I became a teacher for the same reason most did, I wanted to make a difference. Mrs. Finn, my 3rd grade teacher at Saint Agnes Grammar School in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, made a profound impact on me and I wanted to be a Mrs. Finn for children who needed her as much as I did. I just didn’t know this is what I wanted until I was already married and had children of my own. The enjoyment I got from being around the kids was a hook that drew me right into the profession. When I decided to become a teacher via the alternate route I had already been working in restaurant/hotel management for over 20 years. I loved that business because of the great relationships I made with employees and even guests but it just didn’t make me feel like I was making the world a better place. A brief, and ill fated stint in sales convinced me that I needed more value in how I spent my days.
Twelve years later I am teaching 2nd grade in Ocean Acres Elementary in Stafford Township, NJ. This is a coastal community that was devastated by Hurricane Sandy in October, 2012. Following the storm I witnessed students, colleagues and complete strangers all suffering enormous loss. Motivated by the simple philosophy of, “There but for the Grace of God go I”, I founded a non-profit, grass roots organization of teachers and school staff to go out and help the victims of the storm. This movement quickly gathered momentum and by four months post storm we had over 2,500 volunteers clean out over 800 homes. It is estimated that the group I created, Stafford Teachers And Residents Together, S.T.A.R.T., saved residents more than $3,000,000.00. More importantly we brought our community back from a devastating event and forged tight bonds that continue to this day. S.T.A.R.T. continues to function as a community based volunteer group thanks to Joe Mangino, who was the owner of the first home we helped clean up and the husband of a teacher I work with.
The leadership skills I needed to direct the storm relief were acquired from my experiences in and out of my classroom. In 2011 I was the Teacher of the Year for my building and was entered into the state selection process for State Teacher of the Year. I went on to be the 2011 Ocean County Teacher of the Year and a finalist for the NJ State Teacher of the Year. Being recognized for my work in the classroom set me on a path of teacher leadership that included becoming a Teacher Fellow with America Achieves in 2012 and Hope Street Group in 2014. These fellowships elevated me to the national conversation of education in America and beyond. I now serve as an adviser to the NJ State Department of Education while maintaining a full time classroom teacher position. I am also a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, NNSTOY.
The policy world has introduced me to the professional side of teaching and I am extremely happy to participate in the necessary meetings and conversations where I can advocate for my students and fellow educators. I have found my voice and the courage necessary to use it.
I am not sure if traits such as courage are genetic but my Irish grandparents on my father’s side were heavily involved in Ireland’s fight for freedom from English oppression in 1916-1924. My grandfather was responsible for major raids in northern County Tipperary while my tiny little grandmother smuggled guns and notes under her long skirts past military checkpoints. They were forced to emigrate to America in 1925 never to return. It was a high moment of my life when I was able to bring my family back to the towns where my grandparents were born. My Irish roots have taught me a lot on how to find courage and stand for what is right no matter the personal cost.
Few things make me as happy as a day at the beach. I am incredibly fortunate to live so close to the ocean. I am so enamored with the sea that I have taken the post of Secretary of the Board of Directors for the Alliance for a Living Ocean, ALO. ALO is a watch group that protects the natural habitat of the bays and oceans around Long Beach Island. My family and I spend countless hours enjoying our time on LBI. When we aren’t on the beach we love visiting nearby Philadelphia, New York or Washington, DC. Travelling the world is something I would love to do more of. In High School I was able to visit Greece, England, and France. I have a close friend who runs a school in Ghana. I am trying to figure out a way where my whole family could spend a summer there helping run that school.