ROSELLE PARK, NJ — When the New Jersey Department of Education announced the 2021-2022 county Teachers of the Year on Wednesday, Aug. 25, the educator chosen to receive the award for Union County was Roselle Park High School science teacher Dennis Dagounis. Dagounis said he still can’t believe it.
“It’s an honor to be named one of the county Teachers of the Year. This is something I never imagined in my wildest dreams,” Dagounis said on Friday, Sept. 3. “The thought that my peers, school administrators and students thought I was worthy of the distinct honor of Teacher of the Year at my school was amazing in and of itself, but then to be named Union County Teacher of the Year was surreal. I look forward to representing all of the wonderful, dedicated educators of Union County.
“There are so many teachers who do amazing things on a daily basis and make a difference in students’ lives,” he continued. “As educators, we can empower our students with lifelong skills that can be applied across multiple disciplines and transcend formal education. I think honors, such as the county, state and national Teacher of the Year distinctions, allow our communities to learn a little more about the wonderful things going on in our schools and individual classrooms.
“Being honored also helps teachers to see that their peers, administrators and students appreciate the hard work and dedication that goes into being an innovative educator who engages their students in real-world and authentic learning experiences. The late nights, constant revisions and never-ending tweaks and revisions are all worth it.”
According to a press release from the state, selection of the county Teachers of the Year is part of Gov. Phil Murphy’s Educator of the Year Program. The New Jersey Department of Education uses the program to promote a positive school culture by acknowledging the hard work and dedication of outstanding teachers. Individual schools are encouraged to nominate exceptional educators with diverse backgrounds, to ensure that honorees represent the ethnic and racial diversity of New Jersey. The New Jersey School Boards Association contributed to the effort and recently praised the 21 educators. As a contributor, the NJSBA provides free classroom resources to the recognized educators.
To be considered for county Teacher of the Year, nominees must be experts in their fields; inspire students of all backgrounds and abilities to learn; actively collaborate with colleagues, students and families to create a strong culture of respect and success; demonstrate leadership and innovation in educational activities at the school, district or state and national levels; and have the respect and admiration of students, parents and colleagues.
“I am someone who loves questioning, figuring things out, exploring and challenging my students to think critically,” said Dagounis. “I always knew that I had a love of science. I wondered how and why science phenomena happened and had a yearning to learn everything I could about dinosaurs, animals, and wildlife.
“One of my favorite memories of elementary school was entering the mini-inventions and innovations contest every year and working alongside my father as we tried to develop and fabricate a new and innovative product for the contest,” he continued. “This contest was the first time I can remember being presented with a problem and being asked to create a solution to the problem. Historically, science class was centered around memorization or recipe-style labs — do these steps, with these ingredients, and get results.
“I also had a wonderful teacher, Ms. Talent, who showed me the power an amazing educator can have on his/her students,” added Dagounis. “She was that teacher that always believed in her students and always pushed us to do better and more than we ever thought was possible. She served as a model teacher and unknowingly played an influential role in the development of my teaching philosophy — that all students are capable of doing great things, if they just believe in themselves and have the support to foster inquiry and problem solving.”
NJDOE spokesperson Michael Yaple said that the state Teacher of the Year is selected from the county Teachers of the Year.
“That is typically announced in October, and the state Teacher of the Year is eligible for the title of national Teacher of the Year,” Yaple said on Friday, Sept. 3. “The National Teacher of the Year Program was established in the 1950s by the Council of Chief State School Officers, and New Jersey signed on with CCSSO in 1969.”
In Dagounis’ opinion, what made him stand out among the rest of the teachers in Union County was the structure of his assessments, which took him years to develop. He said his effective method is designed to enable students to pursue their passion and demonstrate their strengths.
“Multiple-choice tests are not the best way for students to demonstrate their understanding of a topic or concept,” Dagounis said. “Students should be able to demonstrate their knowledge in ways that appeal to them. Some students love writing, others making videos and some love presenting. Project-based learning and choice boards that provide an opportunity for student choice, as well as for students to apply content in an authentic and real-world situation, help to motivate students to apply themselves and see how the content is applicable to their daily lives.
“At first, students tend to struggle a bit with this assessment method, as they enter my class with nine-plus years of traditional test and quiz experience, as they are used to one right answer,” he continued. “When I ask them to explain their thought process to me, they are baffled and confused, but once they get used to the expectations, they love explaining their claim, evidence and reasoning and engaging in thought-provoking discussions and debates with their classmates. They realize they have the ability to work through challenging situations, figure things out, challenge their assumptions, develop problem-solving skills and communicate clearly.”
Roselle Park High School Vice Principal Ellen Bachert said she is proud and grateful to have Dagounis as a teacher at Roselle Park High School.
“He is a master of his content, a lifelong learner and a leader in our building and in our school community,” said Bachert on Friday, Sept. 3. “I am thrilled that he has been recognized with this well-deserved honor. Teachers like Dennis continually challenge themselves to grow and succeed as they work to meet the ever-changing needs of their students. The commitment, energy and enthusiasm they devote to their profession should be encouraged, supported and celebrated.”
Roselle Park resident Alicia Marino, whose son, Ryan, is a former student of Dagounis, said Dagounis is the kind of science teacher who teaches outside the box and beyond the textbook.
“What makes him an exceptional teacher is the fact that he teaches more than just the importance of understanding concepts and ideas,” said Marino on Friday, Sept. 3. “He emphasizes the process of accumulating and applying information, having students experience what it’s like to research something and come to their own conclusions. He does this in fun and creative ways that truly encompasses the idea of student-driven learning. It is important for teachers like Mr. Dagounis to be highlighted in this fashion, because he really serves as a role model, not only to his students, but to his fellow teachers and community as well. The best teachers are the ones who never stop learning.”
Fellow Roselle Park science teacher Raymond Bangs said Dagounis exemplifies the concept of a teacher of the year.
“He has expert knowledge of subject-area content within and across multiple disciplines,” said Bangs on Saturday, Sept. 4. “He has a proficiency in a variety of teaching methodologies and technologies. He uses these skills to craft student-directed learning environments that engage all students in learning. He is quick to identify students who require differentiated instruction and to make accommodations to facilitate their learning. Dennis adapts to challenging teaching conditions. This has been especially evident during the past 18 months of remote learning.
“Mr. Dagounis is dedicated to his students beyond the classroom,” he continued. “He devotes time after school hours to help students who may be struggling with content or are experiencing social-emotional issues. He coaches the varsity volleyball team, advises the chess club and supports our environmental club activities.”
Photos Courtesy of Dennis Dagounis and Alicia Marino