By Steve Sears
Even though Patrick Slater, a teacher of Technology for 20 years at Wayne Valley High School, has been named the 2019-2020 Passaic County Teacher of the Year by the New Jersey Department of Education, he states that it’s not just about him, but also about his fellow colleagues, administration, and most of all, his students.
“I think good schools are about great teachers, great administration, great students, great parents, great community,” says Slater. “If you don’t have all of these things, you can’t have a good school. I just don’t think it’s possible, and I think we have a fantastic school. We have all of these things in spades, and I am really, really fortunate. To have taught there for so long, to have gotten the support that I have gotten from all of those groups all those years, it really is an honor to represent our community, and it really is a community award. I can’t stress that enough. This is definitely one for Wayne Township and Wayne Valley High School, for sure.”
The process is as follows. Every school nominates its own top teacher, which is an honor in itself. Then, there is a choice by district, and then there is the county process, where candidates fill out an application and write a series of essays and submit a resume online. Thereafter, county winners are in the running for top state teacher honors. Slater, therefore, was one of the 21 New Jersey County Teachers of the Year early this summer honored in Paterson, who eventually entered the state pool.
Although not a finalist in the state competition, Slater feels no sour grapes. He said there was some fine teachers who were chosen ahead of him and chooses instead to recall fondly the day he learned of winning the award. “Ken Palczewski, who is our Principal, asked me to come down to the office, and Dr. (Mark) Toback was there – the Schools superintendent – and they relayed the news to me at that time. The first thing that came to my mind was that a lot of people have helped me along the way, a lot of people who are still in the building. A lot of people who always have their door open and are willing to answer any sort of weird questions I have coming out of left field that I feel might tangentially help the student with something that’s going on. In that moment, I told them, ‘Gee – wow! – what a great team award this is.’ And I really felt that it was. It’s a great Wayne Valley award, it’s a great Wayne Board of Education award, it’s a great Wayne Township award. For me, it’s an honor to represent all of us. In my own building, I can think of tons of people who could teach circles around me. To be able to represent those people who kind of brought me along, it’s an honor and a blessing.”
Palczewski lauds the award winner. “Pat Slater is a dynamic educator whose passion for design inspires his students daily. We are grateful that he is part of our staff here at Wayne Valley High School.”
While a student at Randolph High School in the early 1990s, Slater was offered many great elective programs, and he selected Electronics. His teacher, Mr. Collict, saw a drawing of Sci-fi character Slater in class had created and drawn in pen on a white piece of paper and said, ‘You are definitely in the wrong class.’ Collict kept the photo and the next day introduced Slater to Mr. (Jim) Turner, who taught both Architectural and Technical Drawing. The following year, encouraged by Turner, Slater started taking Mechanical Drawing and Fine Art classes, and both these in addition to Electronics put him on radar to study architecture. Also, while in that class, he learned to transition from paper on boards to AutoCAD on computer. Not only was he getting true introduction to technology, Turner was becoming a role model for him, especially in a progressive sense. “He said,” recalls Slater, “‘let’s go for it. Let’s get rid of the (drafting) boards as quickly as we can and raise this new thinking and do the best that we can.’ So, there’s this love of technology and what he was trying to do by bringing people forward that I really gained a lot of respect for, and it kind of stuck with me a little bit.”
After graduating high school in 1994, Slater attended the University of Virginia, and graduated in 1998 with a B.S. in Architecture, eventually securing a job in the field. However, thanks to the role models he had, and the opportunity to do a little teaching at UVA, he got the bug, felt that teaching was something he really wanted to do, and entered the field.
Gene Manfra, whom Slater refers to as “a legend in Wayne,” invited Slater in for an interview for a teaching position at Wayne Valley High School. After he met with him and toured the school and lab, Slater was hired and experienced more transition the moment he started. “He really turned the lab over. Gene got a grant somehow and got rid of all the old school drafting equipment and replaced them all with computers. You have to understand what a huge leap that was. At that time, anyone who was making the transition from the board to the computer were holding onto the boards for dear life. You’d have a lab with half boards and half computers. Gene just had the foresight to say, ‘Forget that. This isn’t what they do in the real world. Nobody at an engineering firm is holding on to the drafting board. They’ve thrown them away and replaced them with computers, so we’re going to mimic that.’ Gene was always good about that. He kind of taught me to take cues from industries and higher education whenever you can. That was a big one, having the courage to throw out everything you know and try to build the best thing you can. I was really lucky to be mentored by him.”
Slater early on was teaching an Architectural Design class, and many of his students early on instead of Architecture wanted to enter Engineering. In response to the demographic change, so changed was the classes being taught. The school added Digital Fabrication Technology and dabbled in that, and the school then became one-part architectural, one-part industrial, and one-part engineering design.
Then, about six years ago, when Palczewski became Principal, Slater was approached by the A.P. for Science and Technology Education, Melissa Ferraris, who expressed to Slater the desire to start a Robotics program. Slater, although knowing very little about it, knew it would be a good leap for he and the school, and embraced the suggestion. That summer, he researched the subject in Japan while on summer vacation, digging up as many resources that he could. He gained much knowledge and tried to put some of that knowledge into action, building the program from the ground up. For Slater and the school, it was a great opportunity to format their philosophy.
What started out as just one class is now up to five, both Introductory and Advanced. Some students even receive class course credit with the New Jersey Institute of Technology, a win-win for both institutions. “We’ve managed to grow it and learn a lot along the way, but that really goes back to seeing what Mr. Turner and Mr. Manfra were willing to do,” claims Slater. “Five years ago, I didn’t know anything about Robotics. In the mid-90s, Mr. Turner didn’t know anything about computer aided design. He needed to learn it and pass it along to students, and it’s the same sort of mindset. I need to do this; I need to learn this. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that our current A.P. for Science and Technology, Brian Faendrich, has been instrumental in the continued development of our programs. He is one of the finest ‘teachers of teachers’ that I’ve ever encountered.”
Slater, 42, has been married for 12 years to his wife, Hironi. “She is incredible, a phenomenally talented woman, and she has been super-supportive,” he says of her, she’s a graphic artist at Carnegie Hall. The couple has two children, Hannah and Sai. “You couldn’t ask for two better kids,” he adds.
It’s not lost on Slater that he left on the table a possibly lucrative career in architecture. “But there’s a payoff,” he says. “Knowing that I have the opportunity to do something positive for society, for fellow human beings, and trying to inspire others as I was inspired when I was a kid. There were a lot of teachers and people who were there for me, who were there to give me direction and help me along my way, and I think it’s important to pay that forward. There’s something about that I find really rewarding and I think it just makes the whole journey worth it.” Slater also says that, perhaps, he wouldn’t have been as fulfilled “building buildings all this time. Sometimes you wonder what might have been. But then every so often something happens, and you say, ‘Yep, this is why.’”
One “why” is Brian Barkovitz, a student of Slater’s from the early 2000s who has gone on with partners to start a New York City engineering firm, ABS Engineering, PLLC. Barkovitz phoned his congratulations to his former teacher, and also informed him that his growing team of 30 had now moved into a new office with room for future expansion.
A Slater student who has gone on to fulfill his dream.
“It’s really humbling,” Slater affirms, “when a student comes to you and says, ‘I wouldn’t have been able to do this, or I would not have been able to go down this path, if you hadn’t been there.’ My response is I have always been in the right place at the right time. We have such fantastic students, and I don’t know if I’m necessarily the guy who helped them become what they are. I just think of myself as maybe giving them a little bit of an advantage going to where they were going to get to anyway. I think that’s really my job. Being able to give them a little tidbit or a little edge is the difference I’m happy to make for them.”