Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Shaina Brenner (NJ '22)

February 15, 2023

1000w Elms Shaina Brenner students2

Second grade teacher Shaina Brenner (NJ ’22) developed a passion for protecting nature when her parents moved their young family from New York City to Maine. She’s committed to instilling that passion in students: “By protecting our ecosystem and preserving natural resources, we are improving the quality of our lives and those in the future.” Shaina received New Jersey’s Milken Award at Elms Elementary in Jackson on October 7, 2022.

MFF: How did you end up in education?

Shaina: I knew from a very young age that I was destined to become a teacher. During elementary school I would come home, put on a paisley collared dress, and teach imaginary students what I had learned that day right in our dining room. Shortly thereafter, I had the most wonderful fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Nancy Nash. She really inspired me to want to teach.

In college, I pursued a career in the music industry and in radio. I interned with the Release Planning Department at Columbia Records and also with Howard Stern. I’d declared my major as communication, and my college would not allow me to double-major in education, so I finished my bachelor’s without pursuing a teaching certificate.

After college I worked in customer service, but I was unable to ignore my deep passion to teach. I did some research and discovered New Jersey’s alternate route program. It wasn’t a smooth transition. I ended up taking and paying for coursework twice due to the segmented structure of the college’s program. Several districts expressed hesitation to hire an alternate route candidate, so I worked in long-term substitute positions for two years before finally landing a permanent teaching position. The experience and knowledge I amassed from my time pursuing a permanent position proved invaluable. I am a much stronger teacher and also one that is truly grateful for my present position.

MFF: What do you like about working with elementary students?

Shaina: I love that every day is a new day and a new experience, and no two days are the same. I love that each day I go to work, I am not only a teacher — I am a singer, dancer, actor, nurse, caretaker, judge, hairdresser, artist and author. The imagination, creativity, and wonder of elementary students makes it easy for me to engage them in academic learning and also have a fun time while doing it.

Elementary students are the most sweet, caring, and warmhearted people on earth, and I love that each year we develop into a close-knit family. I thoroughly enjoy having the opportunity to nurture their self-esteem, guide and mold their character, motivate them, and ultimately send them off with a little piece of my heart embedded in them (and vice versa).

1000w NJ Shaina Brenner Spotlight quote

MFF: What do you hope students absorb and take away from Elms Elementary’s focus on environmental issues?

Shaina: My passion for sustainability stems from my experiences as a child. My parents moved our family from Queens, New York to Boothbay, Maine when I was five years old. We lived on a beautiful piece of land with a pond and acres of forests. My mom would always rescue injured animals and nurse them back to health. I developed a deep respect for the natural world and all things in it and became passionate about preserving our earth’s beauty.

I hope to cultivate that same respect and love for our earth in my students. By protecting our ecosystem and preserving natural resources, we are improving the quality of our lives and those in the future. To that end, our Green Team, which I run with two amazing colleagues, focuses on such topics as recycling, energy conservation, gardening, and aquaponics. It’s all about creating opportunities for our students to be reflective, engaging them in real-life actions and helping them become more ecologically aware. We’ve continued to build upon the foundation and momentum we established last year when we were recognized as a Green Ribbon School, so it’s been exciting to witness our school community, and most importantly our students, develop a sustainability mindset.

MFF: Who are your role models?

Shaina: They say your parents are your first teachers. My parents played such a huge role in who I’ve become, and although they’re no longer alive, I carry their wisdom with me and enjoy passing it down to my students. It was my dad who taught me to stand up for what I believe in and what the meaning of integrity is. It was my mom who taught me to love all people, respect all creatures, share, and be kind. The strong foundation they provided me serves as a compass in my teaching career.

In addition to my parents, my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Nash had a profound effect on my life. She is the epitome of teaching excellence. I knew when I was a student in her class that I wanted to grow up to be just like her. She always made me feel cared for, special, and appreciated. As a child I had a big overbite and crooked teeth, and I would often get made fun of. I talk about that painful experience now, because I want my students to know that words we choose can have a lasting impact on others. Mrs. Nash helped me recognize the best parts of myself and motivated and inspired me to be great. That’s exactly what I strive to do for my students.

1000w Elms Shaina Brenner Theresa Licitra

MFF: Tell us about your first year in the classroom.

Shaina: I was in a long-term substitute position, teaching kindergarten in the urban district where I had attended college. I was extremely passionate about teaching there and wanted to have a positive impact. My mom was, without a doubt, my biggest supporter, helping me emotionally, mentally, and physically through that first year. She helped me deep-clean the classroom and completely transform it into a magical learning environment. She also helped me pay for school after I was forced to retake coursework. Most importantly, she was my support system when my enthusiasm and commitment to excellence weren’t always met with acceptance.

After two years of long-term substitute teaching, I finally secured a permanent position teaching first grade in September of 2016. Sadly, my mom passed away from lung cancer just a few months later. Although losing my mom in my first year of a permanent job was unquestionably challenging, my students and some incredible coworkers helped me through it.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the sacrifice and support of my son, Aden, and my fiancé, Jose. From my very first year until today they have certainly supported me through all of the ups and downs that come with teaching.

MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?

Shaina: One of our ongoing initiatives is cultivating a positive, inclusive school climate, so when we were told that there was an assembly on social emotional learning, it didn’t seem so farfetched. As things got underway, however, I remember thinking that there were a lot of unfamiliar faces, and I was wondering why so many people had joined us.

My initial reaction when my name was called was one of overwhelming happiness. I was overcome with emotion and in shock. I had previously heard of the Milken Award and was stunned that the Milken Family Foundation found me. More than anything, I was extremely touched by the outpouring of support from everyone there. I am still so grateful for each and every person that took time out of their schedule to help make that day happen for me. It is an experience I will hold near and dear to my heart for the rest of my life.

MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?

Shaina: My students were so ecstatic for me. Their enthusiasm and excitement melted my heart. In the subsequent days I received sweet cards and drawings, and they told me how proud they were of me. My students and I love to reflect back on our shared experience and reminisce about what we each remember from that day. I love that it will always be a part of our class story.

I think the Milken Award ceremony has definitely had a lasting impact on my students. For one, they undoubtedly think we’re famous, and I’m here for it. I tell them, “We ARE superstars!”

I love that my students, and all of the children at Elms Elementary School, were able to witness a teacher being celebrated. I think the experience and the message it conveys about honoring teachers will remain with them for a lifetime.

1000w Elms Shaina Brenner check

MFF: Any plans for the $25,000?

Shaina: My son is a senior in high school and recently got his driver’s license. I would like to help him buy a car and maybe help him invest some of the money.

MFF: What interesting initiatives are you working on these days?

Shaina: I’m lucky to have the opportunity and space to innovate, and as a result, I’ve been able to bring in new ideas that underscore my values: sustainability, social-emotional learning, diversity, community engagement, and equity in early literacy.

As a leading member of my school’s Read Across America committee, I design and develop our week-long Read Across America celebrations each year with a focus on diversity. I’ve introduced new schoolwide celebrations, such as the vocabulary parade and the reading train. I have the pleasure of collaborating with our school’s reading specialist and library teacher to provide students and staff with a fun-filled week of reading activities. This year we are planning a vocabulary parade, community day, family night, and pep rally. We will also be launching the One School One Book initiative for the third year in a row.

This past fall I created our school’s Kindness Club, which promotes generosity and compassion to others. It helps establish a positive school culture through student-led community service projects. We are gearing up to lead our school in activities for Random Acts of Kindness Week.

I recently planned and executed our school’s first-ever career day, securing nearly 40 parents, local business owners, and community leaders who visited with all of our K-5 classrooms. To highlight the day’s festivities, I produced a short video in conjunction with my fiancé, who is a professional videographer. The purpose of the event was to expose our students to a diverse number of occupations and connect their learning to the real world. Career day was also a great way to build relationships with the leaders and members of the community our school exists in.

In an effort to foster a safe, positive school climate and also create a shared language throughout the building, I developed our school’s social emotional lessons and morning meeting slides for grades K-5. I also created our positive lunch behavior program, the Golden Cup, which reinforces positive student conduct.

I led the planning of our school’s first-ever diversity event in 2019. The pandemic put plans for a follow-up event on hold, but are now back on track for this spring. We will celebrate during the day and also have a family event in the evening.

I applied for a $10,000 grant from Sustainable Jersey Schools. The outcome of the grant application is scheduled to be revealed in March [2023], so I’m waiting patiently. I am planning the creation of an outdoor learning space complete with a pollinator garden and a vegetable garden. This project will be our next big Green Team initiative.

I am passionate about all students having access to instruction that prepares them to read at proficient levels, and I believe we have a moral obligation to not only properly prepare teacher candidates but also educate current teachers. To that end, I led a staff book study with the book “Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading Into the Balanced Literacy Classroom.” I also serve as a districtwide teacher leader and have provided professional development to staff on evidence-based instructional practices for reading, such as embedding high-frequency words into our phonics instruction (allowing students to make sense of spelling patterns for these words) and also analyzing Dibels data to guide instruction. I am gearing up to visit each of our elementary schools in the coming month to provide staff with professional development on classroom management strategies from Doug Lemov’s “Teach Like a Champion.”

1000w Elms Shaina Brenner reaction

MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?

Shaina: I think success looks a little different each year, and certainly for each student. My overarching goal is to create an interactive and inclusive learning environment for my students where they can thrive. I intentionally set high expectations but also work very hard to cultivate a nurturing setting where my students feel safe and loved. I know that we’ve been successful if I’ve helped my students grow academically and socially, helped them achieve their goals, helped them recognize the best parts of themselves, and motivated or inspired them.

MFF: What do you hope students remember from their time with you?

Shaina: I want my students to know I love, adore, and respect them, and I want them to know how proud I am of them. My students may not remember what I taught them years from now, but I want them to always remember how I made them feel. I want them to remember the deep connections they made during our time together, and hopefully a little piece of me will remain with them, just as a little piece of them will always be with me.

1000w Elms Shaina Brenner media2


Don’t miss any new articles and updates from Milken Educator Awards:   Subscribe Now