Your Back-to-School Inspiration: Janet Mino, the Amazing Teacher in “Best Kept Secret”

“Best Kept Secret” isn’t like other teacher movies. For starters, there’s no Hollywood actor as the heroic lead. Nor are there students standing on desks reciting poetry, or street-wise sarcastic teens who discover feelings they never felt before. Heck, there isn’t even an exposé of those “bad” teachers lurking in our “failing” public school system.

Instead, there’s the radiant smile and steely resolve of Janet Mino, a real-life teacher of students with autism. There are long drives in Janet’s red Nissan Altima, and meetings with parents, social workers, and program directors.

And of course, there are her students, whose earnestness will disarm you, and whose stories will move you.

Mino teaches at JFK School in Newark, New Jersey. In the movie, we are shown familiar images of the inner city: abandoned lots, liquor stores and row houses. But we also see daffodils sprouting through a chain-link fence. This last image is a fitting metaphor for JFK, a public school for students with special needs that calls itself the city’s “best kept secret.” Throughout the film, we see how Mino — and her students — shine brightly in unlikely and unforgiving circumstances.

It was refreshing to see the physical, mental and emotional work of teaching portrayed onscreen. Mino greets each student with unflagging enthusiasm as they enter her room, patiently reminding them of how to return her greetings (“Hi, Ms. Mino.”). She reinforces other social skills like communicating what they want, where they live and what they like to do. And she defuses potential crises with calm and empathy. When one student, Robert, lashes out at his aide, she directs him to express his feelings instead of punishing him.

The challenges of teaching — and Mino’s big heart — are magnified by the fact that her students have severe disabilities and face an uncertain future. In New Jersey, graduating adults with autism “fall off the cliff,” or “age out” of the public school system after age 21. Mino’s students are particularly at risk since their families don’t have the resources to ensure their children will continue to be nurtured as they have been at JFK. For instance, many of the parents send their children to adult day care centers because they offer transportation services — and are more affordable than other programs with more stimulating environments.

Erik, the highest functioning of the students featured, lives in a foster home because his biological mother cannot care for him. He is a sweet-natured and enthusiastic 21 year old who adores his mom and dreams of working at Burger King after graduation.

Mino is there for Erik and her other students at every step. She makes home visits to check in with parents and teach her kids how to use technology that helps them voice their emotions and thoughts. She also visits different programs to find out how former students are doing and evaluate whether other students will be happy there. In short, she fights for her students as if they were her own children.

This compassion and advocacy make Mino extraordinary — but we also see the personal price she pays. Like so many great teachers, Mino never stops giving of her time and energy — and feels every one of their setbacks as her own. It’s clear that, without knowing what she’s getting paid, it’s not nearly enough.

“Best Kept Secret” is a testament to the vital work that teachers do, the sacrifices they make, and the staggering obstacles that face our most vulnerable students. Whether you’re beginning your first year of teaching or your last, I hope the movie helps renew your sense of purpose in the classroom.

Catch it on Netflix while you can, or download it on iTunes. You can also help support Mino’s dream to open a center for young adults with autism by donating to her Gofundme page.


No Longer a Secret: Montclairian Janet Mino’s Work with Autistic Children ( Times)

Teaching Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Scholastic)

Meet a Real Teacher: Karen Trindle (Those Who Teach)

Outstanding Special Effects (Those Who Teach)

Schooled (New Yorker)

Sunday Book Review: “The Prize” by Dale Rusokoff (New York Times)

15 Ways to Be Kind to Yourself on the First Days of School

Whether you’ve been back for a few weeks, or just a day or two — you did it!

You made it out of bed at an ungodly hour, rocked a fresh first-day outfit, and presented your Teacher Self to a new crop of kids.

You’re taking attendance, writing those first parent e-mails, planning lessons, doing lunch duty, attending meetings, assigning first homeworks, and collecting first homeworks.

Maybe you’re teaching a brand-new course this year, or taking on a new responsibility as coach or advisor, too.

Through all of this, you’re delivering instruction to multiple groups of differently abled, very distractible kids.

So, please remember — it’s OK if…

1. You don’t know most of your students’ names yet.

2. It takes you a full five minutes to remember old students’ names when they say hello in the hallway.


It’ll come to me…

3. Your desk is already a mess of papers.

This week's grading

100% authentic piles of grading

4. You didn’t have time to make that perfect bulletin board / seating chart / welcome letter like you’d planned to do.


I’ve never made a bulletin board this pretty. Ever.

5. You already had to change a lesson because the copier was jammed or occupied.


Sad sight for sore eyes

6. You already had to change a lesson because the computer / projector / DVD player / TV / internet didn’t work.

test colors TV

“Hey, who here is good at TV stuff?”

7. You forgot to turn off your phone during class.

8. You forgot to go to the bathroom, even when you had a minute.

Imagine going to the bathroom when you need to...

Should’ve gone during prep!

9.  Your perfect “first days” lesson was not the raging success you’d envisioned.

10. You haven’t had time to catch up properly with your colleagues because of all the work that needs to be done.

11. You’re already grading or playing on your phone during the first full faculty meeting. (Do as I say, not as I do…)


Official story: teachers don’t have friends or use Facebook.

12. Your second-day outfit was not as polished as your first-day outfit. (Soon, you’ll be proud to have made it to school with matching socks!)

13.  You didn’t have time to make lunch and/or dinner.

School Food - Chicken Nuggets

School lunch it is…

14. You didn’t have time to make that doctor’s appointment.

15. You’re already falling asleep on the couch when you get home!

It's OK to be dog-tired!

It’s OK to be dog-tired!

Remember, teachers do heroic things, but you’re still human!

Rinse and repeat if you’re a first-year teacher.

Also: what would you add to this list?

Outstanding special effects

I had to share this story from “Ms. I,” a K-12 Lead Technology Teacher for students with dyslexia and autism. She uses her dual license in art and technology, and IT field experience, to teach programming, video production, and 3D animation.

Since 2008, I’ve taught with Scratch, a free application that lets students create computer games. It’s been a great way to promote creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.

sample Scratch game screenshot

My school, however, thought I was “crazy” to teach programming to students with learning disabilities. I forged ahead because I wanted my students to go beyond their limitations and discover their strengths.

My greatest success story was John, a 12th grader.

During first period, I presented the Scratch project and, as usual, helped John start it. I often couldn’t tell what he was thinking because he generally didn’t display emotion.  He would tell me, “I can’t do this,” at the beginning of every class project.

This time, rather than asking  for help every five seconds, he worked independently.

Some weeks later, he pulled me aside to proudly show me his animation. He also stopped complaining for the rest of the year. I was amazed.

When John gave a speech at graduation, he said, “Thank you, Ms. I, for helping me do things I thought I couldn’t do.”

John is dyslexic and on the autism spectrum. His rehearsed speech did not include his thank-you to me; he spoke from the heart.

To get any reluctant learner to begin to say “I can” is impressive on its own. Having taught students with autism and dyslexia myself, though, I know the progress John made with the support of “Ms. I” was no easy feat.

Teachers, what’s your greatest success story?