The Art of Teaching: Conversations with Trenton Educators

Written by
Cammie Lee '22, TAP Summer Correspondent
Aug. 31, 2020

We often unintentionally use alienating language when we talk about the masters in the art world, describing successful artists as gifted and talented, or emphasizing how they were prodigies in their youth. While our words for artists certainly ring with praise, they also depict creativity as an exclusively innate skill--something inherited and not earned through diligence. This mentality dismisses the many hours of hard work that artists often put into their masterpieces, and we end up misattributing the genius of a piece to mere natural talent, rather than the combination of talent and hard work.

Psychologists have pointed out that after a certain point, practice isn’t enough to supplant the mystique of genius. However, this is true for all disciplines in which we measure human performance--not just in art. In spite of the universality of genius, Americans neglect to respect the hard work of artists despite readily recognizing the similarly hard work of a scientist or doctor. As a result, the arts are often woefully undervalued in American society, best exemplified in how they are the first to be cut from public schools.

Teachers face similar challenges as artists. In the United States, teachers are paid less than 60% of the salaries of similarly educated individuals, indicating that teaching is not regarded as highly as other professions. Yet despite how we undervalue teaching as a profession, we disproportionately demand so much from our teachers, expecting them to provide emotional support and guidance and casting them in roles that extend far beyond that of academics. Only after the pandemic separated our students from their teachers did we fully begin to understand the imbalance between how we value our teachers and what we ask of them.

Due to the ways in which our culture now regards both the arts and teaching, arts programs are barely surviving in many public schools. Yet against all odds, educators in Trenton are working to ensure that the arts remain essential to their students’ education through both arts integration and professional training programs. 

In a series of interviews, I spoke with the Trenton educators who collaborate with TAP to facilitate our Saturday Morning Arts program. Through our conversations, I came to realize that they treat teaching as an art form in itself, investing as much time and care into their teaching practice as their own artistic practices. Many, although not all, also grew up in the Trenton area, and have very personal connections to their community. In our conversations, each of them expressed a deep commitment to arts education, a passion for their particular art form, and a desire to support their students in their development--not just as artists, but also as young adults graduating from adolescence. 

ALAN WILKINS is the General Music Teacher at Hedgepeth-Williams Middle School of the Arts, and the Teacher Partner for Trenton Youth Singers. He grew up singing and playing saxophone in church, and went on to study Instrumental Music and Jazz Performance at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where he entered a five-year program to obtain his Master's degree in Music Education. His mother was a teacher in the Trenton school district, and inspired Wilkins to pursue his current teaching position at Hedgepeth-Williams.

“My philosophy as an educator is that I want to bring what I do in life, in the real world, to the classroom so that the kids can have an authentic learning experience. Why not do what I do, and do that in the classroom so the kids can gain actual experience? I definitely wanted a studio in my school, which we do have now, and we’ve been able to get the kids in the studio and record a couple of things. You know, kids are super into hip-hop and rap culture, and I’ve got many kids who like to sing as well. That was one of the experiences I wanted to bring into the classroom. I wanted to teach them something that they could work towards, so that they can work for themselves--not necessarily giving them information just to give it to them because I want to give them busy work, but I want them to actually get something out of this so that if they decide one day, 'I want to record,' they know how to do it, and can make some money doing it.

“One of the things I like about my school--it has a family environment. As soon as you walk in, there’s a difference in the atmosphere. We’re nice people, we care about things being right for our students. My principal--she does everything she can for the students. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re there for--we’re there for the students, so whatever we can do to bring some experiences to the students, whether it be resources, help, whatever the case may be, a field trip, whatever it is, that’s there for the students. That’s what I like about where I work at, and that’s what allows me to do what I need to do as a teacher, as an educator.”

DANIEL HALL is the Instrumental Music Teacher at Hedgepeth-Williams and the Teacher Partner for Trenton Youth Singers. He comes from a musical background, and specializes in trombone and low brass, performing everything from concert band to classical. He double majored in Music and Computer Science at Columbia Union College, and is currently completing his Master's degree in Education. Hall has performed with Mary J. Blige, Beyonce, and Aretha Franklin, and continues to perform on Broadway and on television even now.

