A few weeks before the start of this academic year, Jennifer Wolfe stood inside her empty Oceanside High School classroom on Long Island with tears in her eyes — tears for her students whom she had not seen in five months since the COVID-19 shutdown, tears for her typically spirited classroom that had been void of life for too long, and tears of uncertainty for what a new year in such a strange time might hold.
“Despite the obstacles,” said Wolfe, the 2021 New York State Teacher of the Year, “we’re gonna make it work. That’s what teachers do. We make stuff work.”
It hasn’t been easy.
Wolfe, her colleagues, and educators across the state have been working under unprecedented conditions in rapidly changing environments.
Distance restrictions inside the classroom and remote instruction over the internet have impaired teachers’ interaction with students. There have been technological challenges.
And frequent schedule changes due to positive COVID-19 tests and exposures have repeatedly upended lesson plans on a dime.
Still, despite such extraordinary circumstances, Wolfe and educators throughout New York have “made stuff work” because “that’s what teachers do.”
“Everyone is relying on each other and it’s really been kind of great,“ said Wolfe, who’s been teaching social studies at Oceanside for 24 years. “Everybody has really come together. It’s been tough and there are a lot of things out of our control that we normally would have control over. I really believe we have risen to the challenge.
“Teacher expertise and dedication,” she added, has been “the one true constant” enabling students to navigate and learn during the pandemic. And, Wolfe said, it will be teacher-generated solutions that will keep kids on the path to success as students emerge from the COVID-19 era.
Wolfe, a member of the Oceanside Federation of Teachers, will be the first to tell you she is passionate about teacher leadership. And in choosing her as this year’s Teacher of the Year, the State Education Department not only recognized Wolfe for her work with students, but also for empowering fellow educators to take on leadership roles.
“When teachers are put in positions of leadership to control their profession,” Wolfe said, “the education that students receive is usually more effective.”
In 2002, Wolfe became the first teacher in Oceanside to achieve National Board Certification, in part she said, because it “was best for my students.”
But she didn’t stop there.
Knowing what was best for her students is best for all students, Wolfe, over the past two decades, has personally guided more than 20 other teachers in the district — as well as numerous others in districts across Long Island — through the rigorous 300-plus-hour National Board Certification process, which is considered the “gold standard” of the teaching profession.
In fact, before Wolfe achieved NBCT status, there were only 66 NBCTs on Long Island. Today, through her mentorship as a National Board regional coordinator, there are more than 200.
“Jen’s dedication to her profession, and her passion in constantly elevating not only her career but the careers of her colleagues, is why teachers in New York state’s public schools consistently rank among the nation’s very best,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. “Teachers like Jen not only enable students to succeed in the classroom, they also change student’s lives.”
Oceanside Superintendent Phyllis Harrington said Wolfe has helped grow the teaching profession on Long Island.
“It’s not only her knowledge about effective teaching, it’s how she imparts that knowledge to other teachers, particularly novice teachers,” Harrington said.
A three-time Fulbright recipient and former state High School Social Studies Teacher of the Year, Wolfe plays a key role in Oceanside’s Tenure Attainment Plan, which she created with her colleague Erin Girlein Rosenkranz. The supportive but Oceanside teacher an inspiration to students, fellow educators challenging four-year program for novice teachers aims to ensure they are supported during the critical first years of their career.
NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango called Wolfe’s commitment to supporting young teachers “selfless and inspiring.” She noted too that it serves as a reminder that “collaboration is a key ingredient to success in the classroom and that new teachers in New York state are not alone and will be supported as they develop their craft.”
Harrington said Wolfe is a role model for those new to the profession.
“She’s helped young teachers understand that teaching is hard work, that it is an intellectual activity, and that it takes a degree of commitment that she displays single-handedly.”
The superintendent added that inside the classroom, it’s Wolfe’s authenticity that enables her to connect with students. “Jen is real.
So when she is working with her students, and she’s facilitating the learning, she makes the content come alive.”
Oceanside senior Alexa Poplawski agrees.
“She’s very fun, and accessible.
I hated waking up for first period — freshman year, sophomore year, every year — but I had Ms. Wolfe for first period last year and I was excited to go to class every day. She would make my day so much better.
She’s really just the best teacher I’ve ever had.”
“I am lucky that I work in a district where there are a lot of accomplished teachers and I see the outcome of that” in my students, Wolfe said.
“I have kids who are capable and confident and they feel great about themselves. That doesn’t come by accident.
It comes because they’ve had very accomplished teachers.”