Teachers of New Jersey: John Phander South Toms River Elementary, 3rd Grade

I was a retail manager for 20 years. I ran a pool store. I was encouraged by people I worked with to go back to school to be a teacher. I went back to school and took a Psychology class to see if I would like it, and I absolutely loved it. I went back full time. I was in my early 40’s. I was excited about it. I have now been teaching for six years.

My first year I was a substitute teacher, and I taught the autistic program in the summer. The big difference for me is I don’t stress over all of the paperwork I have to do – and there is a lot of paperwork. I am coming from a place where I had to deal with CEO’s and RVP’s coming into my stores, and that was so much more stressful. It’s all about the kids for me.

I like to be a big kid. I pay attention to their world. If they like it, I will watch it or listen to it so I so I can connect with them. I will bring a lot of pop culture into the class, like Pokémon, and Star Wars, and old-school Schoolhouse Rock. They get a kick out of that. I tie it all into the curriculum. Like, right now we are studying governments, so I am showing them “The Bill.” You know, “I’m just a bill, sitting here on Capitol Hill.” They watch it and they love it.

I also learned the Art Infusion style of teaching. I got trained along with others at Count Basie Theater for it. It was pretty amazing. We learned how to become statues to show how we are feeling, and then I went back to class and taught the kids, and whenever I ask them how they are doing, they will become a statue to show how they feel. I told them we have testing coming up. I asked them how they feel about it. They all became statues that showed them biting their nails in nervousness. I told them, ‘Guys, don’t stress, you are going to do fine. We do this all year. I am not going to all of the sudden start training you just to take the test. We have been learning all year and working on it. You have been doing it.’ Then they take a practice test and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that wasn’t so bad!’ I make the class fun, and they learn while they are having fun.

When I first went back to school, I was torn between teaching and being a sign-language interpreter. I took all the classes to interpret, but I ended up gong into teaching, and I got the special education degree with it. I had this one student, she absolutely loved sign language. We had a student in our school who was hearing impaired, and my student wanted to learn to communicate with her. So she and I and another student would meet at lunch and we went over my college books for sign language. She absorbed everything. When she had her class presentation, she wound up signing the entire thing for her friend. I almost cried when she did that.

Interview and photo by Gregory Andrus. You can find more of Gregory’s work at www.potjs.com


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