NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – When Jennifer Olawski was asked to tape a one-hour segment for a local cable program, the Robeson School physical education and health teacher said it was important to be her usual enthusiastic, goofy self.
Being goofy, enjoying a few laughs, having some fun – she says these are critical things for kids in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced students across the state to study at home.
“Everything's just so different right now and for the students to be comforted by a trusted adult and see that, ‘Oh, we can still laugh and we can still enjoy ourselves the midst of this crisis that's going on,’ I think that's really important,” she said.
Expects a few laughs and lots of fun when Olawski’s special airs Friday at 10 a.m. on NJTV - New Jersey’s public television network that brings a variety of programming to all 21 counties in New Jersey.
Spoiler alert: She’s planning a fitness scavenger hunt filmed in her one-bedroom apartment, a little bit of meditation and, finally, an important lesson on washing hands.
Olawski has been one of the school district’s shining stars.
She has used the thousands of dollars she has raised on GoFundMe to buy holiday gifts for hundreds of New Brunswick students the past few years. This past December, the students in the Livingston School auditorium flew into a frenzy when a curtain was lifted to reveal Olawski standing on stage with hundreds of wrapped gifts stacked high.
Olawski was recognized by the state Department of Education as the Teacher of the Year in Middlesex County at a dinner in August for the unique way she cares for her students.
That connection with her students even as she switched from Livingston to Robeson in September. She said she is frequently asked why she’s every student’s favorite teacher and she’s not sure she has a good answer.
Part of the explanation, she thinks, could stem from the fact that she was once upon a time a lot like many of them. She calls herself “one of the rougher students” back then. She often found herself in the principal’s office.
So, seeing the world through their lenses and putting in the effort to get to know them has made all the difference.
“I remember my first year teaching,” Olawski said, “every day I used to eat lunch with the kids in the lunchroom. On my one break of the day, I used to go eat lunch with them. Everyone would look at me and be like, ‘What are you doing? You're crazy. This is your time.’ And, and to me, that was my time to just get to know them a little more and just be that be that person that that they can go to.”
Being there for the students is harder since she isn’t there with the students. While lessons continue on via Chromebooks and Zoom meetings and the like, those personal connects are not as strong.
Olawski can’t wait for the pandemic to end, students to come back to school and normalcy to be restored.
“During one of our meditation sessions in the gym, prior to before all this took place, one of my students started to cry and got really emotional,” she said. “And I was able to pull him aside and speak with him and he was able to open up to me. Now, that's not there. I definitely feel like something's missing.”