LINDEN, NJ - After 23 years as a teacher at Soehl Middle School in Linden, Michael Manning knows that teaching students today is more complicated than when he was growing up. Teachers must understand a student’s home life, background, and other external forces to be able to pass on lessons in math, science, language arts.

“It’s changed from when we were in school,” Manning said. “You went to school to get an education, and the teacher taught you. Today, you do so many things, you teach, you care, you have so many concerns. You have to understand the condition of the children who come to you. We’re bound by more than just the educational aspect.”

It takes skill, it takes coaxing, it takes cunning. Some would say it takes a little magic.

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For all he has done as a math and science teacher for special needs students, Manning has been chosen among “Teachers Who Make Magic” by the New Jersey Education Association and the radio station Magic 98.3 FM. He will be honored alongside the other winners at a banquet at The Pines Manor in Edison on April 8.

“I’m pleasantly surprised and very pleased with it,” Manning said of the recognition. “We should feel good to receive awards. We all like to be respected and recognized. But my driving force and the reason I feel good about what I’m doing outside of any awards is that I feel like I’m doing something that is impactful. It has the ability to affect change.

“We as educators, as idealistic as it may sound, we affect the future, we create the future because we teach the young people.” Soehl Principal Isabella Scocozza said Manning is a valuable member of the staff.

“This is such a deserving achievement for Mr. Manning to be recognized as a recipient of the ‘Teachers Who Make Magic’ award,” she said. “He is a teacher who is well-respected among the students, staff, and families of Soehl. He consistently goes above and beyond to work with all of his children in order for them to succeed each and every day.”

Manning came to Soehl 23 years ago after a short time teaching in Roselle and having worked in finance. He graduated Linden High School in 1982, then from Rutgers University, Newark, with a degree in finance. He was born in Newark and moved to Linden in time to attend Soehl Junior High School for ninth grade.

As a teacher of special needs students, Manning uses his “magic” touch to connect to students individually to match each student’s particular needs.

“You’ll see there are certain things I do with one student that I don’t do with another student,” he said. “I have to take them at the level they are at and bring them the grade-level curriculum in a way that they can understand.”

It goes far beyond simplifying the material so that the student can understand it. It involves building the student up to a place where they are ready to learn.

“I have to take a child who has been through a process where they have been damaged in education, in the sense that they’ve had difficulties,” Manning said. “So then they’re wondering, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ Then they start this withdrawal process. Their self-esteem is low.”

The key word is “empathy” – something that it took Manning a while to fully grasp.

“I had sympathy, and I had to learn to develop empathy,” he said. “Sympathy is when you feel sorry for someone; empathy is when you can feel what they feel.”

Manning told a story of being at a math workshop for teachers and struggling to understand the material. He thought he was the only one who wasn’t getting it, and so he withdrew and stopped talking. It was then that the lightbulb went off in his head and he saw his students in the way he was acting. So he took a deep breath, raised his hand, and admitted that he was lost. The instructor told him not to worry, that he wasn’t the only one struggling.

“So I thought, ‘Now I understand,’ because I understood with my heart,” he said. “And that’s empathy.”

Manning recently attained his master’s degree in administration and supervision from Rowan University and joined Soehl’s Instructional Leadership Team this year.

Instructional Leadership Teams (ILTs) are groups of about 10 teacher-leaders from each school who meet to dissect data and learn classroom techniques that they in turn relay to other teachers at their school as part of the district’s extensive professional development program.

Part of their work involves “internal rounds” and “external rounds,” where teachers observe their colleagues at work in their own school and in other schools. The concept is based on medical rounds, where doctors observe other doctors at work as a method of learning.

“We’re trying to find out what our schools need,” Manning said. “You examine things in the internal and external rounds, and you try to make sense of the quantitative and qualitative data and bring it back to the people at your school. So that puts me in a position of teaching and leading, and I like that very much.”

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