The Governor’s Educator of the Year Program is run annually and recognizes educators of the year by district, county, and state. Dennis Dagounis CC’01 was named 2021-2022 Teacher of the Year for Union County on August 25, 2021. Among the 200,000 teachers in the state, Dennis was one of 21 lucky county award recipients.
His passion for teaching was molded by his experience as a student at Cook College more than 20 years ago. He recently shared with us his path to becoming a teacher and mentor for high school students.
What brought you to Rutgers/Cook College and to studying Nutritional Sciences?
Cook College, as SEBS was known at the time, provided the opportunity to stay in state and study science with a wide variety of majors to choose from. It was obvious, during the college tour I was on, that Cook was a small community that felt like home. The professors and deans knew the students by name and even played intramural sports with them. It afforded me the benefits of being in a small, tight-knit community yet with all the opportunities that a large university has to offer.
I started as a biology major but switched to nutrition because I liked the fact that nutritional science was an application of biology concepts. As a student, I liked to see the connections between the concepts and the application and, as a teacher, I enjoy providing my students with the same connections as well.
When did you realize you wanted to teach? Why high school? Did your time at Cook help to mold this desire?
My mother always thought I would make a good teacher. She was very influential in that decision. At the time, Cook College offered a small program that produced science teachers. The kindness and direction of those professors heavily influenced my desire to pursue education. Days before I was to begin my student teaching assignment, I was very anxious and told one of my professors I just couldn’t do it and I would be leaving the program. He looked me in the eyes and said, “You will be fine. You will do it. You will succeed and you will love it. I have confidence in you.” I’m sure he had this conversation with many students, but his calming nature put me at ease. The rest was history!
During my junior year, we were encouraged to visit elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. For me, high school was where I felt comfortable. I like being able to see the students grow from freshmen to seniors and foster relationships with them through chess club, coaching (volleyball), and academics.
How do you approach the educational process with your students?
I believe that in order for students to develop lifelong skills, such as problem solving, collaboration, perseverance, and a growth mindset, educators must design learning experiences that are student-centered and exploratory in nature. Our projects and lessons should mimic real life and provide students with an opportunity to think critically and problem solve. We should help students understand that there are a myriad of “correct” answers and when we “fail,” we actually succeed if we learn from our mistakes. Real world assignments enable students to work collaboratively to investigate concepts, apply problem solving techniques, and use claim/evidence/reasoning (CER) to demonstrate their thought process.
In my classes, students spend time researching and analyzing data in teams/pairs to solve a problem or make sense of a scenario or situation. They are also provided with a choice of how to demonstrate their learning. For example, for specific projects, they have the ability to write a paper, create a video, develop a computer program or however else they choose to demonstrate their understanding of the topic. I find when students are allowed to interact with the content in ways that appeal to their interests and abilities, they are able to develop and demonstrate a stronger grasp of the concepts.
Were there any faculty or staff members at Cook you found especially influential?
The faculty at Cook College was incredible. Every student has a story or fond memory of Dr. Clark, Dr. Hamilton, Dr. DeBoer, Dean Schneider, or Dean Levy. They all helped shape our minds and futures while we were there. However, Dr. Hans Fisher was extremely helpful to me during my personal journey through college. I was part of his research team, and he made me feel like an integral part. He provided me with a voice and an opportunity to work on my own projects during my time in his lab. I was only supposed to work with a professor for one semester, however, I stayed on as part of Dr. Fisher’s team for many years. Years later, when Dr. Fisher retired from Rutgers, I was surprised and honored that he invited me to his retirement party.
What is your favorite memory from your time at Cook?
Throughout my time at Cook College, I made many lifelong friends. The memories I carry with me from our time there until now are my fondest memories. I have traveled the world, gotten married, and participated in marathons and Ironman competitions with these friends by my side. I owe these treasured friendships to the community and culture that was established at Cook. One of our favorite traditions is Ag Field Day (now part of Rutgers Day). Every year, we meet up and gather around Passion Puddle with our families and reminisce about our college days.
How did it feel to win the District Teacher of the Year and the County Teacher of the Year awards?
It was an honor to be named Teacher of the Year at Roselle Park High School. To know I had colleagues, former students, and current students that thought I was worthy of being named teacher of the year was wonderful. Some of my former students shared their letters with me after the fact. To see the kind words and the impact I had on their lives means the world to me. Winning Union County Educator of the Year was shocking, as I know there are so many strong, dedicated, and amazing educators across the county. Those named County Educator of the Year are asked to hold professional development sessions for teachers around New Jersey and to be an advocate for teachers in general. The New Jersey public education system is always ranked top in the nation. That is a testament to our teachers, so to say the competition is tough is an understatement.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Since leaving Cook College, I have traveled to many places around the world. I have fished piranha out of the Amazon River, walked a tiger in Thailand, sat at the foot of the Great Pyramids in Egypt, and walked the Great Wall of China when I was asked to speak at a STEM Education conference in Wenzhou, China with my wife and fellow educator, Danielle (a Rutgers Graduate School of Education alumna), and other NJ STEM educators. These experiences have helped me connect with my diverse student population at Roselle Park. I am proud of the work I have done as an educator. I love teaching and I love sharing my knowledge with current and future educators.
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