Teachers of New Jersey: Stacie Varanelli, Hazel Elementary School, West Orange
I teach at the same school that I went to school while growing up. It’s wonderful because I know the school: its history, the system, all of it. And the families know that and trust me because they know I have such a long history with the school. I came from a blue collar family. Nothing was ever handed to anybody on a silver platter. My dad is a retired fireman of 35 years. He was a captain. My mother was a stay at home mom and she worked part time. I’m an only child. So while maybe I was spoiled in the sense that I always had their attention, I was never spoiled monetarily. There were some Christmases where I didn’t get what I wanted to get. Like when everybody was getting certain toys at Christmas, I had to wait a couple of months. But my parents made up for it in other ways. When I was young, I would be made fun of by other girls because I wore JEM sneakers. And I tell my students that you know, don’t ever be ashamed of wearing what you want to wear or who you want to be. There may be people that are out there that are going to laugh but that’s a reflection on them, not you.
When I look back now, I did have fear as a child because my father was a fireman. I had some kind of fear and anxiety as a child, and I do remember like in October when we would learn about fire safety. I remember my dad wasn’t there for certain birthdays. I remember one Christmas Day, he had to go to work during the day. I still believed in Santa and my mother covered all my gifts with a blanket and we celebrated when he came home. He tried his best to switch [shifts]like I know a couple times. Younger guys who didn’t have families sometimes would switch with him. My parents would have me write them thank you cards. That’s how I was raised. I was raised to reciprocate. I was raised to acknowledge when people do good things.
In my teenage years and early 20s I went through some things where I was enlightened by certain people’s situations, where you realize that not everybody is cut from the same cloth. People have different experiences and you have to accept that and deal with it accordingly. And that helps me deal with my students. When you really look into it, they’re not just a body. They’re not just a brain. They have stuff going on in the background that some people may never know about or understand. And that is important to me as I teach these students, that they know that they are important to me, not just academically, but as people. I had teachers who cared about me the same way, and it made all the difference to me.
Interview and article by Gregory Andrus. To see more of his work, visit www.potjs.com