and Community Studies for individuals with disabilities (aged 18-24) so that those students had the opportunity to go to college and get a college experience. I was able to work for the program during my time at TCNJ. Those experiences really helped to shape how I saw special education as a whole, and inspired my desire to bring awareness and acceptance towards people with disabilities. I always left each class feeling ready to start my career because of their passion, dedication and advocacy for individuals with disabilities and that really helped me figure out how to see myself as an educator.

All of the educators in my life not only helped me to decide that education was the career choice for me, but they also inspired me and continue to help shape the way I see my classroom and my beliefs as an educator.

If you had to describe public education in one word, what would that be?

If I had to describe public education in one word, I would describe it as “misunderstood.” I feel as though public education does not always get the reputation it deserves. There is a lot of negative connotations with education and teaching and I do not think people truly understand how much goes into each and every day in the classroom. So much of the negativity surrounding public education has to do with money. While money can be seen as the driving force within each school district, I think more emphasis, at least in the public eye and the media, should be put on the students and their successes. There should also be more credit given to teachers and all of the creativity, joy, and magic that goes into each and every day in the classroom. So many times I hear that we do not really work because we have three months off in the summer. I do not know many educators who do not prepare and plan, write curriculum, or participate in professional development opportunities during those summer months. We are constantly learning and finding new tactics to help reach our students in the classroom. Our contracts may only be for 10 months, but we spend 12 months working to ensure that our students are given the best education they possibly can. I just think we could bring more positivity to education as a whole.

Public education is facing many challenges. One is the impact that COVID-19 has had on how we teach and how students learn. What have you learned about how you, your colleagues, and your students adapted to remote instruction?

COVID-19 has completely reshaped and revamped the way I think of educating my students. Because of the nature of the students I work with, almost all of my learning in the classroom is “hands on.” Some of those “hands on”examples include: tangible manipulatives, video and staff modeling, picture schedules and other visual manipulatives, edible reinforcement, and timers. The use of technology in my classroom, while it is used, it is not what I base my instruction around. My students are working on skills like sitting in a chair and complying with a short task for two to five seconds. I focus a lot of my instruction on connecting those types of tasks to life skills so that my students have the opportunity to become active members of their community as they get older. Some of my students have had limited access to technology, which made distance learning extremely difficult for them. Other students have more advanced technological skills. For them, I was able to use Google Classroom and assign work through that format. For most of my students, I sent home materials in binders that were laminated with velcro so that they can have that “hands-on” learning that they so desperately need. I met with my students and their families virtually as much as possible so that I could help them through the instructional materials. This was definitely a challenging process. Every second of every day in my classroom is structured, so going from that to a home environment to do their school work that is not typically as structured proved to be challenging for my students. It broke my heart to not be able to give my students everything that they need and deserve that I can typically give them in the classroom, but we made the most of what we were given.

This experience has shown me and made me realize how important human connection is in the educational process. I strived to recreate that in an online fashion, but I honestly was not as successful as I would have liked and it was truly difficult for my students to adapt to learning that format. My students have so many difficulties learning in a traditional environment, so the
disruption of their typical routine created many challenges for my students and their families. I truly missed being able to make those personal connections with the students.

The other thing that I have learned from being home during the closure is that I need to figure out ways to incorporate more technology into my instruction. I focus my classroom on my students’ IEP goals and objectives, infusing those objectives into the curriculum, and connecting that curriculum to life skills and pre-vocational skills to help my students’ future. While I am sometimes able to incorporate technology into those lessons, I have learned that I need to teach them more technology skills.

Technology is the future of education and this experience has proved to be challenging for those with special needs. It has shown me that technology is not as inclusive towards meeting the needs of people with significant disabilities and that we need to find a way to bridge that gap for if something like this occurs again in the future.

