Princeton honors exceptional secondary school teachers

Princeton University will honor four exceptional New Jersey secondary school teachers at its 2010 Commencement on Tuesday, June 1.

This year's honorees are Roy Chambers, Westfield High School, Westfield; Gregory Devine, Delbarton School, Morristown; Argine Safari, Pascack Valley High School, Hillsdale; and Hans Toft, Cape May County Technical High School, Cape May Court House.

The teachers were selected for the award from 81 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.

"What distinguishes this year's winners is their extraordinary ability to establish a deeply human connection between the subjects they love and teach and the lives of their students," said John Webb, director of Princeton's Program in Teacher Preparation, which administers the awards. "In a time when there is such an intense focus on student performance data as a mark of a teacher's excellence, their work and the reactions of their students, always expressed with utter and profound sincerity, remind us that good teaching is about mutual respect built on the foundation of love for learning. We all have much to learn from these outstanding educators."

The staff of the Program in Teacher Preparation selected 11 finalists, each of whom was visited at work by an observer. Finalists were selected by a committee that was chaired by Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel and included 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:

Roy Chambers

Whether he's leading one of his five art classes, designing the latest set for a school play or practicing tai chi before marching band practice, Roy Chambers is constantly teaching. His is a holistic approach to education, one that both students and faculty recognize as perhaps his greatest asset.

Chambers, who began teaching at Westfield High School in 1999, teaches courses in the foundations of art, drawing, and graphic design at both an introductory and advanced level. In addition, Chambers is a marching band consultant, a set director for the drama department and a daily afterschool volunteer with Project 79, an alternative education program designed for 100 students who are either self-selected or recommended by a teacher.

In nominating Chambers for the award, Linda King, fine arts supervisor for the Westfield School District, said he "conveys a sense of warmth and compassion for his students and his work," adding that "Mr. Chambers is an artist; he is a student; he is a teacher."

In referencing his teaching techniques, King said Chambers' students are consistently "challenged and stimulated through various methodologies," and that he incorporates "demonstration, lecture, group work, collaborative work with other art classes and colleagues, and individual instruction."

Recent examples of this include an Earth Day exhibit, which, in conjunction with science and community service clubs, required students to make art entirely from recycled materials; a sand painting involving the entire school; and an annual field trip, which partners local third-grade students with Chambers' students at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton for exploration.

"Roy understands that the line between school and the 'real world' is illusory," said Peter Horn, coordinator of alternative education for Westfield. "He is thoroughly committed to school as a place where people can engage difficult questions creatively and with respect for others' views."

In addition to the depth of Chambers' educational investment -- as well as his myriad extracurricular commitments -- it is his careful attention and availability to each of his students that sets him apart.

"Mr. Chambers' best quality is arguably the dedication and care he provides his students and the [Westfield High School] community," said Cheryl Wu, a junior at Westfield and a student in several of Chambers' classes. "He is not only supportive of artistic endeavors but individuals as well. His open-mindedness and helpful nature are valuable sources of advice and comfort in times of need."

Chambers said he is perpetually aware of the importance these individual connections hold, not only to his students, but also to his own goals as a teacher.

"Each successive connection or interaction is successful because of the experiences I have had in the past," Chambers said. "When I put my full effort and attention into a lesson, event or individual -- when I am truly present, enthusiastic and fully aware of that moment -- then the results are extremely effective."

Chambers received a bachelor's degree in communications, design and technology from Jersey City State College in 1985 and a teacher certification in art from New Jersey City University in 1993.

Gregory Devine

In more than a decade of teaching Advanced Placement (AP) physics at the Delbarton School,  Gregory Devine is faced each year with the daunting task of not only making complex concepts understandable, but making them interesting as well. Devine's students and colleagues agree that he has succeeded.

"Greg teaches arguably one of our most difficult courses with enormous success," said Anne Lecki, Delbarton's dean of faculty. "When our administrative team first considered who we would nominate as a distinguished educator, the choice for Greg Devine was immediate and unanimous."

Lecki added that although Delbarton offers more than 25 AP courses every year, the results of Devine's AP physics B and C exams are consistently the private school's highest, with more than 95 percent of the school's AP physics students obtaining scores of either 4 or 5 (out of 5) on their exams.

"Yet these high scores are not what the students value most," said Lecki. "Greg Devine sparks a passion for learning in his students, and his students respond in kind."

A faculty member since 1993, Devine's teaching experience at Delbarton has included first- and second-year AP physics, AP calculus, advanced level algebra, and both introductory and conceptual physics.

In her nomination letter, Delbarton's dean of guidance, Shelly Levine, referred to Devine as "simply an awesome teacher," adding that he possesses "that rare gift of inspiration: He is able to teach and inspire students at all levels, so that they not only understand the subject matter but love and appreciate it as well."

Levine added that Devine "understands and relates to young people in a way that eludes most adults." Devine often incorporates hands-on examples and experiments pertaining to his lessons, which are interspersed with humor and a conversational teaching style.

"That is how I learned the hardest stuff," said Devine. "The lessons you figure out on your own are the most tightly held."

Devine also is known for consistently devoting his spare time to the study of contemporary engineering and physics, such as when he traveled across the country last summer to several universities, museums, laboratories and engineering facilities in order to stay current with research and developments in the fields.

As an accomplished trumpeter, Devine also directs Delbarton's wind, jazz and brass ensembles.

For several years in a row, he also has served as the at-large faculty representative on the Delbarton Academic Council, a committee that advises the headmaster in academic matters. In addition, Devine mentors new faculty members, privately tutors students and coaches the school's competing engineering design team.

Martin Scheeler, a Princeton junior majoring in physics and former student of Devine's, said his dedication to and love of physics "would not be nearly as strong" had it not been for Devine's inspiration.

"With each test and problem set he would stress that it was never about what grade you got, it was about the physics you learned," recalled Scheeler. "His teaching embodied this philosophy, as it had little regard for the limits of the AP exam, going far beyond the AP syllabus, covering new and advanced material simply because he found it exciting and wanted us to as well."

The topics may be challenging, but for Devine, the equation of his success is quite simple.

"I really like what I do with the kids, and the magnitude of that makes me think about why I want to work with students," Devine said. "I love the physics, music and math too much … and I think of it as purchasing a luxury to work in what you want."

Devine earned bachelor's degrees in both physics and music from Williams College in 1993 and a master's degree in teaching from Harvard University in 1997.

Argine Safari

Even during her years as a translator, insurance agent and financial adviser, Argine Safari had one constant: music. It was the overarching passion in her life, and 15 years ago she turned that passion into a career of teaching.

Safari has been a music teacher at Pascack Valley Regional High School for five years. She teaches concert choir, lunch choir, chamber choir and both an introductory and advanced class in music theory. Safari has been "a tour de force that has forever changed the Pascack Valley music department and the entire Pascack Valley High School culture," said Phyllis Pizzolato, district supervisor of world languages, music and family and consumer sciences.

As a teacher, Safari has endeavored to integrate all aspects of a student's education into her music curricula, frequently collaborating with teachers in other disciplines for a more holistic understanding of music's importance.

For example, Safari partnered with the social studies department in developing a course titled "Music and Society," which teaches students about the evolution of musical style in connection with important historical events.

She also worked closely with the world languages department to design a project titled "Songs of the World," a concert that included performances of songs in 13 languages. Students not only learned about the different cultures being expressed in the music, but also the history of the folk songs they were performing.

As another example of her crossdisciplinary approach, Safari teamed with the special education department on a project titled "The Effect of Listening to Music on Language, Learning and Memory," which taught students that storing music and language together in both the right and left hemispheres of the brain increased synaptic connections in both.

"As a colleague of Ms. Safari, I have witnessed a seemingly endless list of improvements to our music department," said Susan Dunn, who has been teaching world language at Pascack Valley for 32 years. Whether through "innovative classroom teaching" that involves various forms of technology, writing new AP music theory curricula, establishing and conducting new ensembles, or advising new student officers in both choir and band, Dunn said Safari "has initiated a dramatic change in the quality of music education and performance, unearthing the true potential of our students."

