Sarah O’Neill 5th Grade Math and Science Teacher at Joseph T Donahue School. Barnegat Twsp.
“I teach Earth science, physical science, and in math we are heavy on fractions, multiplication, and stages of algebra. I run a very non-traditional classroom. I have an inflatable pool that kids can sit in, I have a couch and chairs set up like a living room area, and another section of the classroom has Adirondack chairs with a fire pit in the middle that they can put their books and belongings in. I have two tall tables for kids who do not want to sit, but would rather stand. So I get the kids interested because they are not sitting at a desk for eight hours a day. They have their standardized tests, and they literally lie on the couch while they are taking their test.
“I have four children of my own, and most of their waking hours are spent with their teachers. Then they come home, do their homework, play outside, eat dinner, then get ready for bed. So I realized that their teachers spend more time with them than I do. I came to want the whole environment in the classroom to resemble their home setting. I want them to be excited about coming to school. They are very engaged in my classroom. I have all the data to back up the fact that they are very successful in my classroom in this learning environment. It is a happy place for them to be.
“I have fostered a lot of meaningful relationships with my students over the years. I had students who are now parents that vacation on this island, and they will ask me to come and see them with their kids.
“One girl I had recently: her family had just moved to Barnegat, and she was very shy. I had met her when her dad dropped her off, and she was clinging to him. I introduced myself to her and she was trying not to cry, but she was sad. But I would help her interact in class and by the end of the day she was settling in and enjoying herself. At the end of the year her mom wrote me a lovely letter saying how much I helped her and how because I showed her I believed in her, she joined so many different clubs.
“These students of mine, they are little humans, and I treat each one with respect. They are only 11. They are 10 when they start. They are still so young. I teach them the power of ‘Yet.” They will tell me, ‘I don’t know my multiplication facts,” and I will say, ‘Yet.’ Or they will say, ‘I don’t know the 50 states,’ and I will say, ‘Yet.’ We have a ‘Yeti,’ which is a little bear, and they will hold him when they are taking a test and struggling. They will share him with each other during the test, whoever is stumped gets the yeti next. I tell them, ‘You just can’t do it yet.’ It’s that simple.
“I am lucky to have a job that I love. It is not just about the subject matter. It is about the whole person. There are days I come in a bad mood, and they will plop the yeti right in my lap. We are all in it together. I just really love what I do. I am living the dream.”