Finally, the last thing that the COVID school closures have taught me is how much I rely on my colleagues. We experience some of the most unique things on a daily basis with the children we work with. While those experiences may be mind blowing for some, for me and my colleagues, it is a daily occurrence and we all have that common ground. Watching my co-workers teach and connect with their students, try different strategies to engage them, or helping a child diffuse a behavior are all very educational experiences for myself. Watching those experiences inspires me and challenges me to do more and try more every single day. While we often had virtual meetings with our colleagues to brainstorm and discuss strategies that were helping during the closure, it is just not the same as connecting with them in person. This has taught me to never take for granted the team of amazing individuals that I work with.

As a result of George Floyd’s murder, along with other tragedies targeting Black people, more and more people are supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. How has this affected you as an educator, and as a person, and how do you see yourself addressing systemic racism through your work as a teacher?

Similarly to how the COVID-19 pandemic has made me dig deep into analyzing the way I teach and my classroom, the George Floyd murder and the uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement has done that in the same way. I have always considered myself someone who does not see color. I treat everyone equally and I make judgements about others based on their actions and their character rather than the color of their skin. This movement has shown me that “not seeing color” is part of the problem. While I thought I was doing a good thing with how I always strive to be a good person, my inability to see color just shows my privilege as a white person. I do not and will never know what it is like to be a black person in America. I have not had to endure years of systemic racism. But what I can do is allow others, specifically those who are black, to have a voice
and to ensure that they have the same type of platform as I do to be able to share their voices, share their stories, and have the same rights and liberties that I have. I need to see their color and I need to teach my students that while the color of a person’s skin may vary, their self-worth is exactly the same as mine. The movement is not trying to say that my life as a white person doesn’t matter, or that their life matters more than mine. They are simply fighting to bring awareness that black lives, collectively, are not as valued as white lives and we need to be understanding of that concept. This movement has also shown me that keeping my own voice quiet is part of the problem.

So many of us were scared to have those difficult conversations, but having those conversations helps to raise awareness of the issue. When you raise enough awareness, that is when change can begin. My favorite quote of all time is from Gandhi in which he states: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It’s time for us to be the change. I know that some of the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrations turned violent. Dr. Martin Luther King once stated in an interview that “A riot is the language of the unheard.” When I saw the coverage of the riots occurring, this quote is what I immediately thought of. While I do not personally think that violence is the answer to solving any issue, I can understand how the frustrations of not being treated equally have turned into violent behavior. To me, this also mirrors and draws some parallels to my classroom. In our line of work, we know that sometimes a student displays aggressive behaviors because they cannot communicate what they want to say or how they are feeling. I spend a good amount of time helping my students find ways to communicate, whether it be through pictures, a communication device, gesturing or pointing, or using verbal language. When I am unsuccessful at figuring out what my students are trying to communicate with us, I often see behaviors, and some are aggressive. Having access to that ability to communicate allows them to be viewed as “equals” and for their voices to be heard. George Floyd’s verbalizations of “I can’t breathe” as he was being senselessly murdered was not successfully heard by the officers who were surrounding him. He wasn’t heard because he was black and “suspected” of committing a crime, similarly to how my student’s sometimes are not heard because of their barriers with accessing communication. Part of my platform as County Teacher of the Year is going to be to help bring awareness towards people with disabilities. They are often misconstrued and misunderstood and people do not realize how many abilities they truly have. People only see their disability and have all of these notions that they are not as capable as others. I want to show them all of the amazing things that my students and all people with disabilities can do. The labels and preconceived notions about individuals with disabilities resemble the preconceived notions about individuals who are black. I believe that bringing awareness to an issue eventually will lead to acceptance. Is this something that is going to happen overnight? Absolutely not, but the more awareness we bring to these issues of treating black people equally and treating people with disabilities equally, the closer we are coming towards acceptance. We have to change the cycle and be the catalysts for change and now is as good of a time as any to do so.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you would like to share?

No, but I am incredibly honored to have been chosen as the Cape May County Teacher of the Year for the 2020-2021 school year. I am looking forward to all of the opportunities that lie ahead and cannot wait to bring awareness and acceptance to individuals with differing needs.

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