“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 diffuses 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.
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)