Princeton honors outstanding secondary school teachers

Princeton University will honor four outstanding New Jersey secondary school teachers at its 2006 Commencement on Tuesday, June 6.

This year's honorees are: Timothy Cullen of Leonia High School, Leonia; Kathleen Mueller of Central Regional High School, Bayville; Katherine Princiotta of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, Princeton Junction; and Ann Ryan of Lindenwold High School, Lindenwold.

The teachers were selected for the award from among 68 nominations from public and private schools around the state. Each teacher will receive $5,000 as well as $3,000 for his or her school library.

"These four educators all have exhibited extraordinary dedication to improving the lives of their students, and they have earned high praise as role models for their fellow teachers," said John Webb, director of Princeton's Program in Teacher Preparation, which administers the awards. "While we received nominations for many exceptional teachers throughout New Jersey, the winners of this year's awards deserve to be recognized as leaders and innovators in their field."

The staff of the Program in Teacher Preparation selected 10 finalists, each of whom was visited at work by an observer. Finalists were selected by a committee chaired by Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel and including Webb, two Princeton professors and two external education professionals.

Princeton has honored secondary school teachers since 1959. The University received an anonymous gift from an alumnus to establish the program.

Following is information about the honorees:

Timothy Cullen

Timothy Cullen sees the role of a teacher as similar to a trail guide in the Old West. It is his job to ensure that the students of Leonia High School arrive safely on their journey to a new world, ready to face the challenges of adulthood.

"My job is to educate these newest pioneers so that when our lives diverge at the end of the trail, they will be prepared for what is to come," said Cullen, a history and economics teacher and girls' tennis coach who has spent 26 years at Leonia High. "And that means fully dedicating myself to the task."

Cullen has earned many distinctions for his work in the classroom and on the tennis court. He was named the Leonia School District Teacher of the Year in 2002 and also received a New Jersey Governor's Teacher Recognition Award in 1994 and an "Economics America" National Teaching Award, sponsored by the National Council on Economic Education, in 1992. Cullen was elected to the New Jersey Scholastic Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2002 and has been honored four times as Bergen County Girls' Tennis Coach of the Year.

Students and colleagues commended Cullen's devotion to his craft. He has incorporated multimedia technologies into his lessons and developed unique projects to bring life to his subjects. For example, to better explain complex microeconomic concepts, Cullen created a fictitious town in New Hampshire called "Volckerville," named after former Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker, in which all the residents are economists. Students tackle assignments based in the town to learn how economists try to solve a variety of problems.

Students lauded Cullen for setting high expectations as a teacher and a coach, tempered with a firm belief in their abilities. "In his class, there was an understanding that assignments completed below a student's potential were simply unacceptable," said Michelle Ovalle, who is now an undergraduate at Drew University. "While doing work for his classes, I knew I was held to a higher standard."

Cullen's dedication also extends to his colleagues, whether in helping new teachers assimilate to Leonia High or serving as chair of numerous committees, including a recent group that focused on preventative approaches to school discipline.

"He taught me how to teach," said Erich Breyer, a former student who now teaches history at Leonia High. "He taught me how to manage a classroom, how to deal with kids of all different ability levels, and the importance of organization and accountability. Every new teacher who comes into the building seeks Tim out and asks him for advice, and he makes time for every one of them."

Cullen earned a bachelor's degree in general studies from Ithaca College in 1971 and a master's degree in history from Fairleigh Dickinson University in 1981.

Kathleen Mueller

English teacher Kathleen Mueller uses literature as a vehicle to expose her students to a greater understanding of history, social issues, culture and the use of language. The hallmark of her lessons, however, is a more personal exercise that seeks to give students similar insights about themselves.

Mueller created an assignment known as the "occasional paper" (or "OP"), which calls for students to write about milestones in their own lives. Each student, and Mueller herself, is required to write an OP and share it with the class.

"Without fail, occasional papers are the best pieces of writing that my students do over the course of a marking period," Mueller said. "The main reason … is that they invest themselves fully in not only their own papers, but in each others' as well. As both author and audience member they see this assignment as having value because it helps them make sense of who they are and where they fit in the world in which they live."

Mueller is known at Central Regional High School, where she has taught for 18 years, for developing a nurturing, student-centered classroom environment. John La Rose Jr., one of Mueller's students, said she has been his "most inspirational" teacher and cited the OP as a defining part of his high school experience.

"An OP session may invoke tears or possibly uncontrollable laughter, but either way we learn more about humanity and how to express and deal with basic emotions," La Rose said. "It has become a tradition that will follow me for life."

Recognized for her caring approach to dealing with students and her efforts to consistently improve and expand her teaching repertoire, Mueller was named Teacher of the Year for both Central Regional High School and the Central Regional School District in 2000.

Mueller has developed and implemented new courses in journalism at the school, as well as new courses for at-risk students. She also is a resource for other teachers, leading professional development workshops on issues such as encouraging critical thinking and incorporating technology in the curriculum.

