Making a difference in the lives of students

Michael Dunlea

For that, Tabernacle teacher is nominated for national award

A fifth grade teacher at Tabernacle Elementary has been nominated for the 2022-’23 LifeChanger of the Year award.

Should he win, Michael Dunlea will not only get national recognition, but a prize worth $10,000 to the school district.

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The LifeChanger of the Year award is “an annual program sponsored by the insurer National Life Group. It recognizes and rewards K through 12 educators and school employees across the country who make a significant difference in the lives of students by exemplifying excellence, positive influence, and leadership, according to the LifeChanger website.

There are 588 nominees nationwide this year, and only 22 in New Jersey, including Dunlea, a teacher at Tabernacle Elementary for six years. He explained how he began teaching through an unconventional pathway.

“(I was) inspired because my wife is a social worker and was working in group homes with children,” Dunlea recalled. “I thought it had a lot of value to her day as to what she was achieving with her work and inspired me to kind of pursue going back and getting my undergraduate (degree), and then using an alternate route to get to the classroom.”

Since he started teaching, Dunlea has earned an impressive range of awards and accomplishments, including 2020 Burlington County New Jersey Teacher of the Year and the Presidential Award of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

But Dunlea did not expect a LifeChanger of the Year nomination because his friend and fellow teacher Melissa Collins submitted his name without telling him.

“Melissa does things like that, she’ll surprise you,” he noted. “It was quite touching that she did that.”

Dunlea and Collins – who teaches in Memphis – met six years ago and have maintained a connection both personal and professional that has grown over time. In the beginning, they both encountered something that helped them realize the importance of their collaborations.

“We were participating in the Global Learning Project, and we had our kids working together,” Dunlea recounted. “We just saw on the screen that my class was all white, (and) her class was all black.

“We thought, this is a great opportunity to really bring our classes together, and have them form bonds, friendships and experiences through interaction,” he added. “We’ve been doing that ever since, which is really merging our classes together.”

Dunlea’s and Collins’ classes have collaborated online for six years as part of the Climate Action Project, a free, six-week program that enables students and teachers to partner on environmental topics. Dunlea describes the project as “a global event that’s just gotten larger each year.” The project focuses on sustainable development goals from the United Nations.

The two classes use the online platform Empaticpo to communicate with one another during the year. But the bond goes beyond the classroom: Dunlea has even seen the students exchange gaming codes with one another so they can play video games together outside of school.

Empaticpo took notice of Dunlea’s and Collins’ efforts and gave them each a $5,000 grant to “enhance the bond.” Collins was able to bring a couple of students to New Jersey to surprise Dunlea’s class with the grant money.

Dunlea said if he wins the LifeChanger of the Year Award, he would, “probably try to find a way in which we can repeat what we did that time with the grant money.”

“It would be exciting to try to make a bigger scale, like have more kids get involved or bring some kids to Memphis this time instead of the kids from Memphis to New Jersey.” Dunlea said. “Well, (if I win), I’ll probably have to take Melissa out for crab legs, too. She’s always said that if anything good comes out of the nomination, I’d have to take her out for some seafood.”

Of the award itself, Dunlea said: “I think there’s always a lot of competition when it comes to those types of things. I know, it’s cliche, but it’s just very honoring that someone would think that of you and nominate you for something like that.

“In a field that lacks appreciation, it’s nice when you get it.”

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