Princeton to honor four secondary school teachers

Princeton University will honor four exceptional New Jersey secondary school teachers at its 2013 Commencement on Tuesday, June 4.

This year's honorees are Medha Jayant Kirtane, Ridgewood High School, Ridgewood; John McAllen, Point Pleasant Borough High School, Point Pleasant; Robert O'Boyle, Hopewell Valley Central High School, Pennington; and Deane Stepansky, Nutley High School, Nutley.

The teachers were selected for the award from 62 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.

"In the final analysis, if great teachers are measured by what their students accomplish, the four teachers we honor with this award represent the very finest teachers in the profession today," said Christopher Campisano, director of Princeton's Program in Teacher Preparation. "By challenging their students to go beyond the superficial, by encouraging them to be skeptical, and by challenging them to test the limits of what they thought was possible, these four teachers enable their students to become confident, critical and creative thinkers."

The staff of the Program in Teacher Preparation selected 11 finalists, each of whom was visited at their school by a member of the program staff. Award winners were selected by a committee that was chaired by Dean of the College Valerie Smith. The panel also included Campisano, University faculty members Miguel Centeno, Joshua Katz and Stanley Katz; Judy Wilson, superintendent of the Princeton Public Schools; and Samuel Stewart, executive county superintendent of schools for Mercer and Middlesex counties.   

"These teachers serve as a testament to the quality of education found in our schools today and serve as an inspiration to all future and practicing teachers," Campisano said.

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

Teachers honored this year are:

Medha Jayant Kirtane

Medha Jayant Kirtane is in demand — in class, during lunch, after school, even on the tennis court, teachers and students at Ridgewood High School say. Some students want to discuss an assignment; others want to talk about life outside the classroom.

"That Medha is such a perennial student favorite is all the more remarkable (at first glance) because she is one of the most rigorous teachers that students will ever encounter," wrote Gavin Stewart, an English teacher at the school, in a letter supporting Kirtane's nomination. "She demands excellence from her students, and although she 'demands' with a smile, her standards are nonetheless admirably high. To earn an 'A' in Ms. Kirtane's class is truly an accomplishment!"

Kirtane has taught a range of social studies classes during her eight years at Ridgewood and has helped revise or rewrite several course curricula, principal Thomas Gorman said. Her current course load includes an interdisciplinary senior seminar that emphasizes independent research interwoven with intensive discussion in a small-group setting.

Lauren Cubellis, a graduate of Ridgewood High School and Princeton University, said the seminar pushed her to think critically about history and question assumptions.

"It was the most difficult class of my high school career," Cubellis wrote. "But it was also the most exciting class I had ever taken. Medha was able to turn history into a living and breathing record of humanity."

Kirtane said she tries to instill her students with curiosity, diligence, sincerity and critical thinking skills.

"I want my students to engage with themselves, me and each other to ignite their passion to learn and create ideas anew," Kirtane wrote. "From that heated process should emerge a distilled vision of what should be and how each of them can work, within and beyond their communities, to achieve their goals."

Outside the classroom, Kirtane leads the high school's girls' tennis team and was named division coach of the year in 2009, 2010 and 2011. She is also faculty adviser to the school's Asian Festival and the Student Broadcast Club.

Kirtane earned her bachelor's degree from Williams College and a master's degree from Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.

John McAllen

Numbers are one way to measure the success of Point Pleasant Borough High School math teacher John McAllen, said Barbara Hanna, who supervises mathematics for grades 6-12 at Point Pleasant.

During McAllen's 13 years at the school, enrollment in his AP Calculus class has more than quadrupled while scores have remained high.

There are also the eight students at the school who received the highest possible score last year on a separate AP Calculus test that is based on a course the school doesn't even offer. Instead, McAllen volunteers to teach the subject matter after school, during lunch and any other free moment.

In addition, McAllen has analyzed students' results on standardized tests to develop a way to screen for at-risk students. As a result, those students get extra help and the school's scores on state tests have risen.

"He exudes an unswerving passion for mathematics and learning as well as an energy level which establishes a dynamic classroom atmosphere with consistently high expectations," Hanna wrote. "John's enthusiasm for learning is contagious. His students clearly like having him as their teacher, and it is easy to see why — he is encouraging, positive and holds high expectations for their learning and conduct."

