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.

Related

No Longer a Secret: Montclairian Janet Mino’s Work with Autistic Children (NorthJersey.com/Montclair 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)

Maybe This Year – A Retired Teacher’s Advice for the First Days of School

As a new school year begins, I wanted to share a reflection from Marsha Pincus, a retired high school English teacher who worked in Philadelphia public schools for 34 years. Here’s an excerpt from a longer piece on her blog, Her Own Terms:

I retired from full-time teaching six years ago, but the lessons I have learned and the people I have encountered remain with me. I carry their stories in my heart. 

Six years out, here is what I know.

Even in the darkest moments there is always a light shining through to the classroom. Even the angriest, most defiant child harbors a spark of possibility buried in his despair. Human beings have the capacity for enormous resilience.

I have been given one of the greatest gifts any teacher can be given — the privilege to continue to know so many students after they left my classroom. I have been to their college graduations and their weddings. I have seen them earn graduate degrees, become teachers and principals, businessmen and community leaders. I have seen them with their own children and watched as they’ve become role models for other young people in their communities.

I have also been to funerals — more than I want to remember. But such is life in all of its complexity.

Every child, no matter how old or seemingly jaded, starts the school year with the hope that maybe this year will be the one.

Maybe this year I will finally love school like I once did, when I was little and the teacher put smiley faces on my papers and my mother packed me lunch in my Peter Pan lunch box. 

Maybe this year, people will see me for who I am and value what’s inside of me. 

Maybe this year, I will connect with a teacher who will help me understand the ways to realize the dreams I barely let myself imagine except late at night, right before I fall asleep. 

Maybe this year.

Marsha’s essay reminds me of how important it is for teachers to have empathy. This can be easy to forget, or overlook, when there’s so much on teachers’ plates already, especially in the beginning of the school year.

I should know. Looking back on seven years in the classroom, I realize how much better of a teacher I would have been had I focused less on Getting Things Done, and more on helping my students feel seen and heard.

I think Marsha shows the way empathy can help teachers see their roles more clearly.

For more of Marsha’s story — including how many times her car’s been broken into, and the many nicknames she’s had throughout her teaching career — please read her full essay. You should also check out her portfolio on teaching Macbeth on Inside Teaching, a great resource that features units for all class subjects.

Oh, and one more thing —

I’d like to wish all you returning teachers the best for this school year. Don’t forget to be kind to yourself on the first days of school! 🙂

Related

First Day of School – Talking Back to Harry Wong (Teacher in a Strange Land)

Teaching Is Not a Business (New York Times)

Everything He Needs to Know, He Learned in 4T.