By Michele J. Kuhn
RED BANK – As Crystal Hackett opened the large cardboard box in her classroom, her smile was wide as she pulled out the new, wrapped books and toys for her students.
“Everybody’s excited to come back,” she said.
The new year is “all about possibilities. By the end of the last school year, I saw how far my students had come,” she said. “I’m always excited to see my new students and imagine the possibilities of where we can go … It’s all about progress and it’s amazing to see the progress we can make.
“The beginning of school is exciting and a little scary too. You’re starting all over again with the kids,” Hackett said. “I love the challenge of it … It’s always a clean slate.”
Earlier this week, Hackett, who is in her fourth year of teaching at Red Bank Primary School, was in the midst of a time-honored tradition among teachers who come to their classrooms a few weeks before the start of school to get their rooms ready for their new pupils. First day of classes is Thursday, Sept. 4, for Red Bank Primary students.
Hackett spent the morning organizing, cleaning, shelving, labeling and decorating. She made sure that the supplies and learning aids needed in her classroom’s art, science, dramatic play, blocks and table toys centers were where she wanted them.
The boxes she opened were filled with items she ordered in March. She has found that with better planning, she has greatly reduced out-of-pocket expenses that many teachers absorb.
“The first year I was a teacher I spent so much money,” she said. “Over time, you get smarter and you plan your orders better.
“I love to decorate,” she said. “I’ve learned that it’s less about those store-bought bulletin board sets and more about displaying the kids work. Again, it’s another money-saving tactic. It’s better to use the kids’ work than going to the store and buying the pre-made stuff. It’s a lot more meaningful when the kids see their work, their pictures up there. They love it and so do their parents.”
Hackett’s pre-K class will be populated with 15 little ones this year. It’s an “integrated class” with students who have special needs and those who are “typically developing. It’s really cool. They get to learn from each other. It creates a learning environment for everybody.”
While Hackett said many think pre-K is all about play, she knows that it’s really about teaching children “self-regulation skills” that will help them progress further as they develop their own set of learning skills.
Her large classroom has two round tables with little blue chairs, a highly polished blue-green floor, a few brightly colored throw rugs, a collection of hand puppets, lots of books and cubbyholes and a “cozy cube,” a large wooden box with open sides where a child can take a book or spend some time with a collection of stuffed animals and soft figures.
This year, like all the Red Bank Primary School classrooms, a new Smart Board has been installed. Hackett is excited about what the potential the technological device will bring to helping her students learn.
“I love my room,” she said. “It’s like a home away from home for me. That’s what I hope to have my students feel too. You never know what their home life is like so you want to create a stable, loving environment where they know where things are … That’s very important.
“I love working for Red Bank. It’s a great community. The kids are great. The parents are great,” she said.
Hackett became a teacher because of her experience as a student in Middletown public schools. She attended Fairview Elementary, Bayshore Middle and High School North. The 28-year-old describes herself as someone who struggled as a child, particularly in the early grades and particularly with learning to read and math.
“I had such a positive experience in elementary school…I had awesome teachers who made me feel loved and always worked with me,” she said. “I remember always feeling that my teachers believed in me … My mom was always on top of me too. By the time I was in the fifth grade I caught up and by sixth grade, I was an A student.”
As she got older, she found that she enjoyed being around little children and working with them.
She spent her undergraduate days at Rowan University, earned her master’s from Montclair University and has many memories of how her own teachers taught her. She is passing what she learned from them and her own love of learning on to her young students.
“I like helping because that’s how I was helped. It came naturally to me. I like to be silly and, I guess, I have a lot of patience,” she said, adding that her students are excited about learning and she gets excited “because of their excitement.”
Hackett isn’t the only one excited about the new year.
Nicole Matarazzo is looking forward to her second year of teaching and is glad she’s not nervous like last year. “This year I know what to expect and what I have to teach,” the English as a second language teacher said. “I’m more aware of the students’ levels” and has spent the summer tweaking her lesson plans and evaluating how she will teach her students this year.
Kindergarten teacher Alyssa May was helping welcome parents and students on Monday, Aug. 18, as they came to the River Street school to pick up classroom and bus assignments and other information in specially prepared packets. She was working to “freshen up the classroom” and put names on cubicles “to welcome the students.” A liaison to the school’s PTO, May also was helping to sell black and red shirts emblazoned with the school mascot, Stormy the Eagle. Students in the primary school wear a uniform of sorts, either a solid black or solid red shirt.
Principal Luigi Laugelli greeted parents, many pushing strollers with toddlers and infants, and the young students with a big smile and joked with members of the staff.
“Education is so unique in that you have the opportunity to start over at the beginning of each year,” he said. “In a sense, you get to wipe the slate clean, though now it’s a Smart Board.”
After the summer, teachers and administrators get to see “how much the kids have grown emotionally, physically and socially,” he said. “They are happy to be back and so are we.”