Secaucus Middle School math teacher and Kean University graduate Toni Ann Palmisano likes to remind her students that math wasn’t always her strong suit. Inspired by her own 7th and 8th grade math teacher, who “always pushed me to the max,” Palmisano built confidence and persistence to find answers, and followed in her teacher’s footsteps; connecting with students through hands-on activities and even catchy songs about Pi and other math concepts.

 

 

Palmisano ’09 and her Math Class 

The innovative approach has paid off, with student test scores rising every year during her tenure. It also earned her national attention. In December, Palmisano’s was recognized with the Milken Educator award. Described as the “Oscars of Teaching” by Teacher magazine, the prestigious award honored 44 early- to mid-career secondary school teachers across the U.S. for their innovation in the classroom.. The Milken awards have no formal nomination or application process, relying on a confidential selection process in which candidates are reviewed by state-based blue-ribbon panels.


“I like mistakes, and I tell my students that I make mistakes and I welcome them.”

 

“(Palmisano’s) service to her students truly embodies a focus on the whole-child as she brings context to the content and ensures each and every student develops the knowledge and skills to follow his/her dream,” said New Jersey Commissioner of Education, Kimberley Harrington, in a press release announcing the award. Growing up in Bayonne, New Jersey, Palmisano always knew she wanted to be a teacher, and described herself as a “teacher’s pet” as she helped her teachers with extra projects after finishing her work. “I loved having an important role in the classroom,” she recalled.

She began at Secaucus Middle School as a student teacher, transitioning full-time after graduation in 2009. After getting her first year under her belt, she enrolled in the Educational Administration master’s program at Kean University’s Nathan Weiss Graduate College. Palmisano said Kean’s emphasis on hands-on experience and use of technology, rather than solely focusing on theory, gave her an innovative and practical foundation she could readily implement in her classes. The diversity of students in the graduate program – from young teachers like herself, to seasoned educators and administrators – provided keen insights that continue to resonate and guide her approach today.

 

Toni Ann Palmisano winning the Miliken Educators Award

 

Despite juggling a demanding job and extracurricular activities, Palmisano said she always looked forward to her classes at Kean. “It was so motivating to have all those positive social interactions with professionals who had such a wide variety of experience,” she said. Although her master’s degree prepared her for future roles as a supervisor or principal, Palmisano said she doesn’t intend to give up working with students; with plans instead to continue her work instilling confidence in her students, promoting her love of numbers, and even, encouraging mistakes.

“I like mistakes, and I tell my students that I make mistakes and I welcome them,” she said. “My classroom is a place for open communication so that I can get the best I can out of every individual.” Palmisano’s dedication extends beyond her classroom. In addition to assisting with extracurricular activities like the student government and school yearbook, she mentors novice teachers and helps develop the district’s math curriculum. “I’m always looking for different ways to pull out a love for math,” she said. “I still have high schoolers come back and say, I still remember those songs.” Months later, Palmisano says she is still speechless about winning the Milken Educator award, which came with a $25,000 prize, and includes membership in the national Milken Educator Network; a group of more than 2,700 top teachers, principals and specialists who act as a resource to those dedicated to strengthening education.

“To see my students and fellow colleagues give me a standing ovation was just incredible,” she said. “I really don’t feel like I work a day in my life because the kids really keep me going. I’m passionate about what I do, and I’m so thankful and blessed.”