After a thorough nomination and vetting process, our district annually selects one teacher from each school for the N.J. Governor’s Educator of Year program. Recipients are honored at a number of state and local events. Usually the recognition ends there. This year, however, is different.

Nick Johnson, Central High School chemistry teacher, was chosen from among all county public school winners as the Mercer County Teacher of the Year. When asked to share his thoughts about what makes a great teacher, his answer (as expected) was completely dedicated to how his teaching can have the greatest impact upon his students.

Nevertheless, in order to develop a “whole child,” a truly great teacher must also have the skills to positively interact and coordinate with others that support the student. Tony Suozzo, assistant superintendent and director of human resources, says Nick is very well liked and respected by administrators and peers alike. Further, his immediate and positive reaction to writing this piece provided more proof that Mr. Johnson was willing to go above and beyond without hesitation.

Finally, Mr. Johnson’s recommendations provide an authentic and comforting response to the many parents concerned about both increasing reliance on technology and that “students in the middle” get lost.

In Nick Johnson’s unedited words:

“Growing up, I never would have even considered education as a career path. I was interested in many subjects and considered many careers, but never teaching. As a sophomore in high school, I had a chemistry teacher named Mr. Hodge who made the class so fun and interesting, that it not only made me love chemistry but made me consider teaching as well. He looked like he was having so much fun while teaching that it appealed to me.

In college, I majored in chemistry and education, eventually deciding that teaching was what I wanted after an internship as a product development chemist.

So, what makes a great teacher? First and foremost, great teachers share a passion for knowledge and a love of learning. I learned this from Mr. Hodge. His passion for the science was so clear that it became infectious to many of his students. I want to do the same thing and I try to let my students see and experience my passion, year after year. When students can see that their teacher is genuinely interested in what they are teaching, everyone has a better experience. The class can be something that students look forward to and remember.

Second, great teachers deliver content in a way that best meets the needs of students. Teaching is no longer a 60-minute lecture with bored students taking notes, followed by an exam every two weeks. Today’s learners don’t respond to that and a good teacher recognizes this and reacts to it. Terms like student-centered learning, personalized learning, inquiry, blended learning, and STEAM are beginning to take hold on a large scale, and I think the effects will be overwhelmingly positive.

Teachers are placing emphasis on showing students how to think, rather than just sharing information. This is much more valuable in today’s world, where data is constantly available at our fingertips. Teachers are recognizing that students learn differently and should be given options for how to learn.

In some cases, students are even given options for how to demonstrate their learning. Traditional multiple-choice tests are just one of many ways that a student can share the knowledge they have gained. Also, interdisciplinary approaches that connect science with math, engineering, and art are being used. In the real world, very few careers involve just one area of academic study, and education should replicate that.

Third, they have the ability to balance technology with time-tested methodology. I think technology is great and is drastically changing what teachers can do. It has enabled me to stop delivering content while in class, instead having students watch videos at home. Time in school is spent working in groups and providing students with the support they need in the application of knowledge and critical thinking.

This has been tremendously successful and is just one example of how technology is reshaping what teachers do. Despite this, a good teacher still recognizes that there is a time when students should write things by hand, draw on a piece of paper, build a model with aluminum foil, or speak with another person face-to-face. Balancing the tech world with the real world is an important skill.

Finally, a great teacher shows compassion while maintaining limits. This is the hardest part of teaching. An expert teacher should be able to establish a comfortable rapport with students while maintaining a level of respect and separation that is necessary to run a classroom. Students should feel comfortable and at ease with their teacher, but also know and respect the limits of that relationship.

At the highest levels, teachers establish an environment where students monitor their own and each other’s behavior, without much teacher intervention at all. I have always been proud of my ability to establish a comfortable rapport with students while maintaining their respect. But it is something that I must constantly work at.”

Lisa Wolff is vice president of the Hopewell Valley Regional School District Board of Education.

Nicholas Johnson is a chemistry teacher at Hopewell Valley Central High School and the 2018-19 Mercer County Teacher of the Year.