“When I was growing up, I was very inspired by people coming in to do live music at the school. As a teen, we were very close to New York--these musicians would come perform at assemblies, and so you would see these jazz giants. Well now you fast forward to when I got there in 2017, in Trenton that’s not going to work. My parents took us to concerts. Now the concerts are on YouTube. And even that, they’re music videos and videos are different from concerts. So what I had to do immediately was put myself out there and show [my students] what I did. So every once in a while, I would be like, 'This is me on TV.' Of course they would ask, ‘How much money did you make? Why are you teaching?’ And I would tell them all the time, 'Well the reason I teach is because my teacher was the one who made music cool for me, and he found a way to bridge the gap. I want to bridge the gap for you guys.' And that makes it fun for me, to find a way to bridge the gap. 

“I realized with the kids in Trenton, my kids, especially at the very beginning, they look at music as out of touch, corny, nerdy--that’s how they perceived the music teachers, instrumental music, ensemble playing. So I was like, 'How can I make it fun?' And of course, every couple years, that changes--the focal point to make music fun.  If I make [teaching] about the kids first, then when I want to teach them the 'traditional' way, it will make more sense to them. Instead of straight out of the gates saying, 'We’re going to learn this, because that’s what I learned and that’s what the person before me learned and so and so forth,' I just literally say, 'Let’s do what you know how to do first, and I’ll meet you halfway.' That gives them a sense of ownership."

ELIZABETH ZWIERZYNSKI is the founding dance educator within the Trenton district, currently teaches dance at Trenton Central High School, and serves as the Teacher Partner for Trenton Youth Dancers. She obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from Rutgers University, initially with a focus in performance and choreography, but ultimately ended up enrolling in a five-year program to obtain her Master's degree in Dance Education. Zwierzynski helped build the dance program at TCHS from the ground up, and is also interested in expanding the school’s arts integration program.

“There is an acknowledgement that Trenton is an urban district. I think initially in taking my position in Trenton I didn’t reflect or have enough experience yet to recognize why, or how or does that matter to my teaching practice, and you know--certainly people in their pedagogical training study urban education and what are the specific needs to those populations. I can’t say that was super central to my practice, I’ve always just wanted to teach dance and the end goal was to be in a public school to have a space to do that. I remember when interviewing people would ask, 'Well how is teaching dance different in an urban school district?' and initially, the answer is, it is and it isn’t. What feels universal is the fact that every child everywhere should have access to dance education. And I do think that’s especially important when you’re teaching in a community where students don’t have that access to afford arts lessons.

“On the other side of things, addressing teaching in an urban district is also just--for me, unlearning about what I thought the norms of education were, or reframing that this is different, and really thinking about how true mentorship is incorporated into education. To me, my definition of what a teacher is has been much more holistic. I think most of us arts teachers, not just myself, have the opportunity to track students through their whole time within our school building, and I think that’s such a unique opportunity to really think about how we’re educating the whole child; how we’re just being facilitators of their developmental growth, and quite frankly that’s one of my favorite things about seeing my students for the three years is seeing that arc of how they change and grow and develop into who they’ve always intended to be."

FELICIA BROWN is the Career and Technical Education General Theater Teacher at Central Trenton High School and the Teacher Partner for Trenton Youth Theater. During her college years, she taught theater and performed in Costa Rica, Kenya, Egypt, Brazil, and Slovakia, and received two Master’s degrees in Theater Studies and Arts Administration. Before teaching at Trenton, she taught at Life Center Academy in Burlington, New Jersey, where she helped rebuild the theater program. This year, Brown will also be joining the boards of the Ritz Theatre Company and the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, for which she will serve as regional programming chair.

“My philosophy is very simple: theater is in everything, and everything is in theater. I say that to everybody all the time. Because every single subject that’s taught, you can use theater in some way shape or form. Whether you’re dealing with science, and you have lighting; if you’re dealing with physics, then you really start to get into some serious design elements; if you’re dealing with chemistry, it depends on the various props you might need; if you’re dealing with biology, oh goodness. Just dealing with the human body alone for theater purposes is its own biological experiment. Same thing with math, how that’s used in set design, and the angles in which we use for designing lighting. When you look at history, you can totally understand cultures all around the world through their theater that they have produced throughout history. I mean, most of what we know about Ancient Greek history, where does it come from? Greek plays. It’s amazing--absolutely amazing and profound work that has been done for millennia.

“So looking at all of those different elements; looking at theater from the literary perspective…even all other art forms are in theater. That’s why I say: theater is in everything and everything is in theater. I think a lot of people don’t realize that, and one of the things I’m working on at the school is arts integration, and I tell people, we’re the easiest art form to integrate into your class. Theater is the one thing that could possibly unite the school in a way that no one ever thought of before.”

