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New Jersey’s Teacher of the Year was born to teach, after a stint in a rock band

New Jersey's Teacher of the Year Angel Santiago says `Teaching is my passion.'

Angel Santiago virtually teaches a language arts lesson to a class of fifth graders at Loring Flemming Elementary in Blackwood, N.J., on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. The New Jersey Department of Education named him the state's 2020-21 Teacher of the Year.
Angel Santiago virtually teaches a language arts lesson to a class of fifth graders at Loring Flemming Elementary in Blackwood, N.J., on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. The New Jersey Department of Education named him the state's 2020-21 Teacher of the Year.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Angel Santiago always knew he would become a teacher, following in the footsteps of his mentor. But first, he tried to become a rock star.

After graduating from Vineland High School in 2002, Santiago, a tenor, traveled around the country, performing with friends in their alt-rock band, Days Like These. They signed with a record label and produced two albums.

“That was my shot,” he recalled with a smile. “We had a dream and we tried to achieve it.”

Six years later, the gig was up and Santiago was ready to pursue another passion: teaching. He returned to South Jersey, enrolled in college at 23, and, in 2012, landed his first job as a third-grade teacher in the Lindenwold school system.

Santiago, 37, who now teaches fifth grade at Loring Flemming Elementary in Gloucester Township, last week was named New Jersey’s Teacher of the Year for the 2020-21 school year.

In just eight years in the profession, colleagues say Santiago has become a role model for other teachers and engages students to excel. He also formed a group, “Young People of Character,” to encourage fourth- and fifth-grade students to perform community service.

» READ MORE: New Jersey's Teacher of the Year among finalists for national teaching honor

“He treats all students with mutual respect, celebrates their differences, and inspires students of varying backgrounds and abilities to succeed academically and socially," said his principal, Aaron J. Rose. "I could not be prouder of Angel for this most deserved recognition.”

Santiago was selected from a field of four other county-level finalists. The nominees must have demonstrated leadership and innovation andthe ability to inspire students of all backgrounds and abilities.

This year, Santiago teaches 48 fifth graders in two classes remotely from his empty classroom, decorated with positive messages. One reads, “You can change the world.“

On Wednesday afternoon, Santiago stood at the front of the classroom with a laptop perched on a cart teaching about prepositions. He engaged the students online, and directed them to put answers in the chat section. He gently reprimanded one student for shutting off his camera, and another for muting his audio.

“It can be difficult when they’re not here,” he said. “But we just try to do what we can.”

Santiago, a DJ who also plays acoustic instruments at weddings, incorporates his love of music into teaching. During a writing exercise, he played a Mozart piece for brainpower. On Fridays, students get an online dance party.

“He always takes everything above and beyond,” said Hollie Hartman, a fellow fifth-grade teacher. “He makes learning fun.”

» READ MORE: How do you become Teacher of the Year? Get your students to say, "I love this class"

Santiago, of Elmer, credits his humble upbringing and his sixth-grade teacher Mark Melamed for his motivation to teach. Melamed, who stressed giving back to the community, established the Gabriel Project, a nonprofit to assist critically ill children in Africa, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.

“I had really good teachers,” Santiago said. “Actually, I had great teachers.”

As a child, Santiago participated in a readathon to raise money for the charity. Years later, after Melamed died, Santiago served on the board.

Santiago said his biggest influence was his mother, Lillian Rivera, who had him when she was 17 and a senior in high school.

Santiago said his mother, who stressed education, worked several jobs while attending night classes at Rowan College of South Jersey in Vineland. She took him along to teach him about hard work, a lesson that drives him today.

“She really wanted to show me what kind of work it took to get where you wanted to be,” he said. His mother became a social worker.

After his band stint, Santiago worked odd jobs and went to school at night, too, obtaining a bachelor’s in humanities and master’s in education from Fairleigh Dickinson University. His wife, Kourtney, is a special-education teacher in Bridgeton.

Santiago said he plans to use his status as state Teacher of the Year to advocate for equity for minority students and a more diverse teaching force. About 58% of the state’s students are children of color, but only 16% of teachers are.

In January, he will begin a six-month sabbatical to attend workshops and provide professional development to other teachers across the state. The hardest part will be leaving his students.

“My heart is still going to be in Gloucester Township with my kids," he said. “Teaching is my passion.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Loring Flemming principal Aaron J. Rose and the Young People of Character program.