By Jason Klaiber
Managing Editor for Promotions
We always knew that teachers at Jamesville-DeWitt High School were spectacular, but now the state has given us proof. Three members of the J-DHS math faculty, Jay Lang, Betty Wood and Dawn Janicki, were accepted into the inaugural group of New York State Master Teachers, an elite program that recognized 105 of the most qualified science and, in this case, math educators, from across the state.
The sole purpose of the Master Teachers program is to identify highly talented teachers and support them as they help to develop the skills of future teachers or struggling teachers. The program singled out teachers based upon their content knowledge, how well they present and teach the material, as well as their involvement with the students and community. It focused on teachers who had a background of leadership roles and at least four years of experience in teaching math or science, though more experience was better.
“It’s a brand new program so we’re still learning about what it is and what different purposes it can have,” says Mrs. Janicki. “Some of the good purposes will be that we’ll be working with new pre-service teachers and our colleagues to push the level that (the math department) is at to be at a higher level,” she says. Mr. Lang, Mrs. Wood and Mrs. Janicki will be collaborating with the other master teachers in order to work on “best practices of teaching,” while mentoring their peers through presentations and meetings.
“I’m very honored,” says Mr. Lang; “I think it’s great that three teachers from J-D (are in the program).” Mrs. Wood also says that being accepted into the Master Teachers program is “an honor.” “I honestly didn’t know if I’d have a shot at it,” she says. She applied because she realized she could never know what the results would’ve been if she didn’t apply for the program, and she also wouldn’t care if she got rejected.
Principal Paul Gasparini calls Mr. Lang, Mrs. Wood and Mrs. Janicki “very creative instructors.” “They are extremely intelligent and professional, and they’re three of the hardest working people I know,” says Mr. Gasparini; “They know curriculum inside and out. They’re dedicated to education and the craft of teaching so I couldn’t be prouder and I think the state will benefit from them representing the Master Teachers program and helping other teachers become better professionals.”
Even though they’ve been recognized as master teachers, Mr. Lang, Mrs. Wood and Mrs. Janicki all have goals to further themselves in terms of what they achieve. Mrs. Janicki says that she sets new goals for herself at the start of every school year. This includes allowing her students to do activities they’ve never done before and adding to her own expertise as a teacher. “It’s hard to say what’s above and beyond because there’s really no ceiling when you’re a teacher,” says Mrs. Janicki; “I think the expectations are to do whatever it takes.” Similar to Mrs. Janicki, Mrs. Wood feels a responsibility as a teacher to continue learning. During the summer or other moments of free time, Mrs. Wood studies teaching methods and researches different math-related topics. She says that her approach to teaching is to reflect on her lessons and figure out ways to improve them. “I think every teacher out there wants to teach the best possible lesson to his or her students at any given time,” says Mrs. Wood; “I just know that I’m a lifelong learner and I’m probably going to be a lifelong teacher.” Mr. Lang plans to follow in the same footsteps. “I’m looking to integrate a lot of changes over the next four years into my teaching by being in this program and learning from other teachers,” he says. Mr. Lang is looking at ways in which technology can improve teaching, which includes saving time and increasing understanding for students.
Throughout their time at J-DHS, Mr. Lang, Mrs. Wood and Mrs. Janicki have aimed to continue the trend of successful students within the school’s community. “It doesn’t hurt a teacher to have highly-motivated students,” says Mr. Gasparini; “That being said, the students here have a high expectation for their teachers as well. I think the fact that (Lang, Wood and Janicki) have prospered in this highly-motivated environment says to me that they have the guts and the work ethic to do a good job as teachers.”
