Newark’s 2022 Teacher of the Year says kids strive when they feel accepted

Jessica Tavares in a black dress smiles as she holds a balloon with the word congratulations and her students cheer her on in the background.
Jessica Tavares, a science teacher at Lafayette Street School, was named Newark Public Schools’ 2022 Teacher of the Year. (Newark Public Schools)
How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

When Newark’s 2022 Teacher of the Year reflects on her personal experiences with school, she recalls having educators who established warm and inviting classroom environments that she eagerly anticipated. 

And others who made their classes feel like a dreaded task.

So, when Jessica Tavares began teaching for Newark Public Schools eight years ago, she prioritized setting an example in her classroom of acceptance and kindness. From her firsthand experience, she knew those qualities were key to inspiring students to learn.

“When you actually want to be in school and feel like you are accepted, you are more willing to try your best,” Tavares said.

The eighth grade science teacher at Lafayette Street School was recently named the district’s teacher of the year, a recognition she was surprised and honored to receive.

“She was nominated and selected based on her interdisciplinary approach to teaching that centers on student growth, which is both challenging and engaging,” said Nancy Deering, district spokeswoman, in an email about the announcement earlier this month. “Tavares has compassion and sensitivity that allows her to connect with her students and others on a personal level.”

Tavares’ approach to modeling acceptance in her classroom as a way to promote learning is also supported by research. 

“Students who learn in positive learning environments that are safe, supportive, and engaging are more likely to improve academically, participate more fully in the classroom, and develop skills that will help them be successful in school and in life,” according to the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments.

Tavares spoke recently with Chalkbeat.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why did you want to become a teacher? Did you always want to teach middle school science?

As far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a teacher, and I have always loved science. Blending the two just made sense. But I wasn’t always sure about what grade I wanted to focus on. When I was younger, my first job was covering the after-school and summer programs for a community center in the Newark area. I was able to experience working with all different grade levels. I found that I was able to connect and make the most impact with the middle school students. When it was time to become a teacher, I decided my best fit would be as a middle school science teacher.

How do you feel about being named the 2022 Teacher of the Year?

I feel honored. I was very surprised by the award. I never thought I would be chosen above all the other great educators in the district.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received, and how have you put it into practice?

The best advice I have ever received is to be kind to everyone and treat people as you would like to be treated. Most teachers see their students as kids and not always as people. But just like adults, our students have good days and bad days. The toughest student is usually just having a bad day or a hard time and they feel defeated. Most students just need someone to be kind and understanding. You can’t learn and be successful if you are in a negative mindset. 

Teaching and showing kindness, compassion, and life lessons are sometimes more important than the curriculum we teach in the classroom. Encouraging my students to be nice people and to show kindness in everything they do is sometimes the best lesson I can teach them.

Tell us about your own experience with school and how it affects your work today.

I have had many different experiences in school. I attended Ann Street School here in Newark from kindergarten through eighth grade. For high school, I attended a small private Catholic school. I was exposed to different teaching styles and environments. Throughout my schooling, I have had some great teachers that made me love going to school and some that made going to school feel like the worst chore. I learned a lot from both experiences and they have definitely all had an effect on my teaching. 

Taking in all these different experiences, I have learned that having an inclusive, encouraging, and positive environment in the classroom helps students learn and persevere. When you actually want to be in school and feel like you are accepted you are more willing to try your best. I try to make sure that all my students feel like they can be themselves and not worry about struggling in my classroom. We all need a little extra help from time to time, and it is okay to ask for it. I try to make sure all of my students feel comfortable coming to me for help, whether it is help for something in school or outside of school.

What’s your favorite lesson to teach, and why?

I think my favorite lesson to teach my students isn’t one specific science lesson but something that is taught throughout the school year. I try to teach my students to persevere, whether that be in life or in science. Many students tend to give up when something seems hard, but I try to encourage them to keep pushing forward. 

One of my favorite moments as a teacher is when I see a student who once struggled and would give up start to persevere and become the one to help others in the classroom. They have become more confident and have learned to work through difficult tasks. Perseverance and never giving up is a lesson I hope they carry with them throughout their lives.

Catherine Carrera is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Newark, covering the city’s K-12 schools with a focus on English language learners. Contact Catherine at ccarrera@chalkbeat.org.

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