NJ Pen 2018 Townie Awards: the Teacher Who Made a Difference

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Throughout her 22-year career, Haddon Heights schoolteacher Laura Goodfriend has helped many students realize their potentials. Two families talk about how much she’s meant to them.

By Abby Schreiber | July 30, 2018

Lucas Walter and Haddon Heights schoolteacher Laura Goodfriend. Credit: Chris Walter.

It’s hard for Laura Goodfriend to talk about her accomplishments.

But ask about her students, and she’ll gush for hours.

Goodfriend is equally happy to express her admiration for their parents, or her love of Atlantic Avenue Elementary School, where she teaches in the Haddon Heights school district.

But ask how Goodfriend connects so deeply with the families of so many children in her care, and she just can’t find the words.

Humility is only one of the many virtues parents like Jackie Schroeder cited in nominating her for the 2018 NJ Pen Townie Award for “The Teacher Who Made a Difference.”

Shroeder knew by the time her daughter Margo was five that she wasn’t interested in standard academics, and showed “almost no interest in writing, letter recognition, and reading alone.

But when Margo started in Goodfriend’s class, the changes in her behavior, both academically and socially, were astonishing. By January, she began to identify letters and high-frequency signs. Around February, when Schroeder asked Margo to draw a picture for her dad’s birthday, she asked her mom to “write the words” instead.

“She wanted to copy the letters,” Schroeder said. “I realized this was new for her. From then, it’s been like a switch.”

Margo Schroeder and Haddon Heights schoolteacher Laura Goodfriend. Credit: Jacqueline Schroeder.

Goodfriend leads an inclusion classroom, which combines children with special needs and others who simply “weren’t interested” in standard learning.

Chris Walter’s son, Lucas, who was assigned to Goodfriend’s classroom for speech therapy, was one of them.

“He went in as a shy boy who didn’t speak many words, and was scared to do and try things without a lot of help and encouragement from adults,” Walter said.

Today, however, Lucas has lots of confidence.

“[He] isn’t scared to get dirty and try new things,” Walter said. “He also talks a mile a minute, and has a great vocabulary and storytelling ability.”

In Goodfriend’s classroom, Lucas and Margo are not anomalies. Using the Reggio Emilia Approach, she gets results by nurturing the many skills that children are innately born with.

“Through this type of learning, we can really nurture [students’] social being, learning how to work as cooperative learners, how to be self-reliant, how to problem-solve,” Goodfriend said.

The approach combines STEAM-style learning with exploration of children’s interests.

“I’m not the type of educator that’s presented with a standard curriculum and told, ‘This is the way to do it; do it,’” Goodfriend said. “I really like to research the other options, and being a special educator, you’re always doing that.”

For 22 years, Goodfriend has enjoyed helping people realize their potential as a teacher. She traces her passion for supporting others to a childhood in which she “was always involved in helping” her brother along.

“A lot of times, kids do better at teaching other children than teachers can,” Goodfriend said. As such, she bases her curriculum around piquing students’ interests.

Lucas Walter and Haddon Heights schoolteacher Laura Goodfriend. Credit: Chris Walter.

“Each child is so different,” she said, “but when you [teach children]  through play, when you do it through exploration, you’re going to bring out the best in kids.”

Goodfriend relies on this hands-on approach to cultivate her students’ personalities outside of lesson plans, and help them discover their identities at an early age.

Focusing on exploration more readily prepares students for life outside her classroom, and nurtures their strengths.

“I think we’re trying to get kids to question more,” Goodfriend said. “I think we’re trying to get kids to lead more, to be more open-minded, and to see each others’ viewpoints,” she said.

“I think any parent, and teacher for that matter, could just sit in her room while she teaches, and absorb the way she interacts with her students,” Walter said. “The way she approaches her job and her students displays how much she cares and wants to help these kids become better students and better people.”

Parents at Atlantic Avenue aren’t the first ones to have noticed Goodfriend’s special way of teaching. She’s won numerous awards, including being named Outstanding Special Educator by the New Jersey State Elks Association.

Her impact is felt beyond the students’ experiences.

“Ms. Goodfriend will forever hold a special place in our hearts,” Schroeder said. “We hope every child in Haddon Heights will have the opportunity to experience this remarkable connection between educator and students.”

Goodfriend is likewise endlessly grateful to the community of Haddon Heights, but ultimately says it’s her students that bring out the best in her.

“I work in an amazing district,” she said. “We’re a real family.”

HONORABLE MENTION – Alyssa Maziarz, Merchantville Elementary School

Merchantville Elementary School pre-k teacher Alyssa Maziarz has formed special connections with many of her students and their families, including this parent, whose testimonial communicates the reassurance her approach lent to their early days of school.

“My son was diagnosed with a special need this year, and started as part of the early intervention program. In the early stages of our journey, it can be a struggle to find healthcare professionals, therapists, and even family who are as fully vested as the parents are in providing the best educational development opportunities for their child. From Day 1, Mrs. Maziarz has taken on that calling with great enthusiasm, and exhibits the same sincere interest in achieving the best outcome for my son. She provides constant feedback on his behavior and progression that is well above the call of duty, and for that she is an asset to the Merchantville school and community.” —A.M.

About the Awards

The 2018 NJ Pen Townie Awards.

The NJ Pen Townie Awards were conceived as an antidote to “Best Of” ballot-stuffing popularity contests.

Reader nominees in five categories—Local Hero, Small Business that Changed My Life, Most Welcoming Space, Outstanding Public Employee, and Teacher Who Made a Difference—will be featured in stories this summer.

Stay tuned for further installments.

 

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