'Teacher of the Year' Moves On Amid School District Discord
Uncertain about the viability of a career in public education, Peter Goldberg resigned as a Memorial School math teacher shortly after being awarded the school's "Teacher of the Year"
Peter Goldberg was not among the more than 100 Fair Lawn Education Association members who packed the Edison School gymnasium Thursday night to admonish the Board of Education about the teachers’ still-unresolved contract situation.
The reigning Fair Lawn Teacher of the Year still supports FLEA’s cause, but he is no longer part of it.
Goldberg, 32, resigned from his position teaching mathematics at Memorial Middle School at the end of the last school year. His job’s future prospects had become too precarious, he said.
“It was a hard decision because Fair Lawn has always been good to me,” said Goldberg, who spent five years teaching in the district. “But it’s just getting harder and harder to be a teacher, especially in this climate.
“With everything coming down the line these past couple years,” he continued. “With [Gov. Chris] Christie, the Fair Lawn Board of Ed and the contract negotiations, it became not the district, not the place that I was used to working in.”
So when the camp Goldberg had worked summers at for the past decade came calling with a full-time position as operations manager, he hesitantly took the leap.
Goldberg, who had always wanted to be a teacher, said the decision to leave the profession ultimately came down to his own financial stability.
“I don’t know how much money I’d be making this year [as a teacher]. I don’t know how much money I’d be making over the next 10 years. I don’t know anything,” he said. “That’s why I really decided to choose something that I knew the path. I know where I am and where I’m going to be…that’s really the biggest decision maker for me.”
Goldberg said what he’ll miss most about teaching at Memorial are the visits from students he’d taught in years past.
It’s that personal connection Goldberg cultivated with his students that he believes was his strength as an educator.
By showing an interest in his students, Goldberg said he was able to increase their willingness to listen and learn -- something that isn’t always easy to accomplish with a subject like math.
“Math is a tough topic for most people, and most people you ask would say they hate math, whether they’re an adult or a kid,” Goldberg said. “It’s the least popular subject, I feel. The one that the most people struggle with. So I tried to keep it fun.”
To keep things light but still stay on task in his classroom last year, Goldberg tied a singular theme into all of his lessons: monkeys.
“I wanted something that went together with math, and monkeys were the cutest animal that started with ‘M,’” he explained.
Goldberg said he adapted the idea from a college professor who stressed that young children are better able to maintain focus when academic lessons have a theme. Rather than limit his theme to an individual lesson, Goldberg carried it throughout the entire year.
His classroom became the “Number Jungle” where prime numbers became primates, and monkeys swung from the ceiling and hung on the walls. Using interactive math lessons to engage students whom he said have grown more reliant on technology to learn, Goldberg even integrated chattering animated monkeys into his computer-based lessons.
Goldberg's monkey business did not go unnoticed.
For his dedication and innovation in the classroom, he was named, "Teacher of the Year," a distinction that requires recommendations from colleagues, parents and the school’s administration.
The Learning Curve
The honor, which Goldberg called a “huge accomplishment,” did not come easily. He said his growth as an educator had been a gradual process that he'd built on year after year.
“Each year you become more comfortable with the material you’re teaching which gives you more flexibility with the curriculum,” he said.
The extra flexibility also gave him more time to spend with students outside the classroom — the key to developing that all-important personal connection with kids, he said. So the more free time he created, the more involved he became in school clubs, activities and working with students before and after the school day.
Goldberg said his primary motivation is instilling in kids a sense of self-confidence and a can-do attitude.
“I love seeing a child, a student, a camper, who wasn’t sure of themselves, wasn’t sure of a skill they had, and then working with them and seeing them on the flip side after they’ve mastered the skill,” he said.
Goldberg said it was the absence of an academic mentor during his own formative years that drives him to invest in creating a personal bond with his students.
“I was always kind of the quiet person in school, kind of the opposite of who I am now,” he said. “I had great teachers and they pushed and they tried and they wanted us to do better, but never like a personal connection… it’s something that I didn’t have that I wanted to create in my teachings, in my work, in my career.”
Goldberg's most lasting reminder of the extraordinary impact that a teacher's encouragement and involvement can have on a student came with a sixth-grader he taught during his first year at Memorial.
“She had to write an essay in English about the greatest gift someone had ever given her,” he said. “And she wrote an essay about me giving her confidence and me being there and being patient and understanding and never giving up on her and keeping with her even when she felt she was defeated and couldn’t do any more.”
To this day, Goldberg holds onto the essay and re-reads it yearly for motivation.
“That’s what I got into teaching for,” he said. “It’s something that I’ll cherish forever.”
Goldberg started his administrative position at Woodmont Day Camp in mid-September. He said he may return to the classroom someday, but for now, he's excited to act as a mentor and pass on what he's learned about teaching to the camp's high school and college-age counselors.
"[Classroom teaching] is kind of like a back-up plan to me now," Goldberg said.
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.