NEWARK, NJ - Tamara Leveridge stood in front of the classroom, assisting a student then quietly tracking time.
“Clap once if you hear me. Clap twice if you hear me,” she called out to her class of sixth graders as she reached for the small red ball on her desk.
Students stopped what they were doing to clap and sit upright. Surveying the room to make sure books were down and students' eyes were up, she begins asking students questions from their close reading of Jean Craighead George’s “Frightful’s Mountain."
Leveridge, a sixth grade English Language Arts teacher at Ivy Hill Elementary School, was named Newark's Teacher of the Year.
“Ms. Leveridge is an extraordinary professional, who through her compassion and love for students and teaching, is changing lives every day,” said Superintendent Roger León. “We are honored and grateful that she is a member of the extraordinary group of teachers who call the Newark Board of Education and Newark Public Schools, home.”
The district honored Leveridge and other top teachers from each school during an appreciation breakfast on Thursday morning.
Leveridge knew she wanted to be a teacher since the third grade. She grew up in Newark and had great teachers she wanted to emulate. This is her second year teaching at Ivy Hill and she previously taught at Dr. E. Alma Flagg school for nine years.
She graduated from University High School, one of the city’s magnet schools, where she had León as a principal for a year. “He’s always been himself in the sense that he put the child first. And that’s what I learned from him, to put the child first,” she said.
As a student, she gravitated toward teachers who cared about students’ lives outside of school, not only academics. She understands what students contend with outside of school walls which allows her to connect with them and show compassion on rough days.
“I come here and I’m myself. I don’t know that I do anything extra to get teacher of the year more so than I’m myself,” said Leveridge, who wanted to teach in her home city since she was eight or nine years old.
“I don’t think I’ll leave Newark. It’s home. How do you leave home?” she said. “I want to be for the next generation what my teachers have been to me.”
Last school year, Leveridge directly reported to Vice Principal Kenneth Amparbin who scored her as highly effective during teacher evaluations.
There is a science, a body of knowledge germane to teaching students but Leveridge goes beyond that, Amparbin said. Her ability to connect with students and help them own their learning sets her apart.
“We often don’t see ourselves as others see us,” he said. “She touches each student to help them see their own light, helping them grow a little more.”
He describes what happens in her class like driving down the NJ Parkway South and looking at the flowers in bloom.
“They are all different, yet they all blossom,” Amparbin said, noting how flowers need to be nurtured to grow. “The students are her flowers. They are all different, yet beautiful because they’re still flowers.”
Leveridge admits that she was not the best teacher starting out 11 years ago, but committed to being her best for her students.
She experiments with learning styles so every student has a chance to succeed and implement strategies to keep students engaged. She also has an open door communication policy for parents, encouraging parents to visit or call.
“I try to build the student as a whole person. I see them progress in their maturity as human beings, maturity in their reading levels, the questions they ask and their effort,” said Leveridge.
Amparbin particularly praises her ability to connect learning to real life.
In her classroom, Leveridge turns to her students and asks, "What would happen if someone forgot to strap themselves in on a rollercoaster ride?"
She uses the question to help students understand that when writing about what they read, using text to support their arguments is crucial so that the reader can follow along smoothly from beginning to end.
“When making a claim about a text, you have to take a seat,” she said, grabbing a chair with a book bag strapped to the back. She called one of her students who isn't very tall, to the front of the class.
“When you give evidence, you have to put on one strap. You’re a little more secure right now but you still might fall off. The way to make sure you don't fall off is to put on that second strap," said Leveridge, demonstrating on the student.
She finishes her point as the student stands to return back to his seat.
"Now you are secure and the reader will not fall off. Even though we know he cannot get on the roller coaster because you must be at least this tall,” she said referring to the student, hovering her right hand around five feet.
The student smirked and the kids burst into laughter.