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Cranbury Teacher of the Year finds reward in educating youngsters

Michael Simonelli has known for a while that he would be a teacher one day.

Sitting at an outdoor table at Teddy’s Restaurant on a recent afternoon, he took a sip of ice water with lemon and reflected on the career path that brought him to the Cranbury School, where he recently was named Teacher of the Year.

“From the time I decided I wanted to go into that field, that was my direction,” said Simonelli, a math teacher at the school since 2010. “I knew I wanted to go right into teaching. I didn’t want to go into another field and then go back teaching as a second career.”

Teaching is rewarding, he said. He works with students in grades five through eight.

“I find that as they are younger and growing up, they’re still learning a lot of things,” he said. “But as they start to get to middle school, they’re starting to find out who they are going to be as people. And they are going to start molding themselves into the people they’re going to become in high school. I just wanted to be a part of that process that, hopefully, provides a good influence on them so it molds them to be the right type of person.”

Simonelli, 30, is from Bordentown. He faced adversity early in his life. He grew up with a heart condition, prolonged QT syndrome, which meant he had to give up organized sports when he was a sixth-grader.

“It was rough at the time,” he said in recalling the experience.

In the classroom, he “tried to be a good student to the best of my ability.” He pointed to the impact his middle school math teacher, Chris Glenn, had on him. As an eighth-grader, he was struggling with algebra at the time.

“But there was just something about the way he taught me, the way he helped me when I needed it, the interactions I had with him that left a lasting impression on me,” Simonelli said.

When he was younger, Simonelli said, he thought he wanted to be an architect. Being unable to play sports in high school, he volunteered his sophomore year in an after-school program in Bordentown helping younger students with their homework and playing games with them.

“That’s honestly really where it came from,” he said when asked if that experience was what led him into teaching. “I guess, at the time, I was doing well in math and just started putting the two together and life started guiding me in that direction.”

He majored in math and education at Ramapo College, Mahwah, and earned his bachelor’s degree in 2009. He student-taught for three months in Bordentown after graduation. Looking back, he recalled the scary feeling realizing he eventually would be running a class of middle school students.

“It’s terrifying at first,” he said with a laugh. “Then you start working a little bit with the kids, you start getting to know them. It makes them more comfortable, it makes you more comfortable.”

From there he accepted a job at Allentown High School, from January to June 2010, filling in for a teacher on maternity leave. Later in 2010, he was hired as a math teacher in Cranbury, a place he has no plans to leave.

“That’s my goal,” Simonelli said. “I would absolutely love to stay here. I’m not one who wants to jump around (and) go to a new school. I don’t do that. I love it here.”

He called winning the Teacher of the Year award a “humbling” experience. The peer-nominated award is given annually and Simonelli learned in April that he had won it.

“The staff I work with is fantastic,” he said.

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