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From Banking to Burlington County Teacher of the Year – A NJ Alternate Route Success Story

Teaching is an amazing opportunity to affect so many lives just by doing what you love.” This sentiment of gratitude and service is just one of the many reasons Michelle-Anne Spring, a 4th grade teacher at Hawthorne Park Elementary School in Willingboro, NJ, was selected as the 2019-20 Burlington County Teacher of the Year. Mrs. Spring, a Rutgers Alternate Route alumnus, has been teaching in the school for seven years and spoke with us about changing careers, community, family, and how the Rutgers Alternate Route program helped her prepare for the most rewarding professional experience of her life.

Female teacher smiling
Michelle-Anne Spring

How did you first decide to be a teacher?

I had no intentions of becoming a teacher, to be honest. I was in the banking industry and I loved what I did, working on technical projects and presentations. That changed on September 11th when I was working at the World Trade Center – that was a pivotal moment of my life; that was the day that my purpose changed. Obviously, I am one of many people who survived that day, but just thinking about so many people who did not, made me understand that there was something else for me to do, a greater purpose for me, and it took me some time to get to exactly what that was.

In the years that followed I got more involved at my son’s school and I became president of the PTA, which was fantastic because I had the time. As part of that experience, I realized that there was so much going on in our community of which I wasn’t aware, particularly in the school system. My son was on the honors track, so he was insulated from a lot of things, but being on the ground I saw more. Many parents were doing fantastic work as parent leaders, but it became patently clear to me that if I wanted things to change, I had to be part of that change, I had to become more directly involved. With the encouragement of my family, I decided to become a teacher.

What was your path to becoming a full-time teacher?

I took the Praxis test before anything else and then I started subbing. I was subbing in some tough places but I loved it. I thought, “This was my purpose. This was it.” One day I decided to sub at Hawthorne, where my daughter was in the third grade. Our principal bumped into me in a classroom and wasn’t sure what I was doing there. When I told him that I was subbing, the very same day he asked me if I was available for another position with fifth grade students who had not had a teacher for some time. That resulted in a long-term position. That was the beginning — I agreed to take the long term position and he offered me a job for the following school year. 

I had little experience in public school. I had taught Sunday School, Children’s Church, Bible Study — but never this. But the moment that I walked into that classroom it was like the heavens opened. In that moment, I found my niche. That was it. I’ve never looked back. 

What was your experience like with Rutgers Alternate Route?

As someone who switched careers to become a teacher, I didn’t go through formal teaching college, so I didn’t have the tools taught there in my toolbox. I started teaching not knowing that I would need to go through the Alternate Route, but I understood that I needed training. The moment I got my first job, I signed up to go into a Masters program before I knew about the Alternate Route. So, I was working on the Masters program and going through the Rutgers Alternate Route program simultaneously. 

On the academic level through the Masters program, I was gaining theoretical experience about how to teach different ages and pedagogical best practices, while in the Alternate Route program I was learning about skills such as classroom management, educational technology tools, collaboration, equity, culturally relevant teaching, and all learned in a school setting. Goodness, has it paid off. It was an exhausting time, but what I learned from the facilitators and those teachers in that room — all of that has brought me to this place. It is an unbelievably comprehensive program that enables people from all walks of life to go into a second career and have the support of such a rigorous and authentic curriculum that is intentional in its alignment of components and rich with engaging learning experiences and instructional strategies.

What do you love about teaching?

I love my students. I love the idea that teaching is so personal, in that, it has the capacity to impact generations. When I think about the community where I live, and the people I see going to the grocery store or going about their business and they stop to talk or ask questions about their child, I am convicted of the great honor and responsibility I have as I educate my community's future leaders. I am ever mindful that the stakes are high, but the rewards — they are so much higher. I work with children from all different walks of life and it’s important to me that those young scholars understand that I’m a constant in their lives. I communicate to them that I will always be there and that they can lean on me, trust me, believe me. I need them to understand that I am their advocate and I’m always working for their good. It’s this opportunity to impact all these lives positively that I love most about being a teacher. What an amazing gift it is for me to affect and be affected by all these young people, just by doing what I love.

Why do you think you were selected as the Burlington County Teacher of the Year?

I think that hard work, consistency and dedication to my craft have led to my being afforded this great honor. Having to quantify and qualify my accomplishments for the application process, while being challenging, helped me to realize the astounding depth and breadth of my body of work over such a short period of time. During the application process, I was asked to explain what makes me an outstanding teacher. Basically, I answered this way: I believe that an outstanding teacher must model and inspire greatness in others. I further pointed to attributes such as solid leadership, passion, strong student-centered pedagogical skills, community-building skills, classroom management, strong communication and content knowledge expertise as being evidence of my being an outstanding teacher. 

Having said that, I am ultimately a product of an environment that provides unbelievably high levels of support, both at home and in school. I put in an easy 30-40 hours outside of school hours and I couldn’t do that without my family. Also, my campus has some of the most incredibly gifted educators I’ve ever come across. The educators with whom I work are amazing, supportive, giving, and selfless. I could not have earned this honor without them. I just happen to have the title, but honestly this is about our school and the dynamic work that we’ve been doing. To be clear, I’m not saying I don’t deserve the honor of being the Burlington County Teacher of the Year. I do. However, I am mindful of the fact that I stand on the shoulders of so many gifted educators who are unselfish in their support and generous in the sharing of their gifts. Our phenomenal fourth grade team is teacher-gold. In addition, our principal is extremely progressive and has given me room to grow and stretch and has been unafraid to volunteer me for interesting opportunities and projects. He says, “Go for it,” even for my crazy ideas. Our assistant principal has been instrumental in putting me in uncomfortable spaces that challenge me to hone my skill set and foster new competencies. May I add that, last year, both our principal and assistant principal were selected as Principal and Assistant Principal of the Year, respectively. Such an environment has laid the foundation for me to become a better version of myself each and every day. This mutual investment is a premium commodity that has led to opportunities that were both frightening and fantastic. So, while I have been named the Burlington County Teacher of the Year, the title is also a testament to the paradigm-shifting work that we’ve been doing at Hawthorne Park Elementary.

What do you want to tell other Rutgers Alternate Route participants or applicants about your journey?

I'll be honest, this work is not easy. Everyone should go into it with their eyes wide open. But, I also think that everyone should be a risk-taker. We want our children to be risk-takers because otherwise they won’t grow. If this is what you want to do, you have to go for it. Go ahead and take that risk for yourself and take a risk on the amazing young scholars you will meet.  Becoming a teacher, becoming an educator is a life-changing decision because when you walk in with your whole heart, you’ll see that this is not a job, this is a movement. You have to be someone who wants to be completely invested in our most valuable resource—our children. You’re going to meet children whose situations will break your heart and you’re going to adore them. Again, the work is hard, but oh my goodness it is so worth it. I implore you to love it for the whole experience that it is. I am so very grateful to get up everyday to be part of the career that gives birth to all careers. I would do nothing else – I really wouldn’t.

If you’re interested in changing careers like Mrs. Spring and would like to become an impactful teacher in your community, visit the Rutgers Alternate Route website to learn more about the program. To keep up with more encouraging stories like this, be sure to follow Rutgers Alternate Route on Twitter for more information and stories from the education field.

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Heather Ngoma

Heather Ngoma has over 20 years experience collaborating with educators across New Jersey to drive education innovation. She currently serves as the Director of Rutgers University's Alternate Route Teacher Training Program at the Center for Effective School Practices, a program which helps career changers, recent college graduates and other aspiring education professionals become licensed teachers in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter @heatherngoma.