Spotlight: 10 Questions for Toni-Ann Palmisano (NJ '17)February 8, 2018
A professor once told Toni-Ann Palmisano (NJ '17) that the key to classroom management is not cracking a smile until December. She’s glad she ignored that advice: “I embrace my bubbly personality in the classroom because I want my students to see that no matter what age you are, it’s important just to be yourself.” Toni-Ann won her New Jersey Milken Educator Award at Secaucus Middle School on December 19, 2017.
1. What went through your mind when you heard Jane [Dr. Jane Foley (IN '94), senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards] call your name at your surprise notification?
Toni-Ann Palmisano: As Dr. Foley was getting ready to announce the winner I was glancing around the gym, looking for some of the other teachers I thought would be winning—I wanted to see the expression on the winner’s face. The moment I heard my name announced my heart most definitely skipped a beat. Despite my legs and hands shaking, I jumped in the air as I received my award. The amount of shock I felt and still feel cannot even be expressed. I feel like I am in a dream.
2. How did your students respond to your Milken Award? What impact has it had on them?
Toni-Ann: The reaction of the entire student body is something I wish I could freeze forever. The applauding, loud cheering, and standing ovations were incredible. The photographers captured the facial expressions of the students who were sitting near me during the announcement and I cannot help but smile (and shed a tear or two) while looking back at these photos. I am so thankful this was all documented.
After the assembly I went back to my classroom with Jane, the state commissioner, past Milken Award recipients and several news broadcasters to showcase my teaching style. The eagerness on my students’ faces to be involved in that lesson was like no other. The excitement continued the next day when all my classes threw me a surprise party, printing all the pictures from the assembly and presenting me with a poster board thanking me for all I do. I was in complete awe. To this day, even after the winter break, my students are still talking about my winning the award and congratulating me as if I am a celebrity. It has been just as difficult for them to focus as it has been for me with the shock of it all.
Without a doubt, having their teacher win such a prestigious award has impacted the lives of my students, both past and present. I have received countless emails, cards, and flowers from past students who have gone on to high school and college, and even from their parents. Everyone is saying things like they “knew it would be me” and that it “does not come as a surprise.” Hearing this shows me just how much my entire school community respects me. In addition, seeing and hearing several of my students being interviewed on television and in the newspapers showed just how much they appreciate me as a teacher. I had one class actually ask me where I was going to buy a house with the money I had won now that I was “rich.” After letting out a giggle, I explained to them that a house in New Jersey costs a lot more than the $25,000. This was a real life lesson I was able to share with them involving money and living in today’s world. Their pure innocence is exactly why I love what I do every day.
3. How did you end up in education?
Toni-Ann: I knew I wanted to be a teacher ever since I was a young girl. I was the student who was always trying my best in class. I worked hard and cared about getting not just good grades, but great ones. I was always volunteering to help the teachers: filing tests, putting stickers on papers, setting up bulletin boards, going on errands around the building. Outside of school, I always wanted to be the teacher when I played house or dress-up with my friends. It’s always been my nature to help others, and this occupation is surely a way to do that.
4. Who are your role models as an educator?
Toni-Ann: I am grateful to have had a solid educational foundation in the public schools in Bayonne (New Jersey). The four people who helped me realize that teaching was for me are my second-grade teacher Mrs. Novembrino; my seventh- and eighth-grade teacher Mrs. Sangee; my high school chorus teacher Mrs. Megale; and Mrs. LaForgia, my cooperating teacher as I completed my student teaching assignment. Everything they did both in and out of the classroom was just perfect to me and I knew it was my goal to be at least half of the great people that they were. As I look back at the four of them I can’t help but notice that they held a special place along each part of my educational journey—from a young girl going through grade school, to high school, and then right up to preparing for my own classroom. They all inspired me; they all believed in me. The bonds I formed with them are unique, and I am fortunate to have a relationship with each of them to this day. I hope that after I’ve been teaching 25 years I will have one of my students feel this exact same way.
5. What memories stand out from your first year of teaching?
Toni-Ann: Most teachers feel nervous as they begin a new career; I was the opposite. Because I had such a successful student teaching experience, my first year of teaching felt natural. I remember my first back-to-school night as if it was just yesterday. I created a presentation slideshow to share with parents every single piece of information to help their children succeed. My first back-to-school night felt like my tenth.
I was a 21-year-old straight out of college standing in the front of my very own classroom. I never once let on to my students that I was a brand-new teacher. I taught on a block schedule, three double-period classes of seventh-grade math each day. They were absolutely WONDERFUL. Aside from delivering curriculum to them through guided instruction on a daily basis, I remember going to all their sports games and events outside of the school day—they were so surprised to see me! It was as if the students didn’t believe teachers were human beings outside of school. This was an eye-opener for me and made me want to be present even more.
A college professor gave me this advice about classroom management: “Don’t crack a smile until December.” I think this lasted a week for me. I’m glad I realized that this wasn’t right for my personality. I truly believe that showing the children my quirky, bubbly personality helped them appreciate me, and they did not disrespect me or the rules I presented for the classroom.
People say you’ll always have a special place in your heart for the first class you taught, and I can surely attest to this. The students who were in my first class are now juniors in college. I receive emails, letters, calls, and in-person visits from several of them to this very day. It’s the greatest feeling to still be in touch and able to help them with situations and give them advice later in their lives.
6. What are students most likely to remember about their time in your class?
Toni-Ann: I know my students will remember my personality. I exert a lot of energy and use a loud voice when presenting lessons to my classes. I am not afraid to laugh during class, and this is something my students say defines me. I embrace my bubbly personality in the classroom because I want my students to see that no matter what age you are, it’s important just to be yourself. The songs I teach my students that go along with certain skills in the curriculum, and the way I try to connect what I am teaching to the real world, are also things I can imagine them holding onto. They may also remember my telling them that I love when mistakes are made; it’s my way to encourage students who are struggling to come out of their shell. We accept mistakes so that we can fix them together.
7. What’s your biggest challenge in the classroom?
Toni-Ann: Time. Finding time to build relationships as a whole class, finding time to get the curriculum taught. It’s always a balance between preparing students for standardized testing and preparing them for life. I see my classes twice a day, every day (spoiled, I know!), and I still don’t think it’s enough time. I don’t just teach math or prepare for state tests: I am also a support system, a guidance counselor, and a listening ear for over 65 children on a daily basis so they can showcase the best possible version of themselves with confidence.
8. How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Toni-Ann: I am most likely going to put it into a savings account. I honestly have not given much thought to it quite yet. It has always been a goal of mine to attain another master’s degree as well. It’s all up in the air!
9. What would you say to a student who expresses interest in a career in education?
Toni-Ann: GO FOR IT! I would share all my firsthand experiences and how rewarding the path has been. It takes a very special individual to want to pursue a career in education, so if that person is having even the slightest inclination, I say follow the dream. You don’t do it for the money, and you don’t do it for the time off. You do it because you’re passionate about changing lives and making an impact on the children of tomorrow. Some days are harder and more stressful than others, but you work through it because you know you can’t let your students down. Your job satisfaction comes through seeing others succeed.
10. What’s your definition of success?
Toni-Ann: Success is what happens when you have enough confidence to take your mistakes and turn them into accomplishments through working hard and never giving up. Some days may be harder than others but it’s all about being positive, putting on a smile and just staying focused.
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