In 2007, Safari also was responsible for starting Pascack Valley's first male a cappella group, The Bro Squad, which was just one of many factors that gave this year's choir president, Graham Terry, "the passion, as well as the drive, to pursue music education as my ultimate career goal."

"As a shy freshman without many friends, I was able to find myself as a person through the many performances and leadership opportunities that she has offered me," added Terry, now a senior.

Safari likens her job as a music teacher to the elusive challenge of artistic creation, finding shape and order in chaos.

"What I love most about my profession is the opportunity to constantly challenge my students and to help them find their true potential," said Safari. "Michelangelo once said that his 'David' was always inside that piece of marble, and all he had to do was chip away and chip away, until 'David' was finally revealed. I love to chip away 'pieces of marble' and reveal the true talent that is nestled within."

Safari earned an associate's degree in music education from the Yerevan R. Melikian Music College in Yerevan, Armenia; a bachelor's degree in business management and finance from Brooklyn College; and a bachelor's degree in piano performance and theory, as well as a master's degree in musicology and composition, from the Moscow P.I. Tchaikovsky Conservatory.

Hans Toft

Even though Hans Toft has taught at Cape May County Technical High School for 39 years, principal Michael Adams said the teacher's "youthful enthusiasm and fresh approach to each teaching day makes it seem like his first."

Toft began his career at the high school as an instructor of marine and natural sciences. At the time, the school was a traditional shared-time vocational institution, educating mostly special needs and disaffected students. But after the school was restructured as a full-time technical high school in 1994, Toft helped design the three-level class he now teaches.

In his capacity as the school's natural sciences teacher, Toft works with a cohort of 20 students per grade level for three years, developing a strong relationship with each one while also acting as their adviser.

Adams said Toft's teaching "reflects the best theoretical practices blended with the real needs of kids," adding that Toft is a "humble master of the craft whose legacy will live on far beyond his time in the classroom."

Perhaps those are some of the reasons why natural sciences is the most consistently requested program offered at the school. Adams said that during any given year, nearly 50 percent of the freshman class interviews for one of the 22 slots available at the introductory level.

The natural sciences program -- which teaches students about a broad range of topics, including animal husbandry, upland and marine ecology, habitat observation and dendrology -- affords many opportunities for Toft to utilize dynamic, experiential instruction.

Toft's hands-on teaching style is evident, for example, in his approach to falconry.

"I put gloves on [the students'] hands, safety glasses on their eyes and show them how to hold their fists properly," said Toft. "Then I call a red-tail hawk down from a tree to land on their fist. This grabs their attention in a way that Xboxes, television, cell phones and video games cannot. After they have had such a magnificent experience, the true learning can begin."

According to senior Nicholas Lanza, Toft's classroom contains an array of fish tanks filled with aquatic samples from the local ecosystem, a woodworking station designed for creating projects using wood harvested from local forests, an incubator for raising various game birds, a reptile enclosure and a holding tank designed for exceptionally large fish.

But even with all that the classroom has to offer, Lanza said "on any given day you would not find us in the classroom, but instead we would be in our primary classroom: the outdoors."

Throughout the course of their three-year experience with Toft, students undertake projects that include obtaining biological samples from the saltwater ecosystem, studying aquatic organisms in their natural habitats, replenishing local oyster and clam populations and monitoring bald eagle nests. Lanza said all of this educational stimulation is "so enjoyable that it is not unusual for me to forget I am in school."

Each year, local elementary schools also take advantage of Toft's passion for teaching natural sciences, embarking on annual field trips with Toft and his students to nearby marshes for exploration of fiddler crab habitats, to deep New Jersey forests for the study of rare trees and into the classroom to feed the hundreds of aquatic species on display.

Matt Hamer, a former student of Toft's who currently is studying wildlife biology at Paul Smith's College in New York State, said this style of instruction instilled in him "a love and understanding of the natural world that surrounds us, while teaching me life lessons in a way only [Toft] could. … I don't believe that I will ever again have a teacher as enthusiastic and committed to his students as Mr. Toft."

Toft earned a bachelor's degree in science agriculture and natural resources from Rutgers University in 1971, as well as a teaching certificate in marine science and in science and general biology from Rowan University in 1976 and 1991, respectively.