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Leader of the Pack - Lt. Colonel James Sfayer
01/13/2009 - By by Gena Ansell-Lande
Role Model,Mentor, Teacher and Local Hero
The world would be a better place if there were more people like James Sfayer in it. He is a true leader in every sense of the word. A retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Marine Corps, he has since been hard at work turning students at Colts Neck High School into model citizens and improving their chances of reaching their true potential.
Sfayer started the Navy Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Program (ROTC) at Colts Neck High School about four years ago, and the community has never been the same since. He teaches his students for life by teaching them about character and Leadership. These two critical - and often neglected - ideals can’t be found in any textbook. In fact, the Navy Junior ROTC is the largest character leadership development program in the country. James says, “I take my responsibility as a teacher as seriously as I took my responsibility as a Marine for 21 years.”
Sfayer’s list of accolades is exstensive; included among them are being named one of the top 200 teachers by The NewYork Post in 2001 and receiving the Disney Teacher Award just last year. He is a man who practices what he preaches. Sfayer’s past students have fond memories of him, and many have returned to him years later to tell him what a difference he has made in their lives. When Sfayer discusses his students, both past and present, there is a glimmer in his eye. He says that his cadets at the high school are an extension of his own family.
Sfayer entered the Marines in 1973, taking him all around the world. He later served as a military expert during Operation Iraqi Freedom for Fox 5 New York. This summer he will embark on another challenge when he participates in his first triathlon to raise funds for people suffering from leukemia.
Currently Sfayer is writing a book and developing a course on the concept of “teachership”— a combination of Marine Corps leadership and teaching.
LICN caught up with the Lt. Colonel inbetween classes and got a perspective on what makes him tick.
LICN: Tell us what it was like winning the Disney Teacher Award last year.
JS: It actually came as quite a surprise to me. I never even found out who nominated me. I was quite humbled by the whole experience because I was surrounded by 45 other superb teachers. They have actually become some of my dearest friends and I find I am able to tap into what they do.
LICN: What was involved in the selection process for the award?
JS: I had been nominated the year before, and because I finished in the top 100 out of 50,000 teachers they automatically send you a packet to fill out the following year. They pick the top 45 teachers. I had to complete an intense question-and-answer form detailing what I do in the community and my method of teaching. I was the only ROTC instructor ever to be selected. They flew my family out and there was a big gala. It was all very exciting. It really makes you love being a teacher. I later found out that there are quite a few teachers from Colts Neck High School that have won the award. It’s pretty impressive, considering there are only 13 previous winners in the state of New Jersey.
LICN: Tell us about your family.
JS: I am a single father with two amazing daughters. Lauren is a junior at the University of Rhode Island and Kathryn recently graduated from Ramapo College.
LICN: What are some of the fundamentals of the Junior ROTC program?
JS: The focus of the program is character and leadership. You have to be a retired officer or senior enlisted member of the armed forces to be an instructor. Students come away with a unique understanding of personal leadership and what it’s like to build a team.
Each student uses a planner to identify roles in their lives and set goals for themselves. They are then graded on it each week. My belief is that if you at least write something down, the chances of it getting done are much greater. Believe it or not, the success of the program is the planner. I also have the students prepare a personal mission statement that they use to guide their daily activities and to help prepare them for the future. I evaluate their ability to stay on track and to keep focused on the important things in life.
I teach my students those skills that will linger long after their memories of high school have faded. The students are traditionally prepared for college, but many of them enter the work force, the military, or pursue some type of vocational education. I lead by example and inspire my students to do the same.
LICN: What is the one aspect of the program that makes it so special?
JS: It would definitely be that the curriculum allows creativity in testing. Although I still conduct traditional testing, it is never a substitute for student performance.
LICN: Why is the ROTC so successful with Special Education students?
JS: I think the structure of the program is very beneficial for them because it narrows their focus and also provides them with an instant group of friends they are automatically attached to. If they need help with a subject there is always another ROTC student that has either had the same teacher or class, and they can help them. The crucial part is the sense of belonging they feel in the program. The ROTC provides these students a home where they can feel comfortable and safe.
LICN: When did you start the program?
JS: I started the program here four years ago. Before that I implemented a program at Tottenville High School in Staten Island.
