Spotlight: Nicole Silva (NJ '18)March 7, 2019
Several times a year, Nicole Silva (NJ ’18) takes her third-graders to meet with local veterans: “Students need to know about our veterans and patriots, and why we have the liberties and rights that we do.” Nicole won New Jersey’s 2018-19 Milken Educator Award at Nathan Hale Elementary School in Carteret on December 7, 2018.
Milken Family Foundation: What brought you to education?
Nicole Silva: My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Elaine Comba, created a spark in me that led to my dream of becoming a teacher. I loved that there was always something stimulating to do in her classroom. She was a hands-on teacher who made lessons come alive. I have always loved working with children and being able to “touch the future.” Students’ “aha!” moments make my day.
MFF: Why elementary school?
Nicole: It’s exhilarating. Students at this age are impressionable, open to new ideas and excited about learning. I love the content that is taught in third grade. It is such a crucial year that teaches students fundamentals and building blocks they will use the rest of their lives: building paragraphs, adding juicy details into their writing, multiplication facts, etc.
I take it very personally that I serve as a role model for their learning career. I want to continue to foster the same love of learning that my former teachers did for me. It’s vital for students to know at a young age how important and valued they are.
MFF: Who are your role models as an educator?
Nicole: I am privileged to have had so many influential teachers in my life. Teaching in the same town where I grew up and went to school brings it full circle. Ms. Gombos, my kindergarten teacher, showed me the importance of a safe and comforting classroom. Mrs. Comba instilled in me a love for the art of teaching. My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Bodnar, challenged me to do my best.
When I got older, Mrs. Wilson would let me help her in the classroom. This gave me a glimpse of how a classroom is run from a teacher’s perspective. Mrs. Levitz, my sixth-grade teacher, showed me the importance of maintaining order in the classroom while also having humor. In seventh grade Mr. Nelson showed me how to incorporate laughter and song. Mrs. Lygate, my high school honors biology teacher, showed me the importance of hands-on activities.
As an educator, I’ve worked with great administrators who pushed me to be the best teacher I could be. Former principals Rosa Diaz (now our Superintendent) and Christian Zimmer (now our Director of Data and Assessment) encouraged me to run workshops and share my teaching strategies. Their guidance with data-based instruction, differentiating and rigorous questioning has helped to drive my love for teaching to a different level and really work on tackling the achievement gap.
MFF: What was your first year like?
Nicole: As a child I had “played school” for years. Stepping into a classroom of my own was surreal. My parents and sister helped me set up my room. I didn’t know it then, but this would become an annual tradition. My family members have been my biggest supporters and cheerleaders.
My first year I had 32 students in my ESL inclusion class. One student arrived not speaking English at all. I wanted to reach every student and that language barrier was frustrating. I ended up getting a “first dictionary” picture book and would teach students a few words each day. I used a lot of hand signals so they would feel involved in lessons. I also had them practice reading every morning with their classmates. By the end of the year, the students were communicating with one another and doing third-grade work. The student who didn’t know any English was speaking to us and understanding what we said.
Another challenge I faced that year (and since) was getting the students into the “right” groups to best foster their learning. I think of it like a puzzle. I remember sitting on the floor my first year with all my students’ names on tiny pieces of paper, moving them around into different groups. My mom told me that this was all part of the process. She always helps me to look on the bright side. I still form groups the same way. It’s so important that every few months I reevaluate the groups and change them up so that students get to work with other members of the class.
My first class has such a special place in my heart. They were there for all my “firsts” and they created many of their own. Every day after lunch, my students would write me heartfelt messages on the board (why they liked having me for a teacher or what they liked that we learned that day). The last day of school, they presented me with a poster board with their pictures around it and messages to me in the middle. This tradition has continued ever since. Every year my students write me notes on poster board on the last day of school. I let my students know that even though they are in a different grade, they will always be “my” students and part of my class. Students from that first year still write me letters and let me know how they are doing. All of my students will forever have a place in my heart.
MFF: Your class interacts with local veterans’ groups. Tell us about that.
