GSE Alumni Win 2018 Teacher of the Year

Teacher of the Year is an award that was created to celebrate a teacher who consistently goes above and beyond the call of duty in the classroom. In 2018, several GSE alumni were awarded this prestigious honor by their schools. Some of these alumni include Joseph Dziuba, Dakashna Lang, and George Kerrigan.

Joseph Dziuba is a 5th year mathematics teacher at New Brunswick High School. New Brunswick is one of the eight partnership districts in the GSE Community School Partnership Network (GSE-CSPN) – eight urban school districts that advance the GSE’s commitment to excellence and equity in education. Dziuba has taught Algebra II, Geometry, Mathematics in Liberal Arts, and also is the advisor for the Peer Leadership program at the high school. In addition, Dziuba also serves as the Class of 2020 advisor which hosts weekly bagel sales, school dances and fundraising at home sporting events as well as at the Rutgers football games, coaches the freshman soccer team, teaches night school to adults who are pursuing a GED teaching courses 3 times a week, teaches summer school, and is a current doctoral student at the GSE. “I often joke and say that the security guard and I are the most clocked in employees since I see him in the morning when he is opening up the building as well as at night when it’s being closed up,” Dziuba says.

Dziuba recalls, “growing up, my day-to-day reality was not the most glorious and school was my outlet. You could say I was a nerd, but I loved it. I loved everything about learning. When I got to college, I originally wanted to be a music teacher, but I did not get into the music school. It worked out for the best since it gave me the opportunity to get into mathematics education and have a higher probability of having a career in education.” Dziuba is an Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) alumni, which is a program where first-generation students of color are transitioned into college the summer before their first semester, often paired with mentorship, financial assistance, and summer courses. “it’s fun to give back to the community that gave me so much when I was in school. I enjoy every second of it,” Dziuba states.

Dakashna Lang is an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Heritage Middle School in Livingston, New Jersey. Lang has been teaching in the district for 15 years, with this being her 11th year teaching 8th grade English. “I taught 3rd grade for 3 years, then switched to teaching 8th grade. I took one year away from the classroom to be the Educational Technology coach for the district. I really missed being in the classroom, so I decided to come back to it and haven’t left since,” Lang says. With a desire to always change her teaching style, Lang dedicates a lot of time on lesson planning. “When you spend a lot of time doing the same thing, you want to make each occurrence meaningful and original. I try not to run the same lessons year after year because I want to engage my students, not only with the lesson for the day, but with the world around them as well. Making the content relatable seems to really get them excited about the topic for the day,” Lang states. She also uses a platform for role-playing gamification in the classroom called Classcraft. It is an engagement-management tool that incorporates video RPG play into the classroom and taps into that love of gaming to make learning more impactful for them.

“I have always been interested in teaching, ever since my little sister was born and I started teaching her things. Both of my parents were teachers in Guyana before coming to this country and teaching just always felt like something we did as a family. When I was at Johns Hopkins during my undergraduate career, I participated in a program called Peace by Peace, which taught creative conflict resolution to 4th and 5th graders in Baltimore. That was a very influential moment for me. One of the classroom teachers there told me that I was a natural, and it was great to have that reassurance from someone in the field that I was capable of being successful as a teacher,” Lang recalls.

George Kerrigan is in his 4th year at Mount Olive High School working as a guidance counselor for grades 10-12. In addition to his day-to-day responsibilities, Kerrigan often checks homework of his advisees, skipping lunch and staying late to make sure he has seen every student who may need help. “I really try to go above and beyond for my students. You always hear the narrative of people being assigned to a counselor who is either not available or does not really know them enough to make suggestions about major life decisions like college, armed forces, or technical careers. This is the next generation of citizens and part of my job is making sure they make the best decision both for them and for society. That is what really drives me every single day,” Kerrigan states.

Originally a psychology major during his undergraduate career at Rutgers, Kerrigan discovered his passion for counseling through a course in Community Psychology. “During my Community Psychology course, they had a speaker from the Head Start program who really caught my attention. That made me do some research on how to get involved in a field with such impact and I eventually came across the school counseling program at the GSE. By the time I finished my entrance interview, I knew this is exactly where I needed to be,” Kerrigan reflects.

When thinking about their decisions to join the GSE community, there was a common theme across the board. Dziuba says, “when considering my doctorate, I looked all around to see what all the schools offered, even though I am a die-hard Rutgers guy, but the GSE has a standard, expectation, and reputation for the program and most other schools didn’t meet that for me. As someone who somehow beat all of the odds stacked against him and, by society’s expectation, shouldn’t even be in a doctoral program, I wanted to be able to tackle it with the best in the state.”  Lang shares similar thoughts. “When I decided to go back for my doctorate, I wanted to find the best program that would be convenient for me. Most importantly, the staff who were at the GSE made sure that I had everything that I needed to be really successful in the field. I spent a lot of one-on-one time with some of the faculty and it really made all the difference for me.” Kerrigan also had a personal connection to what influenced him. “Besides the environment overall, the faculty I encountered during my entrance exam were amazing and helped me feel confident. My brother, John, was also a GSE student and spoke highly of their community and I was sold.”

Community building is an important component in building relationships with future educators. “I remember when I started the doctoral program in 2017. I happened to run into Dr. Angela O’Donnell, and she remembered my name from when I took her class almost 7 years prior. I was astonished, but as time went on, I realized that’s just how the GSE community operates and it makes all the difference. Dr. Pablo Mejia-Ramos was fantastic. He always reinforced this notion of improving without making us feel like we had to be perfect. I also want to name drop Drs. Dan Battey and Melinda Mangin. They make me feel like the best and brightest and really made me passionate about teaching. Finally, my friend and colleague John Kerrigan. He and I met outside of our time at the GSE and he is one of my biggest supporters. When I told him about the award, he was so excited for me and I cannot thank him enough for everything he has done for me,” Dziuba states.

“I was at the GSE before cohorts were a common practice, but it was those relationships I built with faculty that really helped me make it through my doctoral program. I worked a lot with Dr. Lesley Morrow as well as Dr. Erica Boling, who helped guide my interest and helped me ultimately discover my passion and area of research,” Lang stated.  “Dr. Saundra Tomlinson-Clarke had an immense impact on me. The current department chair was on sabbatical when I started the program, and she was so attentive and genuinely cared about my success, as well as others. She went beyond the call of duty and I am so grateful to the entire school’s dedication to producing high-quality instructors, education reformers, and leaders,” Kerrigan says.

Dziuba’s vision for his career is not yet defined. “I always get that question of career trajectory and to be honest, I do not know where the future will lead me in terms of education. What I can say is, I will definitely be teaching for the rest of my life. I am fulfilled and enjoy teaching. I’ll never leave New Brunswick High School,” he states.  In terms of the future, Lang says, “I want to stay in the classroom and get kids excited about learning. Long term, I want to continue speaking at conferences about using technology in the classroom to engage students and address content, but I am very happy where I am now.”  Kerrigan shares, “I would like to be a guidance supervisor in an urban community in the future. I interned in the Perth Amboy School District during the program and really enjoyed assisting community members in getting what they needed and that was very fulfilling for me.”

Regarding the field of education, each educator had different hopes of the trajectory of the field. “I would like to see more collaboration between the public and educators. What can we do collectively to strengthen the mission of education and support our educators? I would also like to see more resources for teachers transitioning into the field and try to lower the attrition rate of new teachers,” Dziuba shares.   Land says, “I feel like education has become very focused on assessment. But when you are spending all of this time focused on testing, you don’t have time to actually teach the skills we are assessing and make the students are excited to learn. So I would like to see that shift back towards learning and being more student-centered.” Kerrigan add, “The biggest change I would want to see is more mental health programs available for students. There is much more going on now among students and a lot of their peers don’t understand them. The teachers don’t always have a good understanding or the resources to really help those students. So making everyone more aware of others’ needs and fostering a supportive school environment for everyone is vital.”

Lang ends her aspirations with this: “Each teacher is important. Even if it seems like a small accomplishment to be teacher of the year in their school or in their district, it deserves to be celebrated. It is so wonderful to see the impact the GSE is having across the state and country simultaneously and really puts into focus the collective mission to improve education in all areas.”