LICN: Were there differences in the students there?
JS: I think kids are kids. A lot of times people assume that because a kid is from the inner city they are different. Of course there might be differences in terms of economic strata, but basically they all have the same wants and needs. What kids love about this program is it gives them the opportunity to have an adult figure they can become very close to over a period of four years.
LICN: What are the criteria for a student to be accepted into the program?
JS: It is generally based on recommendations from their teachers in middle school, their previous academic history, and an essay. A critical part of the process is the interview. I interview every single applicant to make sure that they want to enroll in the ROTC for the right reasons. Many kids are not from Colts Neck — it is a district-wide program so you can have a cross-section of the entire district of Freehold. I evaluate the “total student” and their ability to contribute to the accomplishment of their personal mission and the mission of the Navy ROTC Program. Each year we have an enormous amount of applications. We can only have 180 students in the entire program.
LICN: What motivates kids to want to participate?
JS: Some of the students have an interest in the military, but a good percentage of them realize that this is the only time in their life when they will receive this kind of formal leadership training. We teach these kids life skills and how to develop a personal mission statement. Upon graduation, I write a twopage recommendation for them. Usually I know the student from the time they start the program and really find out what makes them tick.
LICN: Tell us about your time spent in the Marines.
JS: I joined in 1973 and was an infantry commander at all levels. I had a tremendous career and traveled all over the world. I learned about leadership from the ground up. On one of my first jobs I was dropped in the middle of the jungle in the Philippines and given 45 Marines and told to figure out what to do next. I believe the Marine Corps is the finest leadership development training program in the world.
LICN: How did you know you wanted to become a teacher?
JS: I started thinking about becoming an instructor when I taught at West Point. I also remembered something the best teacher I ever had said to me. She said that you can only get better at what you want to be if you become a teacher. That teacher was my mom.
When I was ready to retire from the Marines I realized the education field would be the ideal fit for me. I was ecstatic when the ROTC position became available.
LICN: How do you spend your summers?
JS: I was offered a job with Deloitte & Touche and Johnson & Johnson to develop leadership courses. I basically teach the employees the same tenets of the program that I teach my students.
LICN: What are the biggest challenges facing students today?
JS: The challenges kids face at home are quite significant, especially when both parents are working full-time. Parents today lack the time to learn what’s going on with their kids. In addition, the pressures kids face at school can be immense.
To get the parents more involved I started teaching a parent leadership course once a month. I figured that if I could get the parents more engaged then it makes my job a lot easier. Additionally, the student has a far greater chance at success if their parents are actively involved. We teach the parents the same things we teach the kids so they can all be on the same page.
LICN: Has the parent program been successful?
JS: Yes, we are actually up to monthly meetings of 130 parents. They do all the fundraising and administrative duties and they are a phenomenal bunch of people. We have become like a big family. More importantly, it has strengthened the overall program in that it shows the students that their parents are as committed to their child’s success as they are.
LICN: What is your favorite part of working with the kids?
JS: Definitely the energy factor — working with kids day in and day out keeps you young. Although I am 56 years old, I feel much younger because the kids keep you up to speed. I look forward to coming to work every day. My agony in the job is when I see a kid that has the potential to be successful but doesn’t “get it.” Each of these gray hairs I have is from the couple of students that just don’t get it. Recently I had a former student come and visit me who is now a policeman. When he was in my class he didn’t pay much attention but he came back to tell me that he finally “got it” years later. Being a teacher is a sacred trust and an awesome responsibility. I strive to be more of a mentor for these kids; the teacher is just the technical part. The mentor relationship continues well after the student graduates.
LICN: What other community organizations do you participate in?
JS: I am the commissioner of the Men’s Basketball League and I am also involved with the Education Foundation.
LICN: What do you like most about living in Colts Neck?
JS: When I was stationed here in 1976 I knew I would come back when I retired. Colts Neck is a great community that has retained a small-town feel. There are some amazing folks committed to keeping Colts Neck the way it is and avoiding overdevelopment. It is the perfect place to work and live.
Band of Brothers
People who have the talent but don’t use it
Three people you’d like to dine with
My mom, my daughters, and the former mayor of Colts Neck, Art Goodwin
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