Well Done! Paterson Honors Its Teachers of the Year
Friday, June 8, 2012 • 7:28am
PATERSON, NJ – Standing in front of his classmates, the fifth-grader from School 12 hesitated for a moment. It seemed he wanted to be sure before he gave his answer.
“Does the second quotation mark go before or after the comma?’’ asked his teacher, Dawn Uttel, prodding him along.
“After,’’ he finally responded.
“Riiight!’’ proclaimed Uttel. “Well done.’’
The student clenched his fist in celebration and smiled as he walked back to his seat.
The crumbling buildings, the sub-par test scores, the outbreaks of violence – those are the problems that hang like dark clouds over Paterson Public Schools. But city schools also have their sunshine – classrooms where students overcome obstacles, where teachers inspire the thirst for knowledge, where the triumphs of education unfold in small doses on a daily basis.
The third floor of School 12 on N. 2nd Street is one of those places. That’s where Uttel’s language arts class is located.
So is Room 156 on the basement level of HARP Academy on Washington Street. That’s where Katherine Albanese-Benevento holds her art classes.
Uttel and Albanese-Benevento last month were selected from among more than 2,700 city teachers for district-wide honors. Uttel received Paterson’s New Jersey Governor’s Teacher of the Year award, while Albanese-Benevento was named the district’s New Jersey Teacher of the Year. Uttel was one of 50 city teachers nominated for her award, while Albanese-Benevento was one of 22 finalists for hers.
What makes them so special?
“She’s dedicated to the children, she gives of her own time, she pays out of her pocket when they need something,’’ said Isabelle Grassi, principal of HARP. “That’s just how Kathy is.’’
Grassi praised Albanese-Benevento for her work integrating her classroom lessons with community service. Her students have crocheted wool hats for infants at the hospital, crafted balloon animals for other city youngsters at during the holidays, and participated in an art exchange program with youths from flood-ravaged neighborhoods in New Orleans.
Meanwhile, Hector Montes, the principal at School 12, described Uttel as the type of teacher he would want for his own children. “She’s creative, she’s energetic, and she holds all the stakeholders accountable, by that I mean the students and the parents,’’ said Montes. “She will not let a week go by without some contact with every parent.’’
On report card nights, Uttel always has a line of parents outside her classroom because she works so hard at engaging them in their children’s education, Montes said. She gives them her personal cell phone number and encourages them to call, he added.
Uttel has been teaching in Paterson for 18 years, Albanese-Benevento for more than 16 years. Neither plans to leave the city for the greener grass – and larger paychecks – that looms in suburban districts.
“I love the challenge, I love knowing that I can actually make a difference in these kids’ lives,’’ said Uttel. “They inspire me to want to do better.’’
“I want to be in the city, I enjoy the diversity,’’ said Albanese-Benevento.
This is Albanese-Benevento’s third time around in Paterson. She started teaching in the Silk City in 1977 just out of college, but soon left to raise her family. She returned in 1992, but lost her job to layoffs a few years later. She was back in 1999 and has stayed – first at School 8, then at School 15 and now finally at HARP, a high school where she incorporates the curriculum’s heath science focus into her art instruction. A skeleton in her classroom stands as testament to that.
Albanese-Benevento is a devotee of the concept of differentiation instruction – the idea that teachers should tailor their teaching to their students’ individual needs. Her students are graded on how much progress they make and how much effort they put out, not necessarily how talented they are.
“I failed a student once who was phenomenal in artistic ability but he did nothing in class and waited until the last minute to get his work done,’’ she recalled. “After that, he was more motivated.’’
Albanese-Benevento tries to push her students to new heights. She doesn’t let them sell themselves short. On Wednesday, for example, she was conducting a review session for exams. “You’re going to have 14 pages on your final,’’ she told a class of freshmen.
“What?’’ exclaimed one student who clearly thought that 14 pages was far too much.
“Don’t even go there,’’ responded Albanese-Benevento. “This is all stuff you’ve learned already. Don’t be silly. I’m going to show you that you don’t need to have any test anxiety.’’
Albanese-Benevento has degrees in special education as well as in art instruction and has studied education administration as well, according to her principal. “She’s the life-long student we tell our students we want them to be,’’ said Grassi.
Last summer, Albanese-Benevento ran a program at STARS Academy, Paterson’s school for children with autism. At one point, she was planning a field trip to the Prudential Center in Newark, but there was no school district bus available. Albanese-Benevento paid for the bus herself, said Grassi. “That’s what we do,’’ said Albanese-Benevento of the $150 for the bus. “Teachers put out money all the time.’’
In a school district where financial problems sometimes leave supplies scarce, Albanese-Benevento has learned to be resourceful. A while back she was at the recycling center in Hawthorne when she noticed a printing company dumping a bunch paper. Suddenly, she acquired a new supplier for art paper. “I do some networking,’’ she said.
Uttel, meanwhile, has been at School 12 for her whole career. She becomes passionate talking about her students, most of whom come from some tough neighborhoods in the 1st Ward. “We have great kids here at School 28,’’ she said. “They’re hard-working. They’re motivated. They’re fun to be around.’’
This year, her fifth-grade class has a mixture of special education and regular students. At the start of the year, some read on a first-grade level, while the top pupil had the reading abilities of a seventh grader, she said.
The disparity in their skills becomes evident when Uttel assigns most of her students to read at their desks while she works with a small group. Several say each word out loud as they read. Some simply move their lips. One girl scans each word with her finger. Just a few sit still and read in silence, with only their eyes moving along the page.
One of Uttel’s students this year has improved her reading from a second-grade to a fifth-grade level. “We were all clapping for her,’’ the teacher said.
Much of Thursday’s lesson focused on how to write dialogue. Uttel reminded her students about using descriptive ways to depict people speaking.
“What’s the word that sadly passed away a few months ago?’’ Uttel asked.
“Said,” responded a chorus of students.
In this class, students wrote about characters who explained, commented, whispered, shouted, cried or laughed.
“It’s like those other words are said’s children,’’ one of the students commented.
“I like the way you said that,’’ responded Uttel.
Uttel’s enthusiasm wears off on her students. Most follow her instructions eagerly. Only twice does she have to reprimand children. In those instances, her voice becomes hushed, and it almost becomes as if she and the offending child are the only ones in the room.
About 12 years ago, Uttel began sending daily progress reports home for her students’ parents to sign. “Their parents are the most important thing in these kids’ lives,’’ she said. “I tell them it’s my job to make sure they know what you’re doing in my classroom every day.’’
“I have parents that text me every day,’’ she added.