JOSEPH PUCCIATTI has been the Instrumental Music Teacher at Trenton Central High School and conductor of the school orchestra since the 1990’s. He also serves as the Teacher Partner for Trenton Youth Orchestra. He grew up playing piano, engaging with a wide variety of music genres including jazz, rock, disco, and classical. Influenced by his multi-genre background, Pucciatti arranges many pop, jazz, and Broadway songs for his students to perform. A few years ago, under his baton, the TCHS orchestra represented Mercer County in the NJ State Teen Arts Festival. Pucciatti also founded the Boheme Opera New Jersey with his wife, which frequently hosts singers from the Metropolitan Opera.

“I just care about what I do, and I just want the kids to be the very very best they can possibly be. I have no 25-letter word philosophy, I’m not going to give you a big definition or something like that. I do what I do because I like to do it, and I care about what I do and I care about the kids, and I treat the kids as I would treat professional musicians: with respect. That’s what this is all about. I treat them as though I would treat a first violinist in the opera orchestra.

“When I take those kids out to play, I insist--and I know this doesn’t sound like much--that they get fed. I can’t begin to tell you how many times they’ve been asked to play because some organization is too cheap to go out and hire a professional group. They come in and they say, 'Oh can the high school kids play? We’d love to give them an opportunity.' Well, yeah, yes they will come in and play but the opportunity has to be: the kids have to be fed. Sometimes we ask for donations. When you invite these kids out to play, they’ve got to get something out of it. Not just the glory of going out and playing--but something. Even if it’s dinner. A certificate. Something, to acknowledge that they’re there giving up their time after school, until 8 or 9 o’clock at night. That to me is paramount. We talk about this all the time: music can work for you, you can make money playing music.”

ANDREW SEABERT is the Teacher Leader for the Visual Arts Small Learning Community at Trenton Central High School, and previously served as the Visual Arts Teacher. As Teacher Leader, he aims to find connections between the different arts departments, as well as looking for partnerships that provide opportunities for the students to explore different pathways. Seabert has a background in the visual arts as well as theater tech, and obtained his Master's degree in Education from Rider University. He and his wife also run a jewelry shop together during the summertime.

“The question I get more than any other is: ‘What’s that like, being a teacher in Trenton?’ As if I’m crossing into some weird anomaly of existence. I got to the point where I would say, 'I work with crazy people all the time but the kids are great.' Stuff like that, giving them some kind of smart-ass answer. But ultimately, there’s that perception. So yeah, I’ve had to watch students get buried because they were shot and died. I’ve had to see those things, and that’s always tragic and that’s not something that teachers in other districts might run into. But that’s only happened maybe a couple times in my entire career. I get to see plenty more kids go off to college, go off and have families, do this, that or the other, just like anybody else out of the city would.

“There’s always going to be that negative perception, I think; I don’t see that changing anytime soon, but I think for teachers who don’t want to teach in the inner city or an urban district, or feel afraid to go into a place like that, I think they’re missing an opportunity to find out something different about themselves that they might have never even thought of.”

TED PLUNKETT has been a music educator at TCHS for the past 32 years. He directs the high school marching band and jazz ensemble, and teaches instrumental music to both beginning and advanced students. Plunkett attended Trenton elementary, middle, and high schools. While a student at TCHS, he started a band, and after graduating, toured with his band members for four years before attending Central State University for college.

“90% of my students don’t go on to become musicians or music teachers per se. But the fact that you impart this gift of song, the gift of music--and more than that, just the gift of caring, that family, that community input--it’s really been a wonderful journey. To run into a student that you had in a string class 28 years ago and see their face just light up--that’s what teaching is really all about. And, I mean yeah, it’s the academics, it’s the ABC’s and all of that, but it’s really what we instill in someone else to go on. It brings me to tears to see some of these kids thriving with their families and children, and to know that some of what we did together is still instilled somewhere deep inside, that it’s there turning another part of their engine.

“Maya Angelou said something that was so profound, and I always go back to that. She said: 'Children and kids may not remember what you said, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.' Everyone can remember a teacher that really impressed upon you what you had, who had the ability to encourage you and inspire you. We all have that. And to be a part of that league, that fraternity, it’s a wonderful thing. I’m not looking forward to retiring, but I know that when I do I want to be able to hand the torch down to someone to come by behind us and continue the legacy on and take it to another level.”