“Working with the students keeps me young,” says Mr. Lang; “It’s fun to see them learn, and to be a part of that is awesome.” Mr. Lang notes that when he teaches algebra, there’s a struggling group of students some years and a better-achieving group other years. To accommodate this, Mr. Lang slightly changes the curriculum to make it either easier or harder depending on the students he teaches. “I think as a teacher, you have to be flexible based on the students you have,” he says. He believes that people enjoy math if they understand it and that students who say they hate it are usually the ones who struggle. Based off this thinking, Mr. Lang is looking to help students both understand and enjoy math. “If they continually struggle, then it’s a miserable time,” says Mr. Lang; “At some point or another, we’ve all struggled with math and it can be pretty frustrating. But if you can help them find success, that’s the key.” Mrs. Wood mentions that, because struggling students are sometimes reluctant to learn, she works on building comfortable relationships with her classes so they’ll be more willing to ask for help. She then figures out what’s blocking them from being successful and assists them. Mrs. Janicki admits that she enjoys the “a-ha moment” when a student understands something they’ve never understood before. Speaking on behalf of the master teachers, she thinks an experienced educator such as herself should be able to get all of her students motivated through her teaching. All three teachers also work with students before school, after school and during any compatible free time during the school day in order to help them.
In their minds, a step in the direction of success is also working with their colleagues. The teachers in the J-DHS math department divvy up their workload and work together everyday. Mrs. Wood works with fellow math teacher Diane Huyck to differentiate the curriculum of their Algebra 2 honors classes from the regents classes. She also shares ideas with math teacher Charles Clinton, who teaches a regents statistics course, as opposed to her AP stats class. Mrs. Wood added that math teacher Sue Techman “enlightens” her because Mrs. Techman has a “great abundance of mathematical knowledge.” “I learn so much from my colleagues,” says Mrs. Wood; “It doesn’t matter whether it’s subject-specific or just about teaching.” Mrs. Janicki says that she works with other teachers to “facilitate a stronger program” within the school district and its math department. “I’m a big fan of teachers working together, sharing ideas and sharing materials because I think it can only be good,” says Mr. Lang; “Sometimes in high school you don’t work as a team like other teachers do in the lower grades, but to be able to work with other teachers like that is awesome.”
Mr. Lang compares the entrance into the Master Teachers program to the application process for college. The teachers in the math department decided if they wanted to apply for the program, and if so, they filled out an online application. They uploaded references and letters of recommendation from administrators, fellow teachers and past students. They also were required to show transcripts and certifications from the universities they’ve attended and write essays detailing why they’re qualified for the program. Soon after these things were submitted to the state, a full-day interview process was conducted at SUNY Cortland. Each teacher presented a lesson to their peers and the board of reviewers and wrote an on-the-spot essay about their connection to students and the community, as well as other knowledge they have. Then, every teacher sat through an evaluation of their lesson. The third stage of the process was a half-hour panel interview with the review board. Finally, the state went through the scores and rubrics and, after a couple months, determined who would be chosen to become master teachers for the first year of the program. Mr. Lang, Mrs. Wood and Mrs. Janicki were three out of 35 teachers from the Onondaga, Cortland and Madison counties to be accepted into the program. East-Syracuse Minoa, Moravia, and Cortland all had three teachers representing the program as well, while Liverpool had the highest showing with six teachers.
Teaching is actually Mr. Lang’s second career. He started out with a degree in computer science and engineering from Bucknell University and then worked for four and a half years as a software engineer. However, he didn’t picture himself working as an engineer forever. He considered volunteering at a high school or college to help students. “I was like ‘if that’s what I’m gonna do, why not just become a teacher?’” he says. This was the first step toward a career that he always knew he wanted to pursue. He returned to school for a year and a half, obtaining his Master of Arts in Teaching from Binghamton University. He stayed in the Binghamton area for his first teaching gig as a math teacher, a one-year job at Seton Catholic Central High School. He then transferred to a job at J-DHS, where he’s been for 10 years. He taught only math his first year, but added the computer science program to his resume his second year, which has been in place as an elective ever since. He started with a single intro to computer science and then made the AP Computer Science course.
