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

What is your name & job title?
My name is Courtney Kopf and I am a life science educator in Belvidere High School. I teach a mix of Biology, Anatomy, Environmental, and Forensic Science.

Do you love your job? What do you love about it?
I absolutely love my job. I’ve known I wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. This is what I was meant to do. My favorite moments are when students that typically hate science find success in my room. For example, this year I had a student retake a quiz and she was so excited when she earned a high score. I got the biggest high five and she kept saying, “I feel so smart, I feel so smart!” She was in shock, but she learned that she could be successful, and that was incredible to witness. Experiences like that drive me to improve my teaching so I can make sure that every student feels that way when they leave my classroom. I want every student to realize that they can experience success and they can actually enjoy learning. I love supporting the growth of my students, getting to know them, laughing with them, and seeing them flourish.

Tell me about your students.
My students are incredible. Belvidere is an amazing community. As soon as you walk into our building, you automatically feel this overwhelming sense of family. Our student mentors and leaders do a remarkable job of making sure everyone feels included and valued. My students are the reason I love going to work every day. They inspire me to be better.

Tell me about a project related to your work that you’re really proud of.
This year I decided to completely change the way I ran my Biology courses. I really wanted to increase equity in my classroom so I spent last summer learning how to create a self-paced classroom. Now, the students that need more time don’t feel like a failure and the students that are exceeding the standards can continue to learn new information instead of getting frustrated and bored. At the beginning of this year I asked my students if they thought they would all finish a mile in the same amount of time if we went outside right now and I timed all of them. Of course, they immediately said no. I explained that just like they all need a different amount of time to finish a mile, their brains all require different amounts of time to master a concept or learn something new, and that is totally okay. I really want to meet my students where they are and not where the curriculum map says they should be when they arrive in my classroom. It’s not fair to expect all of my students to have the same knowledge base and to learn at the same pace. Now I can work with students one on one and in small groups when necessary to help close gaps and I am able to see my students collaborate on a daily basis.

What is your connection to your union/local association?
I participate in my local union meetings. I appreciate everything that the NJEA and our local BEA does for us as educators. I love utilizing the wealth of resources that the NJEA offers, especially the classroom tools and sections of their website.

Why did you choose a career in public education?
I believe that every student deserves access to a free, high quality public education. I love that I can be a part of that for my students. New Jersey has the best state education system in the country right now.. There is nowhere else I’d rather be spending my time.

Have you had a teacher or educational support professional who inspired you?
There are actually several! Although I knew for a long time that I wanted to become a teacher, I didn’t have a clue what grade or subject I would enjoy teaching, but that changed when I took Biology with Mrs. Levin in Bayonne High School. It was the first class in which I really began to enjoy the learning process. Then I moved to Nutley and I had Mrs. Kasner for Microbiology and Mr. Kimberley for Physiology and that is when I became obsessed with life sciences. If you ask my parents, they will tell you that I never stopped talking about viruses and bacteria when I came home from school. She still brings it up to the day. Thanks to those teachers, I found my passion.

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

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?
I think that COVID-19 forced everyone to become more flexible, which I see as one of the silver linings in all of this. I believe it also raised the awareness of the inequities that exist and some of the challenges many of our students face. Our attitudes about the situation and how we reacted to it really impacted how our students adapted to the situation. I am proud to say that in NJ and especially in my district, our transition was almost seamless. The staff leaned on each other for ideas and worked together to continue to provide a quality education for our students and they really rose to these new challenges.

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 murder of George Floyd is one of the many, many injustices that have inspired me to make changes in my life and in my work as an educator. I have spent a lot of time over the past few years working to uncover my own implicit biases and encouraging everyone around me to do the same. These conversations are not always easy, but they are crucial in making any lasting changes. As educators, we have the power to make real differences in the lives of our students, but it starts with educating myself first. I started a book club this summer and we just finished reading So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo and I’m currently reading How To Be an Antiracist by Dr. Ibram Kendi. At the beginning of the summer, I joined the NJEA Real Movement and the dialogue with teachers from all across the state has been invaluable. Together, we will rise. I want all of my students to be represented in my curriculum, which is why I’m working towards becoming a more culturally responsive teacher and am currently reading Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. I can’t wait to put this new knowledge to work in September. Equity in Education is something that I am extremely passionate about and I look forward to working with my colleagues from across the state to make necessary changes to support our students and to progress as a nation.

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