When Mimma-Marie Cammarata was growing up, her parents gave her the nickname maestra. She thought it was their loving way of calling her bossy in their native Sicilian dialect.
She now believes that her parents had a premonition that she would eventually live up to the name and find her niche in a profession that she now adores: teaching. For 12 years she has been teaching Italian at Sterling High in Somerdale.
"I think they knew before I knew what I was going to be," Cammarata said in an interview in her classroom this week. "I can't picture myself doing anything else. I love coming to work."
Cammarata, 36, was selected by her peers as the Camden County Teacher of the Year for the 2017-18 school year. She is among a field of 21 teachers statewide vying for New Jersey Teacher of the Year, who is to be announced Oct. 4. Also in the competition are Sherrie Wilkins, representing Burlington County, and Domenick Renzi from Gloucester County. Wilkins is a fifth-grade teacher at Alexander Denbo Elementary in Pemberton Township. Renzi teaches basic skills at Wedgewood Elementary in Washington Township.
"New Jersey has many great teachers, and this award is a tribute to the talent, professionalism, and dedication of these 21 educators to inspire the children they teach," said state Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington. County teachers of the year are first selected as teachers of the year at the school level through the Governor's Educator of the Year program.
Cammarata is the only language teacher among the finalists. New Jersey requires high school students to complete at least five credits in a world language to graduate, and some colleges want students to take more.
"She's brilliant. It's lucky that we have her," said Sharon Galt, a Spanish teacher at Sterling.
Sterling High, which has nearly 1,000 students, also offers French and Latin. Cammarata, who joined the school in 2005 after graduating from Temple University, has become a student favorite. This semester, she has about 60 students enrolled in three classes, studying beginning Italian to advanced honors level.
"Le mando un e-mail subito."
"What are you doing?" Cammarata asked, pointing to the phrase displayed on a power-point screen decorated with signs and images of Italy.
"Sending an email," the class responded correctly.
"She's the best teacher ever," said Kevin Andrade, 18, a senior who has taken her class for three years. "I love this class."
Cammarata gave students a life lesson about dating that began with the question, Maria, ti va un caffè? (Maria, do you want to get coffee?)
A common but simple question in Italy, it should not be misinterpreted as expressing romantic interest, she said. That prompted a brief debate among students.
"It's coffee and I'll decide if I want to talk to you again," she explained. "It's like they are feeling you out."
Cammarata almost didn't become a teacher. As a youngster, she wanted to become a doctor, and then an interior designer. She changed her major to education with a specialization in Italian in her sophomore year in college after teaching English to young cousins during a family trip to Sicily, where her parents were born.
"I finally realized that my parents were right," she said.
She grew up in Cherry Hill. Her mother, also Mimma, came to the United States at age 2 and her father, Francesco, when he was 18. Sicilian was always spoken at home, but Cammarata had to learn standard Italian in college.
Cammarata says Italian is a logical course offering in New Jersey, whose 1.5 million Italian American residents make up 17 percent of the population. Elsewhere in South Jersey, Italian is also offered at Cherry Hill West, Triton Regional High in Runnemede, and in the Lenape Regional school district.
"I'm very passionate about what I teach," she said. "I'm bringing back the language skills that were lost when people emigrated to the United States."
Cammarata estimates that half of her students are Italian American. Craig Meyer, 16, a junior, said his grandfather was surprised when Meyer responded to a question in his native Italian.
"I didn't have to use a translator. It was me doing it," Meyer said. "It was a great experience."
Cammarata, who is widely traveled, uses those experiences and her heritage in the classroom. For a history lesson, she shared the story of her grandfathers, who were in the Italian army during World War II. Her goal, she says, is not just to teach students how to conjugate verbs but also to make them "culturally fluent."
"No matter how big the crowd, she always stands out," said principal Matt Sheehan.
A state panel of educators will select the state Teacher of the Year based on an application, video, and interview. The winner will represent the state in the National Teacher of the Year competition.
Unlike Cammarata, Wilkins, 35, of Willingboro, always wanted to be a teacher. She began her career as a teaching assistant and eventually landed a classroom job in 2007 in Pemberton Township, where she attended elementary and middle school.
"There are amazing teachers doing amazing things," Wilkins said of the other educators. "We love the kids."
Renzi, 45, a lifelong Washington Township resident, teaches at the same elementary school he attended in 1978. An educator for 22 years, he left the classroom for several years to become a principal, but he missed teaching.