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

What is your name & job title?

My name is Jami Centrella. I teach sixth grade language arts at Caroline L. Reutter School in the Township of Franklin Public School District.

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

I love my job. I am privileged to work with some of the most talented and dedicated educators in the state of New Jersey (and I am only a little bit biased). I most love that I have the opportunity to grow and learn from each of my colleagues every single day. I am truly blessed by the sense of community in my grade level and within my entire school. I also love that every time I step foot into my classroom, I have the opportunity to change the world. Not every job has that opportunity. It is a privilege that I hold very close to my heart and not one that I take lightly. Teaching is a very challenging profession, but in my opinion, it is the greatest one in the world.

Tell me about your students.

My students are the best. I think on some level every teacher believes this about their group of students, but throughout my time as an educator, I have learned that it is not just important that I believe this, but that my students come to believe it about themselves. I can honestly say that the best thing about my population students is that they both define and break every stereotype surrounding middle school. They are independent, yet longing for approval. They think they are right about everything, yet they are fearful of getting it wrong. They have all of the answers, yet they question every decision they make. Most of my students struggle with reading, writing, or a combination of both, and for many of them, that struggle has long defined their identity in school. The biggest challenge I face each day is not teaching my kids how to read or write, it is teaching them the value of confidence in their own abilities. I believe that the students who have left my class finding this confidence would also tell you that “they are the best.” For me, that is the ultimate success.

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

One project that I am really proud of actually took place during our distance learning this year. About one month into remote instruction, I saw a picture on social media of an Emergency Room sign that had a superhero cape draped over it. It was a really powerful image, and it got me thinking about how I could get my students involved in supporting our frontline workers. I collaborated with my co-teachers, and we designed a mini unit on heroes. We started by teaching our students about heroes, villains, protagonists and antagonists. We had them give traits they believed made someone a hero, and we compiled their traits onto a google slide for them to reference. We then asked them to name some medical professionals who they believed had shown themselves heroic during this time of COVID-19. Their answers ranged from janitors to physical therapists to the front desk to anesthesiologists. We took the 8 most popular answers and had students sign up to write letters of encouragement to one of those 8 professionals. In their letters, each student had to talk about why they considered their medical professional a superhero and send them each a wish for a super power. After they finished writing, I printed their letters and sent them to five different hospitals. Each hospital received over 60 letters to various departments. The most rewarding part of the assignment was that the kids received responses back to their letters. We got emails, pictures, and even letters back from the different departments in the various hospitals. We got so many responses, I actually ran out of room on Google Classroom to post them all. It was overwhelming. I cried. Multiple times.

I loved this project for many reasons. First, my number one goal is always for students to see how literacy extends beyond our classroom. Especially during distance learning, I felt like that was so important for them to see and this project was an authentic and relevant way of doing that. Second, many students talked about our mini unit on heroes in their letters. It was so great to see them make those connections to everything we had learned throughout the week. Third, it gave students a voice. Right now, there are a lot of decisions being made involving our kids, and I was so thankful to give the kids the opportunity to have their own voice about COVID-19. Last, I loved that my kids were able to bring some light to a very dark time in our country. I am privileged to have been able to help them see that. I hope they never forget the impact this assignment allowed them to make on the world at such a young age.

What is your connection to your union/local association?

I am the first member of my family to work in a profession that has a union, so I grew up with very little knowledge of what a union actually does, how a union works, etc. When I first got hired at Reutter, I was very nervous about joining a union. At the first district in – service day, I felt like every other person I got introduced to was in union leadership. My head was spinning with introductions. I will never forget the moment I realized that almost every person I had met that day worked in my school. We have a very strong union presence in my building, in which I have come to take great pride. I love the spirit of the union. I love that they fight for what they believe is right, and while I may not always agree with every battle we choose to fight, I do love the tenacity and loyalty that comes from being in a union. I believe that, especially in the times in which we live, unity is so important, and organizations like NJEA are a model for that spirit. In recent years, I have gotten involved in my union’s community pride events. My favorite event is our annual Trunk or Treat. Halloween is a big deal in the town where I work, so it always draws a lot of community members. I think opportunities for our kids to see us in a different light other than books, pencils, and homework are so important, and Trunk or Treat really allows them that opportunity. I am proud of these events, and I admire the work that I know gets put into making them successful!

Why did you choose a career in public education?

