Roxbury resident Danielle Kovach teaches third grade special education at Tulsa Trail Elementary School in Hopatcong, NJ and was recently named New Jersey’s 2010 “Teacher of the Year.” In her 11th year working in the Hopatcong school district, she has brought enthusiasm and dedication to her students, says Hopatcong Superintendent of Schools Dr. Charles Maranzano, Jr., and she places a high priority on high-tech education and safety. Danielle holds a B.S. degree in education and two Masters’ degrees in special education and educational technology. She and her husband are parents to three boys, Michael, Joseph, and Ryan.

We spoke with Danielle recently to find out about her career, her recognition, and educating children in New Jersey.

Q: Why did you choose to become a special education teacher?

A: In high school I volunteered at a camp in Morris County for children with disabilities, and that’s when I realized I wanted to go into special education. I also worked at a camp for children with special needs in Long Valley, NJ during college.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?

A: Children with special needs often don’t feel successful or want to come to school. The fact that I have kids who love to be here is very rewarding. It’s a place where they feel safe, and they don’t have to be ashamed of their disabilities.

Q: What are the greatest challenges you face as an educator today?

A: Working with children to find the ways they learn best, which is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You have to manipulate the pieces to find the right way. The declining budget in our state is a big hindrance: I only had $150 to spend on supplies this year, and class sizes are larger. I have to find creative ways to work with what I have. Education is at the center of everything, and it’s affected by everything—whether it’s terrorism or the economy.

Q: You’re the “technology leader” for your school. How do you utilize technology in the classroom?

A: We can’t ignore the fact that students are growing up in an age of technology. It should enhance their learning without replacing other methods, like writing or even coloring. My class does podcasts, we use Twitter (@KovachKids) and have a website, and we use our SMART Board every day. It’s basically a giant computer screen kids can manipulate; everything you can do with a mouse can be done on a SMART Board. We’re one of only two schools in New Jersey designated as a SMART Showcase School: we invite others to come learn about SMART Boards and how we use them.

Q: You’ve been awarded more than $35,000 in grants for your school and classroom. What has this funding allowed you to accomplish?

A: One of my favorite grants was for a school store, “Happy Trails.” Kids purchased items with “dollars” earned for things like sharing, helping someone else, or showing academic improvement. My students ran the store, and every week each child had a different job. It taught them work skills and fostered a sense of citizenship and community awareness. Recently I won a grant through Speed Stacks, which is a timed competition with plastic cups that stack together. They increase right- and left-brain function and hone fine motor skills, and now we hold competitions with students and their parents. I also won a contest for a $10,000 classroom makeover for “Superheroes of Safety,” a series of comic books with superheroes that my students created. We were on New Jersey Network’s “Classroom Close-up, NJ,” and I put the comic books online for parents to download.

Q: What is it about your teaching style that sets you apart?

A: I consider myself not only a teacher, but a learner: I’m a student in my classroom as much as the children are. I want to instill in them a lifelong love for learning. I’m honored and excited to serve as a representative for anyone who has made a commitment to education in our state. I try to represent the dedicated teachers who work hard every day, put in countless hours in their classrooms, and have a passion for education.

Q: What are some of your responsibilities as “Teacher of the Year”?

A: Starting this month, I’ll be taking a six-month sabbatical to travel the state and participate in activities that go along with the award. It’s kind of like being Miss America in that I have a platform: mine is child safety. I’ve taught my sons about stranger danger, but during a visit to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington, DC, I realized it’s a much bigger problem. It’s my responsibility as an educator, who comes into contact with so many children, to do something…and if “Superheroes of Safety” can keep just one child safe, then it’s all worth it.

Q: What’s the most important message you can give to parents about their child’s education?

A: Parent-teacher communication is absolutely essential. We’re in a society where most families need a dual income to survive—my husband, Mike, and I both have to work, too—so I know it’s difficult for parents to get involved in the classroom. It’s a shared responsibility between both the school and the parents to remain in contact with each other. In my classroom, I do that through our website and blog, emails to parents, and good old-fashioned phone calls. It’s not just a teacher’s job, nor is it solely a parent’s job, to educate a child. You need that collaboration and cohesiveness to make education a success.

Jennifer L. Nelson is a freelance writer from Kenilworth, NJ and a frequent contributor to New Jersey Family. All photos are courtesy of Amy Paterson/New Jersey Herald.