By Erin Roll
Smita Dharsi remembers the very first time she taught in a Montessori school.
It was a gap year for Dharsi in her native Tanzania after attending university in the UK.
She had been called in as a substitute teacher after the class’s regular teacher was out on sick leave. The class was full of about 30 four, five and six-year-olds.
“Suddenly, I felt like I didn’t know what to do with them,” she recalled. The children looked back at her quietly, wondering what happened to their regular teacher.
Dharsi introduced herself and asked the children to talk about themselves.
Then the children ran wild around the classroom. By the end of the school day, Dharsi was exhausted. She told the school director that she didn’t feel up to the task.
Instead of letting her give up, the director gave her a copy of a biography of Maria Montessori.
Today, Dharsi is a second-grade teacher at Edgemont, Montclair’s Montessori school and one of 23 educators across New Jersey who were named Educators of the Year.
The educators were honored at an awards ceremony held recently at Jackson High School. The Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders also presented a resolution honoring Dharsi at their Sept. 12 meeting.
Dharsi admits that she is still coming to terms with getting the award, especially she said, because there are so many other talented teachers at Edgemont.
Dharsi started out in Montclair four years ago as a resource room teacher at Northeast before transferring to Edgemont.
“It’s a great team, great teachers at Edgemont…it’s a great community,” she said.
Every year, she begins by sending out letters to her students’ parents. Dharsi then follows up with phone calling the parents to introduce herself.
“It’s just a very quick hello kind of thing,” she said.
In order to be nominated as a county educator of the year, the nomination committee is looking for teachers who have a good relationship with students and parents, and have demonstrated innovative educational techniques at the school or district level.
Dharsi is known to think differently in her classroom. If a student wishes to do a different project than what was assigned, and the student can state why, Dharsi will allow the student to work on that project with some set guidelines.
In Dharsi’s classroom, her students will often work on projects that span several different subject areas: history, literature, art and science. As part of learning about the Hopi tribe and other Native American tribes, the students made kachina dolls.
Dharsi and her family have called Montclair home since 1991. Her husband, Nitin Parekh, works in biotechnology.
Dharsi’s daughter, Ella, is 18 and getting ready to start her freshman year at Tufts.
Dharsi had originally set out to work in chemical engineering; her university studies had been in chemistry. But she found herself departing from that career path for a future in teaching.
After her experience in Tanzania, Dharsi was drawn to Montessori teaching and learning. Her work took her to New York, where she took Montessori training courses through New York University. She also obtained a master’s degree in special education. Over the course of her career, she has worked at St. Mary’s Hospital for Children as a teacher, at West Side Montessori in New York, as an early intervention specialist and consultant, and then at Columbia High School in South Orange-Maplewood.
Edgemont Principal Cheryl Hopper said Dharsi is an innovative, child-centered teacher.
“As a trained Montessori educator, she fosters a child’s natural inclination to learn. To meet each student’s developmental needs, Ms. Dharsi uses Montessori methods and materials to serve as a springboard for investigation and discovery. She is a skilled observer, a creative facilitator, and an adept community builder. The Edgemont community is honored to have Ms. Dharsi as a beloved teacher, leader and friend,” said Hopper.
Superintendent Kendra Johnson called Dharsi a warm, child-focused instructional leader.
“Her inviting disposition is so pure that students — and even many adults — cannot help but to be connected to her in a very special way. Ms. Dharsi’s keen understanding of the content is unquestioned. And, her ability to convey the content is unmatched. We are extremely proud to call Ms. Smita Dharsi a Montclair Public Schools’ educator,” said Johnson.
The best part of teaching is hearing how much the children enjoyed spending the year in her classroom, she said.
“That is such a treasure.”
She keeps a binder full of every “feel-good” note from her children and parents.
“I really love what I do. I’m so lucky to be working here in Montclair, and thankful that I have a job that I really, really love,” she said.