Cassandra Bunje, who spent 15 weeks in Mueller's classroom as a student teacher, valued her experience working with "a master teacher."

"Within the colorful walls, alive with student work, inspirational messages and all the accoutrements of a nontraditional classroom -- including beanbag chairs and blow-up palm trees -- there is an air of camaraderie, kinship and safety," Bunje said. "The students who enter that room as merely classmates will exit as a community, a family."

Mueller earned a bachelor's degree in English from Rutgers University in 1987 and a master's degree in liberal studies from Monmouth University in 2000. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in modern history and literature at Drew University.

Katherine Princiotta

In devising lesson plans for her biology and human anatomy and physiology courses at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, Katherine Princiotta often seeks insights from her students to find out what they want to learn.

The result is a flexible, open learning environment in which students have thrived, led by a teacher who exhibits tireless enthusiasm for developing fresh ideas about how to teach science. Among many challenging assignments, Princiotta's students have composed and performed songs about organic compounds, created artwork based on microscopic images of human tissue and designed their own scientific investigations for a "Young Naturalist" competition sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History.

"By using a wide variety of teaching methods and approaches, such as a mix of labs, lectures, activities, written assessments, projects, etc., Mrs. Princiotta has made learning fun again," said student Cosmo Kwok. "It's no longer just about getting a good grade; the joy of learning and understanding -- that spark and thrill of knowledge -- is back."

"I never take for granted that all of my students will think an assignment I have dreamed up is a good idea," Princiotta said. "I welcome their input in the creation of many learning experiences. It turns out that when given a say, students will take the opportunity to share what matters most to them and what would make them happiest to pursue."

In her five years at West Windsor-Plainsboro South, Princiotta has developed such a strong reputation that many parents call the school requesting that their students be placed in her classes, said Rob Richard, district high school science supervisor.

"Kate is the kind of teacher who memorizes the names of all of her students by the second day of classes, who goes out of her way to learn about her students' lives so that she can make personal connections with them, and who enriches her science lessons with French, with history and with readings from literature," Richard said. Princiotta also builds a strong rapport with her students' parents, sending them weekly e-mails with a synopsis of lesson plans for the week ahead, he noted.

Holly Crochtiere, a colleague from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, noted that in monthly gatherings of biology teachers in the school district, "Kate is always a leader in these meetings, even though she is not the oldest or most experienced teacher there. She is respected by all."

Princiotta is a member of Princeton's class of 1996, with a bachelor's degree in ecology and evolutionary biology. She received a master's degree in science education in 2004 from Rutgers, where she currently is pursuing doctoral studies in social and philosophical foundations of education.

Ann Ryan

At Lindenwold High School, where many students' lives are marked by poverty, English teacher Ann Ryan is a shining source of optimism and encouragement, striving to lead her students to a brighter future.

"If you were to ask my students about me," Ryan said, "many would say, 'She's tough!' 'She's crazy!' 'She won't stop correcting my grammar!' They would also say, 'She doesn't quit.' It's true. I refuse to quit. I refuse to give up on them."

Ryan said that students "subject to poverty and repression do not believe that they have other options." Her mission is to dispel that myth by introducing them to inspiring literature in the classroom and pushing them to pursue challenges they never dreamed possible.

Last year, Ryan helped a promising student overcome her trepidation about applying to a competitive summer math and science program at Carnegie Mellon University. The student thrived in the program and is now encouraging others from Lindenwold High to apply. This year, Ryan worked to help a student apply to a monthlong public policy program in Washington, D.C., where a select group would meet and study with government leaders and Supreme Court justices. She even followed up with the student at basketball practice and at home to make sure his application was done on time.

"She works with students and parents to make possible opportunities that they always thought were beyond their reach, whether by going to college or attending some type of enrichment program," said Geraldine Carroll, superintendent of the Lindenwold Public Schools. "For Ann's students, nothing is impossible."

"When I think of who has motivated me the most, someone who has pushed me to do my absolute best, no matter how hard that may be, the one name that seems to immediately surface is that of Ann Ryan," said student David Megginson. "In the time that I have known Ms. Ryan, I have seen over and again the excellent example she provides."

Ryan has taught in New Jersey high schools for nearly 30 years, including the last five at Lindenwold High, where she helped develop a new English curriculum and also coached the school's first varsity boys' and girls' tennis teams.

"She is the type of teacher who changes lives," said Laurie Scales, a fellow English teacher. "She reminds teachers that teaching is not a 9-to-5 job; it is a life that chooses us. She reminds students that they can achieve anything they work for. I am honored that she was my mentor and know that I learned from the best."

Ryan earned a bachelor's degree in health and physical education from Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) in 1976, a master's degree in communications from Fairfield University in 1984 and a law degree from Rutgers in 1993.