Nicole: Rosa Diaz, our former principal and now our superintendent, encouraged each grade level to get involved in a philanthropic project. My 92-year-old grandfather is a World War II veteran and an active member of Carteret’s VFW. I think it is extremely important for students to know about our veterans and patriots, and why we have the liberties and rights that we do. We practice singing patriotic songs, and students learn the songs’ origins and why they were written. We also visit the veterans once or twice a year and sing for them. One of my favorite activities is when we get to sit down with the veterans and students ask them questions about their time in the war. It’s so interesting to hear these heroes talk about where they have been and what it was like for them. It’s also an important lesson for the students about true heroes.
MFF: You teach your students how to self-regulate and identify their own stressors. How does this social-emotional learning affect their academic progress?
Nicole: All students come to school carrying around the invisible backpack of family life, religion, friends, etc. It is critical for them to be able to identify their emotions and know the best way to handle how they are feeling. When students act out of anger or frustration in the classroom, they are not only hindering their own learning, but they are distracting their classmates from getting the most out of the class as well.
I went to a workshop about what students can do to calm down when they feel angry or frustrated. I took it a step further and put all of the items discussed at the workshop in a bag. I told my class that when they felt angry, out of control, or just not like themselves, to get the bag and go anywhere in the classroom they wanted to calm down. As time went on, more and more students started to use the bag. They even made suggestions for other items to add. Giving students tools to cope with their emotions helps them get the most out of class. They are able to self-regulate. It lets the teacher have more instructional time and students get to learn more.
This year, my school has designated two SELfie (social emotional learning) hours per month. During this time teachers get to work with their students on improving their control and ability to deal with difficult situations. This is critical to students who don’t always get to see coping skills modeled for them at home.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Nicole: That day will truly be with me for the rest of my life. I remember being so excited and proud to have [New Jersey Department of Education Commissioner Dr. Lamont] Repollet come to our school, and for us to perform the flash mob we had been working so hard on. Looking back, I am in awe of all that was done for my surprise! When Commissioner Repollet spoke, he said he had brought a special guest and I remember thinking, “You’re supposed to be the special guest!”
When Jane Foley started to speak I loved the way she captivated the students with her gestures and the tone of her voice. She started talking about how hard teachers work, and I thought, that’s so nice of her to bring up our dedication and hard work. When I heard her say we were getting a surprise, at first I thought maybe our school was getting something, but then she said that it was a surprise for a teacher. I figured that whoever it was had probably been notified before the assembly. As she went into more detail, my colleagues and I tried to guess who it was. My current and former students nearby looked at me and said, “It’s you!”—but all students think their teacher should get it, right? Then my third-grade partners started guessing that it could be me. I denied it right away; how could it be me? I love my job, and teaching is my dream come true, but I didn’t think I did anything to call attention to myself.
When Jane Foley said my name, time literally stood still. This was really happening … to me! I’ll never forget my friends hugging me and being so happy for me. We were all flipping out together. I remember asking them, “What do I do?” and they told me to go to the front. Looking around the auditorium and seeing current students, former students, coworkers and administrators so excited for me was an indescribable feeling. Seeing my students’ proud faces as I walked to the front of the room is something that will stay with me forever.
MFF: How did your students respond to your Milken Award?
Nicole: My students are completely in awe. They were amazed that I was on YouTube, and some had seen me on television or in the newspaper. The Award was all they wanted to talk about. I tried to instill in them that if this could happen to me, it could happen to any one of them. I love my job and I put my heart into it each and every day. I encourage my students to follow their dreams, never let anything get in their way, and they too can achieve success. I truly believe that!
MFF: Do you have plans for the $25,000?
Nicole: Truthfully, the money is an added bonus. The real reward is in the honor that this Award has bestowed on me.
That said, I would love to use some of it to pursue my dream of becoming a children’s book author. As a child, I always wrote stories—but I never finished them, because I never wanted them to end. When I got older, I did complete one that I absolutely love. One year for Christmas, my husband Max typed it up and got someone to illustrate it. I would love to get this book published officially.
I will definitely be paying off some of my college loans, putting money aside for my daughters’ college funds, and donating some to a program in our district.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Nicole: Success for our class is when I step back and watch my students teach each other. This is the highest level of learning. I love listening to the conversations my students have with one another and how they explain their reasoning. Hearing my students ask their classmates rigorous questions, or extend an idea we had been previously discussing in class, shows me the true meaning of success.
Success is when students “get it.” Their looks of awe when they grasp something new always make me smile and feel successful.
Don’t miss any new articles and updates from Milken Educator Awards: