Third-grade teacher at Melrose named island’s teacher of year
Jay Juhnowski, in just his fourth year teaching at Melrose Avenue School, has been chosen as Jamestown’s 2013-14 teacher of the year. After one year of teaching fourth grade, he has been teaching third grade at Jamestown’s elementary school since 2010.
He is the third recipient of the award, which was initiated by Superintendent of Schools Marcia Lukon. Music educator Marilyn Hostetler won the award for 2011- 12, and Lawn Avenue School math teacher Nick Alfred was named top teacher in 2012-13.
According to Lukon, a teacher of the year hadn’t been identified in Jamestown for as far back as she could go in the records. She encouraged the district to get involved in the process of recognizing outstanding teachers. Criteria was established for the award, and all staff members were invited to nominate teachers. A volunteer committee was formed to review the nominations and select the teacher of the year. At first Lukon led the committee, but at this point it is a completely teacher-led effort.
“Jay is an excellent choice to represent our district,” Lukon said. “I’m proud to say that I was part of hiring him to join our faculty. He has a very positive outlook on everything. He’s focusing on what’s good here and using it to build and improve. He’s a very dedicated teacher.”
Juhnowski grew up in Warwick and went to Pilgrim High School. He attended the University of Rhode Island where he majored in elementary education. He graduated in 2005. Juhnowski began his teaching career as a substitute in North Kingstown. He currently lives in Cranston with his wife, who works for the state lottery. The couple had their first child in January.
Juhnowski recalls when he was a youngster his mother would babysit in the family home. He said he acted as a “big brother” for the day-care children. He later became a teenage mentor to his younger brother. He credits those experiences, along with his work as a youth baseball coach and umpire, with inspiring him to become a teacher.
“I was so used to being around children,” Juhnowski said. “I was comfortable around them and that made me want to work with them.”
At first Juhnowski hoped to teach at a sixth-grade level, and perhaps specialize in math. But since landing his role at Melrose, he is happy teaching third grade and said he wouldn’t change it for anything.
On a typical school day, Juhnowski will arrive before his students and get his reading and math centers set up. He has students working independently on computer assignments, and parents come in to volunteer. He meets with smaller math and reading groups that have four or five students each. He then determines which areas they need to continue to work on, and which areas they have mastered. For writing, science and social studies, he meets with his entire class, which has 17 students.
Juhnowski points to positive reinforcement as a major factor in his success as a teacher. As an example, he cites the class store that he runs. At the end of each day students earn “class cash” based on their behavior and participation. At the end of the week they can go to the class store and purchase trinkets based on the money they earned that week.
“It teaches students coin values and monetary values, and whether or not they need to save or purchase something that week,” Juhnowski said.
Juhnowski said he has enjoyed his experience teaching in Jamestown. Since it is his first full-time job, he says there are certain things that are not what he thought they’d be. But all in all, he enjoys each day. He says along with his fellow teachers, they are working hard as a district to meet the new challenges that they face, including the institution of the state’s new core curriculum.
“We’re scored on our student’s performance on different academic tests and our principal’s observation during scheduled and unscheduled visits to our classroom.”
Juhnowski said he was humbled by the award, particularly at such an early stage in his career. At the same time it made him realize that there were things he could continue to improve.
Melrose Principal Carrie Melucci was part of the hiring committee that brought Juhnowski into her school four years ago. She said he is extremely organized and structured in his teaching.
“Jay is an outstanding teacher,” Melucci said. “He is actively involved in a wide range of things at the school. He has been an active member of the school improvement team. He is very kind and patient with his students. Jay is very creative as well, and he has a natural ability to keep his students attentive, engaged and always learning. I’m really excited for him. It’s well deserved.”
The names of the local winners are submitted to the Rhode Island Department of Education for statewide consideration. Participation in the state competition is optional because it involves a good deal of extra work for a teacher. Juhnowski anticipates doing the necessary work.
He is designated as the 2014 winner locally because by the time the statewide winner is announced, it will be next year. The state’s teacher of the year becomes eligible for national consideration.