Southern Regional Middle School Teacher Still Awestruck After Selection as a State Finalist

Jan 23, 2019
Photo by: Supplied photo Southern Regional Middle School social studies teacher William Smith met with New Jersey Education Commissioner Lamont O. Repollet in December while Smith and five others were recognized as Teacher of the Year finalists.

William Smith knew before attending a reception last month to recognize the New Jersey State Teacher of the Year finalists that he hadn’t won the highest honor. Morris County Teacher of the Year Jennifer Skomial was selected as the winner.

Still, the fact he even cracked the top 21 – after being selected as the Ocean County Teacher of the Year last summer – was cause for elation. Being among the top six finalists was almost beyond words for the 33-year-old teacher of just six years.

“One of six finalists … it’s baffling,” said the Southern Regional Middle School social studies teacher. “Even though I didn’t win, it’s still such an incredible feeling to know I was part of that final group. We have a lot of amazing educators in this state, so to be recognized as one of them is special.”

Along with Bergen County kindergarten teacher Christine Esola, Cape May County first-grade teacher Carrie Merritt, Gloucester County art teacher Vanessa Paccione, Hudson County fifth-grade teacher Patricia Smeyers and Skomial, Smith went through a rigorous interview process and multiple in-school evaluations earlier this school year as each was considered for the highest honor. The finalists received the highest scores on their applications and their interviews with a distinguished panel of representatives from the state’s education associations and other stakeholder groups.

“Each step throughout this process has been a wow moment for me,” he said. “Once I met the other 20 county winners, I realized I was in such incredible company. I’ve been both surprised and honored by this whole thing, and as I continued to get to know the other finalists, I’m blown away by how awesome some of the teachers are in this state. New Jersey has some 116,000 classroom teachers, and I never expected to be recognized as one of the finalists and share the stage with such a phenomenal group of teachers. It’s so cool and humbling.”

Smith credited his rise to state recognition to “all the amazing teachers we have at Southern, as well as an administration that fully supports its teachers. 

“I’m so fortunate to work with so many great teachers in our district,” he said. “I have outstanding colleagues who I can bounce ideas off of, and we challenge each other to always put the students first as we improve our craft. It’s really great to be in a district in which the administration is always challenging you, but at the same time extremely supportive of the ideas you might have.”

Equally or more important, Smith credited the students for his personal success, citing their passion and desire to learn as catalysts for how much it drives him to be an effective educator.

“Absolutely, the students drive my enthusiasm,” he said. “There’s a reciprocity with teaching, and we as teachers definitely feed off our students. No teacher I know at Southern settles for mediocrity because we’re all there for the same reason – to help our students become successful. And if they’re having fun while learning, and they’re passionate about learning, it makes it so much easier for us as teachers to challenge them and push their limits.”

Smith said it’s been a pleasure to learn more about “the other side of the education system,” how state officials work through generating better opportunities for schools and teachers, refining curriculum initiatives and developing ways to give the state’s students more opportunity for success.

“Talking with the other finalists – and a few of us text each other a lot and discuss new things – there’s a really big sense of gratitude for the chance to be representatives of our state’s education system,” he said. “The relationships that have come out of this definitely will benefit us, and the ability to network with other great teachers really matters to our profession. From this, we can all get better.”

Of course, Smith has many years ahead of him to get better, and he’s planning on doing so at Southern.

“Southern is where I plan to be until I retire,” he said. “The administration would have to push me out the door to get rid of me. But until then, I plan to be my best for the 120-something kids I teach every year and never lose sight of the fact that I’m here for them, so they can succeed.” 

— David Biggy

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