There is no single reason “why” I chose a career in public education. Maybe it was because I had some inspirational teachers along the way, maybe it was because my “Type A” personality finally found a place to be useful, or maybe it was just the place where somewhere inside myself I had always known I was meant to be. Ever since I was little, I have wanted to change the world. The older I got the more that desire changed from wanting to change the world to needing to change the world. I didn’t always plan on becoming a teacher, but I did always know I wanted to do something that would impact the lives of others. When I was a sophomore in college, I remember sitting on my bed in my dorm room and asking my roommate what in the world I was doing with my life? Up to that point I had looked into every major and class except Education, and I was not passionate about any of it. I don’t know what it was that hit me in that moment, but, without hesitation, I signed up for Education classes. I have never looked back. I knew the second I stepped foot into classes the next semester that I had found the way I was going to change the world. I no longer cared about just being a “good student”. I started learning information, so that I could become part of something that was bigger than me. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

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

My middle school English teacher, Mrs. McCarson, inspired me. She taught me reading, writing, grammar and spelling for 6th, 7th and 8th grade. I credit her with my love of writing, my disdain for Walt Whitman, and my very weird obsession with diagramming sentences. She used to call me her “Comma Queen”. She always said that if I didn’t know what punctuation mark to use, I would take it upon myself to just use a comma. Once, she banned me from using them for an entire class period – okay, that actually happened more than once. Along with the rest of my family, I think she had very real concerns that I would never learn to spell the word mountain, yet she shared in everyone’s excitement when I managed to win the school spelling bee that year. For the record, I did not get asked to spell mountain. Her class was magic. She was magic. Things were not always easy in my world outside of school, but she created an escape in reading and writing that I never knew existed. She cared that I learned how to read and write, but she cared more that I learned to love reading and writing. I now hold that same value in my own classroom. Before I went to high school, I told her that one day I was going to become a middle school English teacher just like her. Neither one of us knew at the time if that was really going to happen, but we recently got together for dinner, and I had the privilege of sharing that I had made good on my promise.

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 choose resilient. The dictionary defines resilient as “able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions”; however, I like how resilience is shown in Stephen Chobsky’s novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, better than the definition. The novel reads, “Please believe things are good with me, and even when they’re not, they will be soon enough.” I believe this quote summarizes the reason why resilience is at the heart of public education. Teachers are some of the hardest working individuals I have ever met, and I have seen them move mountains to make things “good” for their students. However, the thing that makes educators special is that even when things aren’t “good” they still make them work. They are resilient, and they help shape students who also carry that same spirit. Educators overcome challenges every day, and especially in the times in which we live, I believe that resilient spirit will continue to show itself more than ever.

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?

Through the experience of remote learning I most learned about how much relationships matter. Each year, I try to build authentic relationships with my students and with my colleagues, but during such an uncertain time, the amount of weight those relationships hold cannot be overstated. Being able to adapt those relationships to the parameters set by remote instruction was both challenging and impactful. As I mentioned before, everyone involved in public education – students, teachers, administrators, etc. – demonstrates resilience on a daily basis. However, COVID-19 brought out an entirely new side of resiliency that many of us didn’t even know existed. Our students left school on a Friday and never came back. The last thing I said to my homeroom was “We will do the Pi Day activity on Monday” and then Monday never came. It was an unheard of situation for everyone.

My students learned an entirely new genre of writing during distance learning. They “came to class” virtually at 8:30am to talk about writing. They typically hate writing, but they came because it was our class. My co-teachers and I had worked so hard to establish relationships with our students and parents throughout the year that during distance learning those relationships created a desire in many of our students to keep learning and growing even under challenging circumstances. It was like nothing I had ever seen. When it would have been easy to not do the work, many of our students did, and I truly believe it was because of the relationships we had built with each of them. My professional relationships were also something I truly valued during remote instruction. It did not matter the time of day – if someone needed something, whether it was in your department or not, an army of educators was always ready to help. I called my co-teacher at 11:00pm one night because I had messed up an assignment, and she was more than willing to move mountains to help get it back on track. Relationships matter. They take time. They take work. But, they have also shown themselves to be stronger than COVID-19.

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?

The Black Lives Matter movement has created a desire in me to hit the pause button and examine my own views, ideals, and biases. Anyone who knows me well knows that I am not at a loss for words very often. I have strong opinions and strong morals, and I have no problem expressing them. However, during this complex time in our nation’s history, I am learning to take a step back and pause my opinions. I do not want to stay silent, but I do want to be temporarily muted. I want my voice to be heard only after I take the time to truly learn about the issues surrounding systemic racism. I understand that I may never fully understand; however, I believe it is my responsibility to learn about it, grow from it, and do something to change it. Truthfully, I believe the generation that I work with each day has the opportunity to change the direction of this world for the better. I believe I have the responsibility to teach them the value of acceptance and the necessity for inclusivity in order to help them make that change.

This upcoming year, I plan on addressing systemic racism through literature. I think diversity in literacy is critical for students to understand the necessity for inclusivity in this world, and I am excited to explore these texts with my students. I also am excited to learn with my students. I am excited to not have all of the answers and to explore those answers together. I look forward to teaching my students how to be more inclusive and how to create a world that values their differences.

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

I think it cannot be overstated during this time in our country how important it is to encourage students to have a voice about things. Social Emotional Learning is essential to student success and with the unrest and uncertainty in the world, more than ever, I think it is necessary for students to feel like they are being heard and that what they say matters. Before they will learn any standard or any subject, they first have to believe in their own intrinsic value and that starts with feeling like their voice is valued. We have an awesome responsibility as educators to instill this belief in our students. I am excited to promote and share about the power of student voice during my time as the Gloucester County Teacher of the Year.

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