Empowering Through Education: The Ms. Sweeney Story

Madeleine Eichorn

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Let’s face it. Although they may bombard us with endless homework assignments, we wouldn’t be anywhere without our teachers. Teachers don’t only teach us about math, history, and science, but they also teach us how to think, challenge our own perspectives, and push us to reach our fullest potentials. And Hunterdon Central educator Sharon Sweeney is no exception. Having held a position in education for 21 years, Ms. Sweeney exemplifies what it means to be an educator, both inside and outside of the classroom. She has been with Hunterdon Central for 16 years, Raritan Valley for 10 years, and she has been teaching at prisons in New Jersey for three years. Yes. Prisons. Ms. Sweeney’s work day doesn’t end at three o’clock. Once a week, she drives to Rahway State Prison and teaches history to her male adult students. Although she has decided to take the semester off due to health reasons, she plans to be back at the prison some time this summer or next fall. She explains, “It is so rewarding to teach students who have such an appetite for learning.”

Although she loves teaching these unique learners, she didn’t always teach those who have special learning needs; in fact, originally, she didn’t even want to be a teacher. After graduating college with a major in history and political science as a result of her father’s wishes for her to become a lawyer, she didn’t know what she was going to do with the hard-earned degree. Finally, after deciding on a career in education, she received her certification and began teaching AP United States History and World History. She remembers her AP students as very bright and high-achieving individuals. Eventually, teaching AP was “sort of how [she] defined [herself]”. But after a number of years, her supervisor asked if she would be willing to switch to teaching college-prep level classes. And deciding that she was ready to switch it up, Ms. Sweeney took the job and ended up loving it.

“These students, I see much more achievement in,” she says. Such students start at a disadvantage, Ms. Sweeney explains, as many struggle with learning disabilities. And even though many educators would agree that teaching students with such an individualized need is not an easy task, Ms. Sweeney describes the experience as fulfilling and inspiring. “When they get it, you know they get it. They’re excited about getting it and you’re excited about them getting it as well,” she added. And she emphasizes that the most important thing in teaching these students is kindness and structure. She explains that many of these students may not even know that they have a disability, and many of them go undiagnosed, being called “stupid” or “dumb” because they can’t learn as fast or in the same way as others. Luckily, Hunterdon Central creates a safe and comfortable learning environment for these students so they can become aware of how they learn and have access to the resources that they need so they can learn and succeed just like any other student would want to do.

Sweeney explains that her students at the prison are “incredibly grateful,” and have a true passion for learning. Ms. Sweeney started teaching in prisons after a job was offered to her at Raritan Valley to teach at Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility in Annandale. This was in coalition with New Jersey’s Step Program, which aims to help educate prisoners. This was in addition to her job as an Associate Adjunct Professor at the college. At first, she was a little nervous to take the position, but it was something that she had always wanted to do, so she went for it. In the end, she found it to be one of the most fulfilling experiences of her life. And after working there for a period of time, she moved over to Rahway State Prison. Unlike Mountainview, Rahway is a high security prison, sheltering those who have committed a capital offense. “It’s a different mindset. You have to always remember where you are and why they are there. As much as they are phenomenal students, and yes, I see them as students, you can never let your guard down.”

Taking on the job of working once a week at Rahway in addition to her other two teaching jobs is no small commitment. Just to get into the prison takes 30 minutes, after going through a series of metal detectors and pat downs. After teaching Hunterdon Central students during the day, she drives to the prison for her 6:00pm to 8:30pm class, and doesn’t get back to the parking lot until 9:00pm. This is only to show up the next day, bright and early, at Hunterdon Central with a smile on her face, ready to start the day. For everything that these students are, it is worth it. With such a dedication and passion to learning, these are students that she truly loves to teach. She explains: “I give them 200 pages of reading a week and they come in with it done. If I do that with Raritan Valley on campus not one student would do that, I’m telling you right now.” Although she teaches the college classes all the same, those at the prison are the ones who show the most interest.

Upon being asked, Ms. Sweeney remembers one of her favorite memories in working with the prisons. One student that she met was put in jail for robbing multiple banks at the end of his teenage years. Although he faced serious charges for his theft, Ms. Sweeney recognized him as a hard-working and intelligent student. Working with him in two classes throughout the time Ms. Sweeney spent at the prison, she saw his talent for learning shine. Being a straight-A student with a 98% average, he was able to get his associates degree from Raritan Valley. After sixteen years of being at Rahway, he will be released within the next couple of months and plans on attending Rutgers for a bachelor’s degree in business in addition to working in an auto mechanic shop in the area. Ms. Sweeney explains that she is “thrilled” and “so proud” of this student, to see that he worked so hard while he was at Rahway, and was going to continue to work hard upon his release. So when he asked her to write one of his college recommendation letters, she couldn’t have been more honored and proud of his successes despite everything that had happened to him. She says that he plans to get a degree in business from Rutgers, and someday run his own auto mechanics shop. To her, experiences like this one make working with the prisons so fulfilling.

Educating these prisoners, however, is not all she does. In addition to teaching at the prisons, she also collects hard-bound books for them. She explains that prisoners don’t necessarily have access to what we consider “normal” resources — that which students at Hunterdon Central are fortunate to have. Because these students don’t have access to electronics while they are in prison, they are forced to use the prison’s library as one of their only resources to finding information. Having to look through book after book to find a single answer or research anything is bad enough. To make it even worse, imagine that you only have access to books in which the newest publication date is 1983! Seeing a need for improvement, Ms. Sweeney took it upon herself to make a change. She talked to HC Administration and put together a program in which she would collect the hard-bound books that the IMC no longer wanted and would take them to the prisons to improve their libraries. To date, she has given over 500 books, encompassing a variety of subjects, to the Mountainview library. Additionally, she has created a classroom library with over 500 books at Rahway. In hopes to continually improve these libraries, she is still collecting any hard-bound books, of any subject, to donate to these prisons. If you would like to help in Ms. Sweeney’s efforts, please give her your old hard-bound books. You can contact her through her school email if you would like to learn more, or simply drop them off in Room 700.

“I look at them as learners, exactly like I look at my Hunterdon Central students as learners, and my Raritan Valley students as learners.” Even though we all learn differently, we all have the same passion for learning and success. Ms. Sweeney would like everyone at Hunterdon Central to know that she is so thankful for the students that she teaches and she hopes that her students, in addition to all students at Hunterdon Central, never stop learning.

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Empowering Through Education: The Ms. Sweeney Story