When Leah Jerome, a history teacher at Pascack Valley Regional High School, learned she had been named Bergen County Teacher of the Year for 2019–2020, the two-time Fordham graduate decided it was a call to action.
“It was very humbling and … certainly an acknowledgement of what I had done, but for me, it was like, ‘OK, so now what?’” Jerome said. “I figured, if I’m going to represent Bergen County in this capacity, I need to know what’s going on in Bergen County.”
Jerome, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Fordham College Rose Hill in 2007 and a master’s degree at the Graduate School of Education two years later, had an idea that she would visit teachers from each of the 76 public school districts in Bergen County, New Jersey. She wanted to learn about some of the innovative projects they were bringing to their classrooms, and share their insights and creativity with the community.
The question was, how?
“I can’t just bombard a teacher and say, ‘Hey, can I come visit you?’ I have to bring them something,” she said. “Then it came to me—coffee, everybody likes coffee or some variation of a warm beverage.”
That’s how the idea for the web series Teachers in Classrooms Drinking Coffee was born—inspired by the Jerry Seinfeld show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
Visiting 76 School Districts: #Mission76
Putting the idea into practice took some logistical planning, she said, but she managed to secure a sponsorship from Dunkin’ Donuts, and she hasn’t had a hard time finding teachers willing to talk with her on camera.
By late January, Jerome was already up to her 34th interview in the series.
Her plan is to finish visiting all 76 districts by May, when she is scheduled to deliver the keynote speech at the County Teacher of the Year Luncheon, where she plans to share some of the success stories she’s heard from her fellow teachers.
“I want to celebrate what I’ve seen going on in the county, and I think then I will have served the position well if I can report back on what’s actually going on in Bergen County schools,” she said.
On January 29, she stopped to visit Tara Mizzoni, a fourth grade teacher in Rochelle Park, a district about 20 minutes away from Pascack Valley.
Mizzoni was happy to tell Jerome of her experience working with 49 other teachers across the United States to launch a postcard project to help fourth graders learn from each other about the geography, culture, and fun facts of other states.
“We wrote to them and we introduced New Jersey,” she said, and so far, they’ve heard from students in about 40 other states.
Besides teaching the students about each of the states, the project has introduced some of them to letter writing and receiving mail.
“Every day [the students ask], ‘Do we have mail, do we have mail?’” Mizzoni said. “And it’s so interesting because they don’t get mail at home really, because of technology, so there’s now this huge passion” for the project.
In addition to wanting to understand what was happening in school districts across Bergen County, Jerome thought the project might help shine a light on the lessons teachers put together to help enhance the learning experience for their students.
So far, her journey has brought her to classrooms all over the county and showed her lessons on how “Carpool Karaoke” can be used to teach students about the intersection of history and music; how beekeeping can help students understand sustainability practices; and how a “student of the month” program, displayed near the school’s main entrance, can help boost confidence and productivity.
“The idea is to elevate the profession,” she said. “We’re trying to say, ‘Magic goes on in these classrooms.’”
Jerome said learning about other teachers’ projects inspires her in her own work. One of the ideas she came across that she’s planning to implement at Pascack Valley is a tribute to military veterans who attended the school.
Her own innovative lessons, however, helped her gain the recognition in the first place.
In January, to help her students understand the “forces of revolution,” including nationalism, and feminism, that were brewing across the globe in the early 20th century, she had her AP World History class write biographical poems about some of the key historical figures involved in these movements and present them to the class.
She’s also very involved outside of the classroom, serving as the adviser to the Asian Culture Club and One Spirit, a service club that visits South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Reservation to both volunteer with the Cheyenne River Youth Project and learn about Native American culture and history. She also runs the school’s National History Day.
In addition to being named Bergen County Teacher of the Year by the New Jersey Department of Education, Jerome has been recognized by the New Jersey Council for Social Studies, which selected her as its Secondary Teacher of the Year for 2018–2019. In 2013, she earned a James Madison Fellowship, which she used to attend Drew University to study early American history and the Constitution.
It’s this work that impressed both the school and the officials at the Department of Education, according to Pascack Valley Regional High School District Superintendent P. Erik Gundersen.
“We are proud of Leah’s compassionate, innovative, and progressive spirit,” he said in a statement. “I believe it is her work both in and out of the classroom, her dedication to her school and individual students, and her passion for social justice and history, that makes her such an exceptional educator.”
A Jesuit-Inspired Passion for Teaching
Jerome said her passion for teaching was kindled while she was still an undergraduate at Fordham.
“Fordham gave me [a]forum to explore my love of history, to be taught by true experts in their field, and to be surrounded by a community of students who shared in that passion,” she said, “to a point where I went back to Fordham for my master’s in education.”
She also credited the University for helping to form compassionate teachers, professionals who care about their work and their students. The previous teacher of the year for Bergen County, Christine Esola, FCRH ’98, is also a Fordham graduate, Jerome noted.
“Fordham’s doing something exceptional … [creating]teachers who love and value education,” she said, “and for me, Fordham was a big part of that development and growth.”
Watch Teachers in Classrooms Drinking Coffee: An Interview with Fordham Alumna Leah Jerome