NEWARK — Walk into Brian Klasner’s classroom and odds are, you won’t find him sitting at his desk or lecturing at the front — he’ll be among his students.
On Tuesday, when a dozen school administrators, members of the media and fellow colleagues surprised Klasner to crown him Newark’s Teacher of the Year, he was sitting near the back of the room with a group of students.
“These are my parents guys,” Klasner, 29, said as he stood up to greet Schools Superintendent Christopher Cerf and his parents, Lisa and Joe Klasner.
“It’s validation of years of people telling me ‘No, you can’t do this,’ ‘No, that doesn’t work, use a textbook, don’t break the mold,'” said Klasner, a social studies teacher at East Side High. “I’ve always had these ideas and I’ve pushed as much as I could.”
Students sit in groups peering over iPads and talk about the internships they’ve landed at the East Orange Animal Hospital or as a physical education instructor. Their business cards are displayed along a wall.
“Coming from elementary school for me, it was difficult to adjust to high school,” said junior Romaine Johnson, 16. “He was always there for me and making sure I was on the right track … if it looks like if you have a bad day, he’ll say a pointed joke and just brighten your day.”
“Other teachers won’t take time out of their day to help you even with your personal issues,” said student Destiny Diaz, 16. “We’re learning in a different way.”
Diaz said the Klasner is always finding new ways to learn through technology. She looked around the room and said, “I don’t even know where the textbooks are.”
Klasner’s classroom is coated in posters of history icons like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., but also quirky images like a photo of a viral cat meme with the words “Mr. Klasner’s caring face.”
“I can never see myself sleeping in his class,” Johnson said — partly because Klasner will draw on your face with a dry-erase marker if you do, Diaz added.
Students say Klasner is always making jokes and showing funny pictures. The classroom Smart Board on Tuesday was projecting a picture of a baby elephant.
“If you’re singing a song, he’ll ask who sings it and say, ‘Let’s keep it that way,'” Johnson added.
Klasner was chosen from a pool of 22 other educators who were nominated by their principals. A graduate of Quinnipiac University, Klasner has taught for seven years and leads the school’s first Comic Book Club.
“This is a tremendous honor and a very well deserved one. We are incredibly impressed,” Superintendent Cerf said.
Klasner is an advisor for the school’s Big Picture Learning program, a national model that challenges traditional forms of schooling and lets students to take control of their learning through practical applications, such as internships.
The Big Picture academy enrolls 110 students at East Side and requires every student complete an internship.
— Karen Yi (@karen_yi) May 9, 2017
“You don’t need a textbook to teach,” said Klasner who has taught at East Side for four years. “I also want to take them outside of the school, outside of class. Every one of my students has a business card, everyone has a resume, everyone has a cover letter, everyone has interviewed … there’s great traditional teachers, but I’ve been supported with every one of my crazy ideas.”