Not all superheroes wear capes. Some, like Angel Santiago of Elmer— New Jersey's Teacher of the Year — are educators and use their powers in the classroom to create a better future for children.
“I teach because I get to participate in cultivating the most precious resource the world has to offer: our future, our children," stated Santiago, a fifth-grade teacher at Loring Flemming Elementary School in Gloucester Township. “Teaching is my passion. It is the reason why I get up every day with a positive outlook on life and the reason why I can fall asleep each night feeling fulfilled with my worldly duties."
Santiago always knew that eventually he would become a teacher; however, after graduating from Vineland High School he first took a cross-country road trip with his band to enjoy a taste of the rock star life. The band, Days Like These, toured for six years, signed with a record label and produced two albums. At 23, Santiago returned home ready to pursue his true calling, spending his evenings at Cumberland County College (now Rowan College of South Jersey) while working full time as a housing inspector.
“I went to school nights and every weekend for five years," recalled Santiago, who attended RCSJ from 2006-2009 before transferring to Fairleigh Dickinson University to earn a master's degree in education. “My mother, Lillian Rivera, was a single parent and stressed the importance of education and hard work. In the 90s, she took classes at the community college and when I was in middle school I would sometimes tag along with her. My mother became a social worker. I became a teacher. We even shared some of the same professors."
Initially Santiago wanted to teach high school history. It was RCSJ assistant professor of Education, Dr. Donna Bender, who recognized Santiago's potential and offered guidance.
“I think community colleges are extremely important, especially to lower income students. They are affordable and accessible. They help to bring diversity to the playing field," acknowledged Santiago. “Dr. Bender told me that I had a story to tell and that it should be told to elementary school students. 'Be a hero. Be a role model,' she said. She made me realize that more male, minority teachers were needed in elementary schools for students to relate to — that we shared the same story, the same face. Dr. Bender made you feel like you could do anything."
Now eight years later, Santiago is using his superpowers to excite and educate 48 fifth graders as he teaches remotely from an empty classroom. While he misses being with his “kids," he views online learning as “an opportunity to make his classroom work more efficiently." The weekend DJ and musician exudes enthusiasm and makes online learning fun by incorporating music into lessons plans and providing engaging activities such as partner projects, breakout sessions and online dance parties. He also teaches about the power of community service and how helping others enriches your life — a lesson Santiago learned in sixth grade from his mentor, the late Mark Melamed.
Governor Phil Murphy in a released statement said, “New Jersey is known for having the best public-school system in the nation, which is due in large part to the strength of our teaching workforce. Angel Santiago exemplifies the kind of commitment and professionalism that we see in classrooms throughout New Jersey. I want to congratulate Angel for all that he has done to prepare our children to succeed and thrive."
In January, Santiago begins a six-month sabbatical as Teacher of the Year, working with the New Jersey state Department of Education. He will share his platform — Diversifying the Workplace, Teachers of Color — with fellow educators, focused on ways to recruit more minorities into the teaching profession. According to Santiago, 58 percent of New Jersey's students are children of color compared to 16 percent of its educators.
“Students of all different races should have heroes who look like them," stated the married father of a three-year-old son. “We need to empower them so that they feel like a superhero too."
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