Aside from being the only computer science teacher at J-DHS, Mr. Lang is said to be one of only three computer science teachers in all of Onondaga County. “It’s difficult because there’s not a textbook or other teachers you can ask questions to,” says Mr. Lang; “I had to come up with it pretty much out of thin air.” However, he admits he’s proud that the program has grown a tremendous amount. “I went from having about 15 kids the first year I taught computer science to now seeing (about) 75 students this year,” says Mr. Lang; “To see students going into computer science or other engineering is awesome.”
Mrs. Wood received her bachelor’s degree in science and mathematics from Clarkson University and her master’s degree in science and teaching from SUNY Potsdam, and she has also taken classes at Syracuse University. Mrs. Wood began teaching in 1992 as a long-term substitute teacher for one semester at Horseheads High School in Elmira, NY. She then worked at another high school for BOCES for six years as the school’s only math teacher but she eventually wanted to join a math department so she could be accompanied by other teachers. She then applied for a position at J-DHS and got the job, much to her surprise, in Feb. 1999 and has been working here ever since.
Aside from her job here, she also serves as a chairperson for the Jamesville-DeWitt/Syracuse University teaching center. Mrs. Wood believes that one of her strengths is being an AP Statistics teacher because “there is such a push now for more statistics to be integrated into the math curricula, especially with the Common Core.” Mrs. Wood sees AP Statistics as a very different branch of math, due to the amount of vocabulary she teaches. “I would venture to guess that nobody else in the math department has to teach the same amount of vocabulary that I have to teach,” says Mrs. Wood. Despite this, she says that she’s a pretty traditional math teacher in terms of her teaching methods. However, Mrs. Wood is planning on experimenting with a teaching method this year that isn’t normally introduced, which she calls “flipping the classroom.” With this method, students would both watch and take notes on instructional statistics videos at home, and then they’d be assigned homework assignments based off the topics in the videos which would be worked on in class. Mrs. Wood’s logic behind it is that students get stuck on homework, not notetaking.
Mrs. Janicki obtained both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from SUNY Oswego. She received Certificates of Advanced Study in reading and educational leadership from Syracuse University. She’s been taking college classes every semester since graduating from high school and is currently working on earning her doctorate degree from Syracuse University. “I’m always learning and I’m always doing better,” says Mrs. Janicki; “there’s always more to learn.” After working at other schools in the area for about five years, she found a place at J-DHS, where she’s stayed for 11 years.
But of course, Mr. Lang, Mrs. Wood and Mrs. Janicki’s common attraction to math is something that ties them together in the end. “I’ve always loved math and since I was an engineering student, I had a math minor,” says Mr. Lang; “It was a lot easier to just make that a major instead of getting a (different) degree in political science or something.” Mr. Lang says that he likes the “black and white nature” of math, in that there are either right answers or wrong answers. The same thing goes for computer science, he says; “either the program works for you, or it doesn’t.”
“I’m a big math nerd and I’m a stats geek,” says Mrs. Wood; “I enjoy math a great deal.” Mrs. Wood enjoys statistics because it involves “real world” information, which means students can assume they’ll use their knowledge of statistics at some point in their lives. As early as elementary school, Mrs. Wood claims she had dreams of being involved with math and being known as a “mathemagician.” “There were other areas that I was very interested in or could’ve been very interested in,” says Mrs. Wood, “but I was so focused on math that I never even considered them.” Mrs. Wood actually started out as a foster care caseworker for the Onondaga County Department of Social Services. She admits she loved working with kids, but she wasn’t using her math skills. It was at this job that she decided she would get her master’s degree and do student teaching to become certified as a New York State teacher, which she realized would be the best of both worlds.
Mrs. Janicki says that she wanted to be a math teacher ever since she was in the seventh grade. “I’m really living the dream that I always had,” says Mrs. Janicki; “I drew to math because it was my strength. I was really good in math and I wanted to share that with other people.”