American Sign Language teacher Amy Andersen almost took a different career path. As a youngster, she played the flute, took private lessons, attended band camp, and planned to become a musician.
She landed in an elite music program at Indiana University and studied under a world-renowned flutist. She was all set — until she took an American Sign Language class, got involved in the deaf community, and volunteered in a kindergarten class for deaf students. She was hooked.
"I feel in love again. It's what I wanted to do all of the time," said Andersen.
Andersen, who teaches at Ocean City High School in Cape May County and has been an educator for more than two decades, on Wednesday was named New Jersey's Teacher of the Year for the 2017-18 school year. She will represent New Jersey in the national Teacher of the Year competition.
"She's extremely exhausting to work with," Ocean City High principal Matthew Jamison said with a laugh. "She's 100 percent committed to her students and the school. She should be emulated by everyone in the profession."
Andersen, 45, of Cape May Court House, was selected from a field of seven finalists vying for the top honor. She received a 2017 Ford Fusion donated by the New Jersey Education Association and an EZ-Pass. Educational Testing Service will pay her salary so she can spend the next year on sabbatical providing professional development to other teachers around the state. She will also meet President Trump.
Andersen, flanked by her two sons and her mother, received a standing ovation at a packed meeting of the state Board of Education, where the award was announced. Each of the state's 21 counties nominated an educator for the award.
"Being a teacher is part of me. It is who I am," she said.
Kathleen Taylor, superintendent of the Ocean City School District, called Andersen an inspiration who "is making a real difference in the lives of students." The high school has 1,200 students. During the 2016-17 school year, 2,689 high school students took American Sign Language, state officials said.
Andersen started the American Sign Language program at Ocean City High in 2004 with 42 students; today about 130 students are enrolled. More than 85 percent of her students have obtained the state seal of biliteracy in sign language. She is credited with sponsoring ASL activities in the community, including socials at local coffee shops and evening performances to raise funds for scholarships to benefit her students.
While in college, Andersen said, she "found the courage to follow my instincts." She called her parents. "I really want to be a teacher and I want to work with deaf children," she recalled telling them.
"Although performing for an audience was extremely gratifying, what I felt when I was working with children was different from anything I had ever experienced up to that point," Andersen recalled in her acceptance speech Wednesday. "There was something pulling me towards teaching."
Her parents, special-education teachers in South Jersey at the time and later administrators, gave their only child their blessing.
"I'm just so proud of her," said her mother, Ruth Brown, 68.
Andersen earned a bachelor's in flute performance from Indiana University and later obtained a master's in deaf education at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md. She holds numerous certifications, including National Board Certification as an Exceptional Needs Specialist Teacher of the Deaf.
She began her teaching career in Boston in 1996. She joined Ocean City High when she returned home in 2004 to raise her children, Jacob and Luke, in Cape May County, where she grew up.
Andersen said she tries to teach her students about the deaf community as a culture in the hope that they gain more respect for those who are hearing-impaired. In 2015, the television program Classroom Close-Up NJ featured her program after an anti-bullying ASL video made by her students went viral.
"My hope is that my students continue to apply this sense of empathy in all aspects of their lives," she said.
Two others from South Jersey: Mimma-Marie Cammarata, an Italian language teacher at Sterling High in Somerdale, representing Camden County, and Domenick Renzi, a basic-skills teacher at Wedgewood Elementary in Washington Township, in Gloucester County, were also finalists and attended Wednesday's presentation. Sherrie Wilkins, a fifth-grade teacher at Alexander Denbo Elementary in Pemberton Township, represented Burlington County.
Cammarata, 36, of Cherry Hill, the only world-language teacher among the 21 teachers nominated, applauded Andersen. "It's another language that's being honored."
Renzi, 45, a lifelong Washington Township resident, teaches at the same elementary school he attended in 1978. He was allowed to invite one person to attend Wednesday's announcement. Unable to choose between his parents, he invited Angela Longo, a basic-skills math assistant at his school.
"It's an incredible honor," said Renzi.
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. A state panel of educators chose the state Teacher of the Year based on an application, video, and interview.