Teacher Stories: Sean McDonald, Belmar Elementary School, Seventh and Eighth Grade Social Studies and Teacher of the Year Recipient December, 2020
I got my BA at Seton Hall, and I went to school for marketing and advertising, and when I graduated my father had just opened up a little Irish Pub in Lake Como, on 18th Avenue. So it was kind of an easy transition for me that while I was looking for work I started bartending there and, you know, the money was fantastic. So I started doing that for a couple years. When I met my future wife, bartending left me kind of unfulfilled, and she had suggested that I start substitute teaching. And as it happens the place where I went to grammar school had a position open that I subbed for a year. Then there was a position that opened that same year so I interviewed and I got the job. This is my 17th year teaching. I grew up in Belmar so it’s kind of nice that I started at St. Rose, left after 10 years to teach up in Middletown and coming back to Belmar, and being there now in a place I think that I’ll probably work at for a really long time,
There definitely are some parallels as far as managing a bar and classroom culture and environments. I still worked behind the bar once in a while as a teacher. Because I have done it for so long I have had kids I used to teach come in when they were 21.
I lost my mother when I was 17 to cancer. I think it kind of forces you at that age to grow up kind of quickly. After losing my mom, it was really important to me to find something important for me to do with my life. Some of the traits I learned from my mom that I carried with me into the classroom: I would say empathy is really important for me, and she was very devoted, and very caring. Having that maternal figure in my life for 17 years really was important for me. And I learned to be resilient so I definitely talk to my kids about that a lot. I tell my students to make sure that they let their loved ones know how they feel about them.
I think I’ve always tried to emphasize that people are there for them, whether it’s their tribe or whether it’s your teacher, there are people that care about them, that love them. I think it’s important that they know it’s ok to express yourself, and know that people want to listen to them and their voices are important. Especially today because we have such a high rate of anxiety, and for the students that know that they can come to you and talk to you, that’s such a relief to them. It’s a tricky age being a teenager and I think we’re going to be finding out a lot more about the impact the pandemic has had on people’s lives, especially students with anxieties and different types of negative emotion. So I think it’s really important to kind of pinpoint a lot of social-emotional stuff with the students over the next couple years and make sure we check in with them on that level; it’s not just focus on academics all the time.
Interview by Gregory Andrus, Portraits of the Jersey Shore www.portraitsofthejerseyshore.com