Retired Montclair schools principal Cheryl Hopper hugs Watchung School teacher Drury Thorp, in the dark dress, a 2023 Judy Weston Awards for Inspired Teaching winner. (HAZEL AIELLO/STAFF)

The 2023 Judy Weston Awards for Inspired Teaching honored Montclair teachers Thursday, June 1, celebrating those who stand out as creative, talented, supportive, inspired and inspiring.

Josh and Judy Weston established the Judy and Josh Weston Awards for Excellence in Teaching in 1991, and they ran until 2016. The awards, now administered by the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence, honor Judy Weston’s memory. She died in 2020.

Parents, guardians and students nominated teachers through written, video and audio submissions, and the selection committee met throughout May to review the more than 300 nominations. The nominees were evaluated in three core areas – teaching that facilitates impactful learning experiences, teaching that supports all students and teaching that creates a caring classroom culture.

“Teaching is by far the hardest and most vital job in our society,” Masiel Rodriquez-Vars, executive director of the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence, said at the beginning of the awards ceremony. “As you’ll see tonight, we are so blessed here in Montclair to have a deep bench of incredible educators.”

In late May, the selection committee announced 16 winners, each to receive an individual cash award of $2,000.

At the ceremony, with about 120 people in attendance, Rodriquez-Vars thanked the Westons for their generosity and shared a remembrance of Judy Weston.

“Judy was indeed the heart and soul of these awards,” Rodriquez-Vars said. “We believe that her spirit lives on in the work of all of the professional and passionate teachers who were nominated, and those who are receiving the awards tonight.”

The Westons moved to Montclair a long time ago, before anyone in the crowd was even born, Josh Weston said during the awards ceremony. He was joined by his daughter Heather Weston. Judy and Josh Weston’s four children attended and graduated from the Montclair public schools.

Josh Weston shares the origin of the 2023 Judy Weston Awards for Inspired Teaching during the awards ceremony. Masiel Rodriquez-Vars, executive director of the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence, stands behind Weston. (HAZEL AIELLO/STAFF)

“It was terrific, and it was terrific for only one reason – the teachers,” Josh Weston said. “I’m glad we’re having this ceremony, and I look forward to the years to come to continue to do it.”

Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds thanked the Westons and welcomed the crowd.

“I’m inspired to be here, and I’m inspired to celebrate our honorees,” Ponds said.

Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo thanked the Westons on behalf of the township.

“To read all of these nominations – and not just the winners here but all of those who are nominated – it is so reassuring to know that our kids are in the hands of these incredible people,” Rodriquez-Vars said. “Montclair, we are in really good hands.”

Retired Montclair schools principal Cheryl Hopper presented Karja Longmore, Hillside School ELA and social studies resource instruction teacher, with her award, one of 12 awards given by school – one teacher from each school received an award, with two awards going to the high school. Hopper was a member of the selection committee.

“In the words of one of your young students, ‘You get kids, you just get kids,’” Hopper said. “You believe in them. You give them confidence, and you see their potential.”

Students who have previously struggled with reading leave Longmore’s class with a “newfound confidence and a genuine love for it,” Hopper said.

The reading strategies that Longmore teaches students stick with them far beyond her classroom, and students reported they were still using them in middle school.

Longmore also teaches her students a mantra: “I am kind. I am smart. I am tough. I am enough. I’ve got talent, and to top it all off, I’m pretty good looking and I’m loved in every way. Today is going to be a great day.”

“Who wouldn’t believe in themselves when you teach them to affirm themselves each day?” Hopper said.

Longmore also works to connect with the parents of her students, and she gives advice to help aid in students’ learning.

“To echo the words of another parent, ‘Ms. Longmore deserves every teaching award there is, as she is that type of teacher you remember when you are an adult,’” Hopper said. “‘The teacher that changed your life for the better, the teacher that guided you to a road you never thought possible to travel.’”

Lora Orta, the Montclair school district’s teacher of the deaf, won the special education teacher award, part of the 2023 Judy Weston Awards for Inspired Teaching. Orta, right, is seen here signing thank you in American Sign Language, alongside Heather Weston, daughter of Judy and Josh Weston. (HAZEL AIELLO/STAFF)

Naomi Wallace, teen director at the YMCA of Montclair, presented Peter Lentini, a Buzz Aldrin Middle School special education teacher, with one of three at-large awards given during the night. Wallace was a member of the selection committee.

Lentini “supports his students holistically, academically, socially and emotionally,” Wallace said.

During his study skills classes, he ensures his students understand concepts and keeps them on task.

“You aren’t just an important source of academic support,” Wallace said to Lentini. “We all know how hard the middle school years can be for kids. Many of your students struggle with anxiety, especially coming out of the pandemic, and your students and their parents call you a friend, a listening ear.”

In their nomination, one parent described Lentini as the “trusted adult my son goes to when he has any questions and the glue who holds everything together for these kids.”

“Your classroom is called a calm safe space full of humor where everyone is accepted,” Wallace said. “You are changing students’ lives during one of the most formative periods in their lives.”

Wallace also presented Lora Orta, the district’s teacher of the deaf, with the special education teacher award.

“Your dedication and passion for your profession and your kids is evident to anyone who meets you,” Wallace said.

While Orta’s job is to teach children who are deaf, she goes far beyond that – Orta teaches next to general education teachers, showing them how to implement American Sign Language in their classrooms.

“It looks like providing simple signs such as yes, no, save and bathroom to facilitate improved classroom management,” Wallace said. “It looks like providing ASL numbers alongside math teaching to help children count beyond 10 on their hands, something we can’t do in English.”

Orta is “constantly thinking” of how ASL can support all students, Wallace said.

“You have a vision for creating a space where all students can thrive, and you make sure they do that,” Wallace said.

Award winners by school

Scott Berman, Glenfield Middle School
Jessica Buel, Montclair High School
Marcie Chanin, Bradford Elementary School
Diana Chicaleski, Buzz Aldrin Middle School
Kersy Corporan, Montclair High School
Shawn David Dey, Northeast Elementary School
Corrine Haggerty, Edgemont Montessori Elementary School
Satin Jordan, Renaissance at Rand Middle School
Karja Longmore, Hillside Elementary School
Maria Martire, Nishuane Elementary School
Drury Thorp, Watchung Elementary School
Jennifer Woschinko, Charles H. Bullock Elementary School

At-large award winners

Rachel Dunn, Renaissance at Rand Middle School
Peter Lentini, Buzz Aldrin Middle School
Katie Piller, Watchung Elementary School

Special education award winner
Lora Orta, teacher of the deaf, Montclair Public Schools

For a full list of all teachers nominated for the award, please visit the MFEE website.

— Talia Wiener/Montclair Local