Basile and Plawner share a passion for their second-act careers
By MADELEINE MACCAR
MONROE – Monroe Township High School may be filled with many A-plus educators, but two stood out when it was time to name the 2020-21 Governor’s Teacher of the Year and Educational Services Professional of the Year, Christina Basile and Zaharo Plawner, respectively.
The awards recognize school staff who go above and beyond for their students.
Basile is a special education teacher while Plawner is a speech therapist; they were both honored in-person during the winter and again virtually at the May 10 Board of Education meeting.
“Many of these teachers, their last names are household names, so it just goes to show you how much the students enjoy having them as teachers,” board member Andy Paluri said during the meeting.
Despite the passion and enthusiasm both bring to their jobs, Basile and Plawner were both absolutely gobsmacked when they were informed of their honors.
“They called me down and I thought I was in trouble or that someone had died in my family,” Basile said with a laugh. “I was very surprised but very honored.”
“I got a call to meet a few people in the front of the school and I really wasn’t sure what was going on,” Plawner said. “I’m an introvert so I’m uncomfortable with any sort of attention, but I was completely honored when they met me with balloons and a bouquet.”
The two share another commonality: After beginning their careers in much different environments, they followed their hearts to a second act in education, and agree it’s where they belong.
Basile “got into the corporate world by accident” via the shipping industry after being a health major in college; while Plawner studied English as an undergrad, received her master’s degree in business and switched careers in her mid-30s—with a three-month-old, she went back to school before joining the Monroe Township High School staff.
“I started volunteering with the ARC of Monmouth in 1995, and I realized I kind of had a gift with people with special needs,” Basile said, referring to the statewide nonprofit organization for people with autism, Down Syndrome and other intellectual and developmental disabilities, which has offices in all but one New Jersey counties. “So in 1998, I went back to get my special ed certification, got my teaching license and the first place I applied to was Monroe Township High School in 2001.”
“I worked in business and, even though I liked what I did, I didn’t feel like I was making a difference and I wanted to do something to give back a little bit,” Plawner said.
She added that her own verbal struggles amplify the empathy she brings to her job: While she was born in the U.S., her family moved to Greece early on and, upon their return to America when Plawner was 13, she didn’t remember a word of English.
They both agree that having work experience beyond education helps them provide hands-on insight to their high school students as they begin to consider what kind of careers they want.
“Because I have some business experience and I work with a lot of students in our Transition to Adulthood Program, where we work on a lot of vocational skills, I can help them prepare for things like job interviews,” Plawner SAID. “I also think it’s so important to help them develop those interpersonal skills, which I think is the best thing you can teach, and having experience beyond education helps me explain why students need to learn those skills.”
“I’ve been able to bring my corporate experience to my job and give kids advice,” said Basile. “We all learn from our mistakes: You can’t tell somebody what to do or how to do it, but you can give advice, and I feel like my work experience has made me a better transition instructor and structured learning experience instructor because I know what it’s like to be out in the corporate world.”
For Basile, the award is a fitting but emotional coda to her two decades at Monroe Township High School, as she’s retiring at the end of the academic year.
“After 20 years in corporate and 20 years in teaching, it’s a nice end to my working career,” she said. “But it is bittersweet, even though I figured it’s better to go out while I can still teach effectively instead of hanging around just a little too long. And COVID really brought home that life is too short, so I wanted to retire while I can enjoy it.”
Plawner, meanwhile, has been with the district for five years. She, too, is humbled by the honor but believes it’s a validation of her approach to speech therapy.
“I want to gain the trust of my students and let them know that I’m here,” she said. “What sets me apart as a therapist is working really hard to achieve the best outcomes for my students by connecting with them on a personal level, by being a team player, by dedicating lots of extra time learning the latest research in our field and simply by having fun and keeping it real.”
Both teachers have some advice to help both their fellow and future educators have a profound impact on students, not only academically but also personally, too.
“It becomes your way of life and you take every opportunity to teach,” Basile said. “You don’t do it for the money. You do it for the love of your students and because you love the work, and because you want to bring something greater to the world.”
“Nothing makes me happier thank knowing I’ve made a difference to my students,” she said.