"'Dedication' is the first word that comes to mind when I think of Mr. John McAllen," former student Lucas Stegman wrote. "Other words include 'committed,' 'highly involved,' 'personal' and 'instructive.' He is, without a doubt, the most amazing teacher that I have ever had the pleasure to learn from."

In addition to teaching calculus and precalculus, McAllen has served as a new teacher mentor, yearbook adviser, volunteer baseball coach and National Honor Society committee member. In 2011, he received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics.

McAllen came to Point Pleasant after earning a bachelor's degree and master's degree in mechanical engineering from Rutgers University and working for five years as an engineer. He has five patents for medical devices.

"It is my goal that through my experiences with 21st-century technology, science and engineering along with researched teaching methods, the students of Point Pleasant will achieve educational excellence and be role models for others to emulate," McAllen wrote.

Robert O'Boyle

Robert O'Boyle is an accomplished artist whose works have appeared at the Vatican, museums, universities and corporate headquarters.

For 33 years, he has also worked to mold student artists at Hopewell Valley Central High School in Pennington. The evidence of his work as an art teacher can be seen in former students who have gone on to careers as medical illustrators, graphic designers, fashion designers, portrait artists, industrial designers, web designers, a New York Times best-selling children's book author and a division head at Disney.

"I can plant the seed of an idea to germinate and nurture my students' visions and imaginations; I have the privilege to mentor them on a leg of their educational journey of discovery," O'Boyle wrote. "I hope to instill in each a sense of wonder for the power of ideas and images, a respect for the individual's unique perception, visual voice and aesthetic."

O'Boyle — known to many as "Doc" — challenges his students to do work that sometimes surprises even them, colleagues and students said.

"As a teacher, Doc pushes his students," student Hannah Solomon wrote. "He challenges them to do their best work, and he is always there for those who need assistance or inspiration. He sits down, gives an honest critique of the work, and shows how it could be improved. He holds everyone to a high standard, but he understands it is a standard we can all reach. All he expects is effort and respect."

Beyond the classroom, O'Boyle has led more than 10 trips to Italy for students to learn about the great works of the Italian Renaissance in the places they were created. He also volunteers to use art in the rehabilitation of inmates and co-founded a group that brings the arts to at-risk students and young adults. He also set up a program that helps raise money to buy wigs for cancer patients and donated a work that is displayed at the Rena Rowan Breast Center at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital.

"He works under a motto that teachers should be responsive to the varied needs of all students and his teaching reflects that," wrote Daphne Shaub, a teacher at Hopwell Valley. "No student can go 'under the radar' with Dr. O'Boyle."

O'Boyle earned a bachelor's degree from the Philadelphia College of Art, a master's degree from Rutgers University and his doctorate from the Union Institute and University.

Deane Stepansky

Deane Stepansky says her love of the ancient world began in fifth grade, when a teacher introduced her to Athens of the fifth century B.C and the legends of the Trojan War.

For 18 years, she has been sharing that love of the ancient world as a Latin teacher at Nutley High School.

Stepansky says she sees herself less as teaching a language and more as using Latin and the culture surrounding it as a launching pad for a lifetime of learning.

"I especially want Latin to serve as a vehicle for demonstrating that learning is not only worthwhile but also exciting, even exhilarating," Stepansky wrote. "Part of this excitement has to do with the way an ancient language and the debates and struggles to which it gives expression illuminate the debates and struggles of the present day."

Students often begin their Latin studies with little idea of what is ahead, said Jane Frost-Guzzo, a teacher at the school.

"They begin Deane's curriculum to satisfy a language requirement but end up comparing Athenian democracy with the Roman system of governmental checks and balances, writing and giving orations in the manner of Cicero, and rehearsing and critiquing the debates of the Roman Senate — all with an eye to understanding the cultural and political world they themselves live in," she wrote.

Stepansky earned her bachelor's degree from Princeton University and a master's degree from Yale University.

"It is a testament to her love of pedagogy that, after receiving her prestigious degrees from Princeton and Yale, she yearned most to teach in the public school system, an often thankless job even for the brightest of instructors," former student Chelsea Woods wrote. "Under her watchful care, students find not only their immediate academic needs met, but their philosophical thirsts at once quenched and increased."