Giving Back

Cheryl Nagel-Smiley, Dedicated Educator and Community Activist

Cheryl Nagel-Smiley Credits: Cheryl Nagel-Smiley
 Cheryl Nagel-Smiley and her son, Dr. Calvin John Smiley, at her May 21 retirement dinner. Credits: Cheryl Nagel-Smiley

SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ - South Plainfield resident Cheryl Nagel-Smiley began her career as a special education teacher in the Plainfield School District 46 years ago and last month officially retired from the district. In recognition of her years of service to the district and its children, Nagel-Smiley was honored at a retirement dinner May 21 that was attended by more than 100 friends and colleagues.

“I enjoyed every minute of every year that I have been employed in Plainfield,” said Nagel-Smiley. “I have four photo albums in chronological order of every class since 1969. I have worked with some amazing teachers, administrators, superintendents, and supervisors. I have always considered Plainfield Schools my family.” 

Nagel-Smiley went to Plainfield in 1969 and spent the first 10 years of her career teaching fifth and sixth graders at the Emerson Elementary School. In 1979, she transferred to the Hubbard Middle School where she taught sixth through eighth grade for 33 years, earning the affectionate nickname of ‘Mother Hubbard.’ In 2012, Nagel-Smiley transferred again, spending the next three years teaching third, fourth and fifth graders –including fourth grade inclusion – at the Jefferson Elementary School.

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During her tenure with the Plainfield School District, Nagel-Smiley also served on various education committees including the special education, report card, curriculum, and calendar committees. She was a New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) union representative and served continuously, as building representative, and, over the years, served as an executive officer, vice president of the Union County Education Association, Union County Representative, Assembly Delegate to NJEA, Grievance Chairperson, Membership Chairperson, and a representative to the National Education Association annual convention. Additionally, she was selected to receive the Governor's Teacher Recognition of the Year award for the 1985-1986 school year. 

Teaching, said Nagel-Smiley, was something she wanted to do at a very early age and experiences throughout her own education led her toward selecting special education.

“When I was in kindergarten in 1952, there was a girl in my class who was mentally challenged and, at that time, there were no special education classes. I still remember the torment that poor girl went through. It was horrible and I always felt sorry for her,” she said, noting that a similar situation also occurred in high school with another classmate who had a learning disability. “These children stuck in my mind and I knew I wanted my career to be in special education.”

Special education, however, was handled much different when Nagel-Smiley accepted the job in Plainfield more than four decades ago. There were no inclusion classes and special education students were not integrated with the general education population.

“Special education classes began a half hour later and ended a half hour earlier. Students ate in the classroom. I taught everything – all common core subjects plus art, music and physical education,” Nagel-Smiley said.

During her second year of teaching, Nagel-Smiley began to mainstream the district’s special education students, becoming one of the first teachers in New Jersey to do so. Additionally, from 2002 through 2012, she organized an Intergenerational Program with her class and the senior citizen residents at Plainfield Tower West. The students and seniors met once a month and, in doing so, helped bridge the gap between the generations.

“It is important that special education students are included with their peers. It gives them a sense of belonging and helps with their self image and self esteem,” she said. “Working together is healthier for all. It prepares everyone for the real world.”

During the 2014-2015 school year – Nagel-Smiley’s last in the Plainfield School District –things came full circle when she taught an inclusion class of 24 students, including eight with special needs. “The 24 kids worked so beautifully together. The district really gave me the best for last,” she said, noting that she made the difficult decision to retire based on the many changes occurring within the New Jersey State Department of Education, both academically and financially.

Nagel-Smiley had 17 years of perfect attendance as a teacher in Plainfield and when she retired received payment for the maximum of 250 unused personal illness days; she lost 135 days and the district would not let her give some of them to other teachers in need. “I never really took any time off from work and, even back when I was in school myself, hardly missed a day,” she said. “It’s the way I was raised. My father used to say ‘if your feet can hit the floor then you’re going to school.’ For me, it was about being responsible.”

Nagel-Smiley was born and raised in Cliffside Park and lived in Lodi before settling in South Plainfield 25 years ago. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Jersey City State College, a master of education from Trenton State College and a Principal/Supervisor Certification from Kean College. She is the proud mother of Dr. Calvin John Smiley, an assistant professor of sociology at Montclair State University who also serves as an adjunct professor at CUNY’s Hunter and John Jay colleges.

In addition to being dedicated to her job, Nagel-Smiley has also been extremely active and involved in the South Plainfield community. When her son was young, she served as an assistant den leader for Cub Scouts and volunteered her time to the Tiger Sharks Swim Team for 20 years. She also served on the advisory board at Sacred Heart School (now Holy Savior Academy) for a year and assisted with the church’s program for adults seeking to convert to Catholicism for four years. These days, she remains involved with Sacred Heart’s Prayer Shawl group, crocheting blankets and shawls for the critically ill, homeless and unwed mothers.

Nagel-Smiley also served as a Democratic Committeewoman for close to a decade, is involved with Friends of the South Plainfield Public Library and sat on the library board for nine years – she served as the mayor’s representative for four years (2001-2004) and then as a trustee from 2005 to 2010. Earlier this year Mayor Matt Anesh reappointed her to the board as his rep and she also serves as chairperson of the library’s community relations committee where she is involved with the construction of the new library.

“I am very much looking forward to the grand opening. It is something I have always wanted to see and have been waiting for,” Nagel-Smiley said, adding that she has been utilizing the library since her son was little and still visits several times a week.

Although now retired, Nagel-Smiley has no plans to sit home bored. Come March – 180 calendar days after the start of the 2015-2016 school year – she can return to the Plainfield School District as a volunteer. “I love the kids so as soon as I can I will go back in and volunteer,” she said. “I want to visit, read to them, help out at Jefferson’s after school program. I just want to go in and have fun with the kids.”

In the meantime, Nagel-Smiley has plenty to keep her busy and said she is looking forward to doing some of the things she couldn't while working full-time. Among them is visiting her sister in Germany, working on her garden, and making pickles and breads and crocheting baby blankets for the Passaic County Historical Society’s craft show in November.

“I want to keep myself busy. I am definitely not the type to sit around,” Nagel-Smiley said, adding that she prides herself on taking after her late father when it comes to giving back and being involved. “My father’s attitude was always help your neighbor and I think that is where I got my dedication to helping the community.”

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