In October, the New Jersey Education Association declared Chelsea (Koerner) Collins MAT ’11 the 2015–16 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year. As she embarks on a six-month sabbatical from her sixth grade language arts classroom at Woodstown Middle School in Salem County, she opened up to her alma mater about her inspirations and aspirations.
Q: Your undergrad degree is in PR from a big university—What made you pick TCNJ for your master’s degree in a completely different subject?
My niece was four-years-old when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Her diagnosis changed my outlook on life, and influenced me to change my path. The doctors, nurses, and teachers who contributed to making her healthy again inspired me to dedicate my life to helping others. I left my career in advertising and became a full-time graduate student at The College of New Jersey. I never looked back!
Q: What will you be doing for the Department of Education this spring, and how do you feel about leaving the classroom for six months? What do your students think?
I want to ensure that we, as New Jersey educators, are able to continue to provide our students access to a top-notch education. The State Teacher of the Year sabbatical gives me the opportunity to meet and work with students and educators across the state, and allows me time to travel the state and the country to advocate for all students and teachers in New Jersey. While this award does take me away from my classroom for a short time, the long-term effects on my practice as an educator will be returned ten-fold to my school and our students.
I visit my Woodstown students often, and they are very happy. They usually ask to see pictures of my family and if I have met President Obama yet!
Q: You’ve been on sabbatical for about a month now. Can you share some meaningful moments/insights you’ve had so far?
It has been an exciting first month in this role!
On a nationwide level, I was privileged to attend the National State Teacher of the Year Convention in San Antonio, Texas. Each State Teacher of the Year attended, and we discussed current educational topics across the country, as well as ways we can empower teachers as leaders in our states.
On a statewide level, I’ve visited schools across the state and have seen first-hand the amazing things that are going in New Jersey public schools. I have met with dedicated teachers who are working on inspiring and engaging projects, and students who are making differences in their schools and communities. I’ve been working with the Department of Education and New Jersey Education Association on initiatives in the area of teacher leadership, and I’ve spoken to pre-service teachers at colleges, including TCNJ, to discuss the importance of finding an educational vision.
On a schoolwide level, I am working with the County Teachers of the Year in planning our first ever “Professional Development on Wheels.” We visited three school districts on February 12 to provide support and training to teachers in areas of their request. We’re also planning ways to support pre-service teachers as they being their educational journeys.
Q: Do you have plans to mentor aspiring teachers?
I care deeply about aspiring teachers and the need to attract high-quality individuals to the profession. I had a very positive experience mentoring a student teacher in my classroom, and have mentored teachers in various stages of their careers. Currently, I am working closely with the NJSEA and NJFEA to support their initiatives and events. I’m also in contact with colleges and universities across the state about speaking to prospective teachers.
Q: What teacherly advice are you always sure to impart on them?
My advice to new teachers is to take time to build relationships with students and get to know them. Whether you’re chatting with them about their interests before class, working through homework during lunch, or simply attending their basketball games, I let my students know that I care about them and their needs, and that I want to see them be successful in school and in life. Showing students that I respect them through my words and actions foster a mutual respect within our classroom, which creates a strong classroom community and an environment conducive to learning. Then, the learning can really happen!
Q: Looking ahead, how will you incorporate this experience into your classroom?
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and learning from some of the greatest teachers in the state and the nation, and each day I’m strengthening my practice by learning valuable lessons that I can bring back to my school district and students. I’m connecting teachers who are working on similar projects and initiatives in order to build their networks and give them more tools to achieve their goals. I’m also working to elevate teacher leaders in the state by giving them the opportunities to assist current teachers as well as pre-service teachers so that we can learn and grow together, and ultimately benefit the students in New Jersey.