Nicole Silva ’05
In high school, Nicole Silva was named “class optimist.” Two decades later – as a third-grade teacher at Nathan Hale Elementary in Carteret, New Jersey – Silva’s enthusiasm hasn’t dimmed at all. “Today, I still have to catch my breath some mornings when I walk into the room and remember I get to do this,” she says.
But Silva’s classroom really belongs to her students. “I feel strongly about children taking charge of what they’re learning and sharing it with their peers,” she explains. They explore the solar system with Google Expeditions, construct Olympics games out of recycled materials, find the fun in fractions by way of a mini basketball hoop, and more – and the sky really is the limit. “I have one student who wants to learn Russian and precalc, so I’m letting him work on that in class.”
Her teaching style is holistic, incorporating mindfulness and a respect for varied learning styles. Students who act out aren’t shamed or punished, either. Instead, they’re encouraged to use the “cool-down bookbag,” a kit to help children self-regulate and develop coping skills. “I tell them, ‘You can take this bag and go wherever you want in the classroom to cool down.’ We have to be mindful of what kids might be carrying with them from their home life when they walk in the door.”
While Silva had her eyes on a teaching career as early as second grade, studying at Montclair State drove it home. “I had a young professor who talked a lot about elementary education, which really ignited the fire for me,” she recalls. “I loved the classes that were hands-on, too, where I could visualize exactly what I’d be doing in my classroom.”
In December, Silva’s passion was recognized with a 2018 Milken Educator Award, commonly referred to as the “Oscars of Teaching.” In true Academy Awards style, she had no idea it was coming. “I thought the Commissioner of Education was giving an assembly about college and career readiness. When he started talking about a special guest, a teacher who was being awarded, my colleagues and my students started saying, ‘I think it might be you!’ I couldn’t believe it.”
Silva is the only Milken winner from New Jersey this year. “Winning that award is an indescribable feeling,” she says. “It’s become a driving force to push me to do things that I was previously unsure about. I have a lot of ideas, and now I feel like people really want to hear what I have to say.”
The Milken motto is “the future belongs to the educated.” Silva couldn’t agree more.
“My parents always told me I could be a Rockette or a movie star or anything I wanted. I know my students might not have someone at home telling them those things, and I want to be that person for them,” she says. “I believe they can do anything. They’re the leaders of their own destiny.”