Four outstanding N.J. secondary school teachers honored at Princeton Commencement
Princeton University honored four outstanding New Jersey secondary school teachers at its 2022 Commencement on Tuesday, May 24.
This year’s recipients of the Princeton Prize for Distinguished Secondary School Teaching are Deborah Cella of Glen Rock High School, Alicia Rodriguez of Kent Place School in Summit, Devin Ryan-Pullen of Burlington City High School, and Lee Snowden of University High School in Newark
The teachers were selected for the award based on nominations from public and private schools around the state. They each will receive $5,000, as well as $3,000 for their school libraries.
“While teaching under pandemic conditions continues to be stressful and challenging for teachers across the nation, the four prize winners have been able to provide a truly exceptional education for their students,” said Todd Kent, director of Princeton’s Program in Teacher Preparation. “Although they work in different subject areas and in very different school settings, they all share a total commitment to the intellectual growth and emotional wellbeing of their students. Their stories are wonderful and inspiring, and the influence of their remarkable work is felt throughout their school communities.”
The staff of the Program in Teacher Preparation, in reviewing the applications, considers recommendations from colleagues and students as well as evidence of the teachers’ accomplishments in the school and the community.
The 10 finalists were visited at their schools by Rosanne Zeppieri, a member of the program staff. The winners were then selected by a committee chaired by Elizabeth Colagiuri, deputy dean of the college, that also includes Kent, Jennifer Jennings, professor of sociology and public affairs at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), Stanley Katz, a lecturer with the rank of professor in public and international affairs at SPIA, and William Miron, principal of Millburn High School in New Jersey and a 1978 Princeton University graduate.
Princeton has honored secondary school teachers since 1959 after receiving an anonymous gift from an alumnus to establish the program.
Deborah Cella, the lead teacher for visual and fine arts at Glen Rock High School, is known for being available to students not just during school hours — when her classroom door is always open — but at night, over the weekend and during the summer.
“On summer evenings, Mrs. Cella can be found in her classroom surrounded by students who need a safe and supportive environment to continue their art portfolios,” said Kathleen Regan, who is the director of curriculum and instruction for the Glen Rock School District. “She helps students express and process their thoughts on current issues and social injustices through art and media.”
Cella, who has been teaching in the Glen Rock district for the past 30 years, helps students foster connections between art and the world at large.
“Every student who has had the blessing to be under her care and guidance has a better eye for art, a deeper connection to their world and a greater appreciation for the gift of art in all its forms,” said Michael Parent, principal of Glen Rock High School.
During the pandemic, she delivered art supplies to students’ homes so they could participate in online classes.
For one student, the most welcome moment during a school day was when Cella approached her and said, “Let’s have a chat.”
“Mrs. Cella has been an irreplaceable mentor who has helped me discover my identity as a person and as a young artist,” the student said.
Another student recalled the way Cella continued to mentor her through college and beyond: “Mrs. Cella remains the most powerful role model and mentor in my life.”
Enter the classroom of Alicia Rodriguez, where she serves as a middle school math teacher, and one may find students tossing a Nerf basketball into a hoop. It’s not a sign of mayhem — rather, it’s an indication that the students are engaged in a participatory lesson on graphing parabolas.
Rodriguez excels at drawing students into lessons in a fun, lively way: “She goes out of her way to expose students to practical applications of math in their everyday lives,” observed Donna Gulino, a colleague at the Kent Place School in Summit. “What is this shape?” Rodriguez asks as the ball arcs in the air. “What is influencing this shape? What changes it?”
“When she is teaching, she watches students’ body language to see how well they are understanding the content and looks for ways to make the material understandable for everyone,” an administrator said.
Rodriguez is deeply involved in the life of the school, reading applications as a member of the admission committee, planning student outings, and serving as the diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging facilitator. She is also the Grade 8 team leader.
Her engagement with students goes well beyond math. One student said Rodriguez helped her prepare to give a speech at graduation, encouraged her to get engaged in extracurricular activities and gave her frequent pep talks that boosted her self-confidence. “After knowing her for just a year, she has changed the way I view myself, my capabilities in mathematics and my potential as a leader,” the student said.
Devin Ryan-Pullen may speak softly, but she has become a quiet force at Burlington City High School, where she has been an English teacher for 18 years. “She quietly works to improve the atmosphere of the school,” a colleague said. “She does not do anything for recognition. She is always the first person to volunteer for a committee or tackle an issue.”
“Devin never settles; she is always looking for ways to improve the educational experience,” said James Flynn, the school’s principal. “The impact of her drive can be seen in many programs and initiatives throughout the district.” One example, he said, is the way she revamped the English as a Second Language program, which improved student performance.
Students feel nurtured and listened to in her class. “She doesn’t solve our problems for us. Rather, she helps us gain the confidence to handle difficulties that arise,” one student said.
Another reported, “I used to hate English, but now it’s my favorite class.”
Pullen is masterful at developing class discussions that draw students out and get them invested in the topic, whether it’s a scene from Romeo and Juliet or a lesson about Helen Keller.
“One thing I really admire about Mrs. Pullen is her patience,” said another student. “I also know I could go to her for anything because she gives great advice.”
Lee Snowden isn’t just a teacher at University High School in Newark; he’s also a graduate of the school. He returned to his alma mater to teach because he wanted to pay it forward. As the lead teacher and curriculum writer for the school’s Teacher Academy, he now helps prepare his students to become teachers themselves.
“He has helped bring the teaching profession to the forefront in our school,” said one administrator. Said another, “He helps create confident learners, critical thinkers; he is transformational for many of our kids.
Snowden helps students think about their lives beyond high school by setting high expectations and spending hours working with them outside of school hours, colleagues said. In addition to his work with the Teacher Academy, he is also a social studies teacher.
“He takes the time to get to know all students,” said English teacher Stephanie Bowles-Jones. “During lunch periods or after school, he bonds with, tutors and/or mentors scholars who may not even have him as a teacher.”
Students view Snowden as a role model. “He makes us feel like family, and that is important to all of us,” one student said.
“He teaches us to be comfortable with being uncomfortable," another said. "He puts us into different situations and guides us to handle everything with calmness and understanding.”