Mr. Panarella

Mr. Panarella had a unique childhood for a couple of reasons. One, his mom was deaf. This forced him to take on certain responsibilities that many children don’t usually have to. He remembers being six years old and ordering from the backseat in the drive-thru, of course sneaking things in that he wasn’t supposed to have. Using and understanding sign language has had an impact on the way he communicates today.

“It’s interesting in the deaf culture — your tone or your accent is all facial expressions.”

He also stood out because of his love for words and language — something he discovered at a very early age.

“I started writing poetry in second grade, thinking that that might be the best way to woo a female. It never was.”

Despite his lack of success with girls, he continued writing. His third-grade teacher helped fuel his interests. He’s still thankful for that today.

“During silent reading, she let me write instead. And at the end of the year, she made me bind up my story, put a cover on it, put a cover art, and it was cool that someone took an interest in me writing. I just kept on writing.”

He’s also thankful for an English elective he took during his sophomore year.

“During my sophomore year of high school, I took a class called Shakespeare. And the teacher said I was good at it. And in school, there wasn’t a lot of things that I thought I was really good at. And being told I was good at something made me really interested in it. And a lot of the tests and quizzes were creative, and I saw that as a venue for me to really explain how my mind worked in a class like that.”

Because of his teachers and family, he made the decision to pursue a career in teaching.

“My whole family — we’re all teachers. My sister teaches here. My other sister works at an elementary school as a speech pathologist. My dad taught at a high school for thirty-four years, and my mom taught at an elementary school for about eight years. So I definitely was influenced by them to go into teaching.”

He was excited to teach the subject that he had so much love for. He finally felt comfortable expressing his passion for English.

“I think I shied away from being an English nerd ‘cause I wanted to be good at sports. So I kind of hid that part of me away. And even though it was bad to hide it away, I’m glad that it was finally able to come out because when it did, I was like ‘This is full-force who I am.’”

He started out teaching elementary school, but he worried that he wouldn’t be able to do the subject justice. He wondered “How could I ever express how much I love these words?” He decided to move on to teaching high school English — something he’s still doing successfully over a decade later. He immediately loved the connections and relationships he was able to develop with his students, who have since nicknamed him “Pan.”

“My favorite thing is hearing someone talk about something they’re passionate about. When you’re teaching, so many kids are passionate about different things. And it’s so exciting to hear that. My biggest fear is apathy with people. Care about something and you’ll be interesting forever.”

During one of his first years teaching, he taught a boy named Brandon.

“I taught Brandon in sophomore English and I got along with him really well. He was an over-sharer. You know — one of those kids who over-shares but he over-shares because he wants to always be a better person. And he struggled between being the person he wanted to be and being the person he was. I remember I was working a basketball game and afterward we were both waiting for him to get a ride. And he’s like ‘Hey Pan, I think I’m quitting cigarettes.’”

It was clear that Brandon had good intentions; it just took some more work for him to stay on the right path.

“He was a good kid. He meant well. But you could tell that staying on that straight, narrow path was effort. And sometimes he didn’t want to make the effort.”

One Friday, he got frustrated with Brandon in class — nothing out of the ordinary. By the end of the period, all was well and they said their goodbyes.

“On that Friday, he was in class and two cop cars pulled in — probably just resource officers. I’m teaching, and he gets up in the middle of class, walks from one side of the room to the window, and goes ‘Oh my God, they’re probably here for me.’ I was like ‘Brandon,’ and I was frustrated, ‘not everything that happens in this building is about you.’ I just wanted him not to stand up and walk, while I was talking, to the window. And I said goodbye after the period, and then found out that he passed over the weekend.”

It was the first and only time he’s ever had to deal with the death of a student. And not only was he a fairly new teacher, but he had a close relationship with Brandon. He’d never been taught how to deal with this type of tragedy.

“On the Monday after, a couple of things happened. Seeing an empty desk was hard. So I took the class and went to the library. We did our work up there for about a week. ‘Cause I could tell everyone was kind of distraught. And then a teacher came up to me and she said ‘I heard you yelled at Brandon on Friday. Are you okay?’”

He was taken aback by her question; he didn’t view his comments to Brandon as anything beyond his duty as a teacher. He wanted to ask her “Do you yell at kids because you don’t like them?”

“If I did yell at Brandon, I would yell at Brandon now. I would do the same thing. Because I cared about him enough to say ‘Hey listen, you’re doing something wrong. Be better.’ So I don’t think of that as something that would make me upset.”

He can still picture Brandon when he closes his eyes, even though he passed away years ago. He doesn’t regret what he said, but he does wish he had let Brandon know how much he cared about him.

“I still think about him a lot. I always think about what I would say if I could go back to that Friday. And it would be ‘I care about you. I want to see you on Monday.’ And Monday as in the future, not just Monday.”

He believes that you’ll have little to regret about your relationships if you are authentic in the way you treat others.

“Choose to be genuine in your actions and you never have to worry about the guilt. If I yelled at him, I yelled at him. I didn’t want to be a jerk. I was trying to be helpful. So, if your actions are genuine, you’ll be fine.”

Although it was a difficult experience, he learned some valuable lessons.

“I’ve always known going into it that I would invest myself emotionally into the students. They don’t teach you how to deal with the death of a student. But maybe it is nice that I grew from that because it gives everything more meaning.”

I’d never thought too much of it, but I have noticed that every single Friday as we leave the room Mr. Panarella says “Have a good weekend; I care about all of you!”

“On Fridays, I say ‘I care about you. I want to see you on Monday.’ Because, one, for Brandon. I want to make sure that I say it. I think it’s important that everyone hears it. You don’t know what anyone’s going through and sometimes hopefully just hearing that one person cares about you is enough. And it feels good to say it. And I mean it.”

It means a little bit more to me now that I know where it comes from. It’s not just something he says out of habit. He means it each and every time.

“That’s where that all comes from. It kind of stinks that it had to come from a tragedy. He’ll always be a part of me as a teacher.”

Something that helped him cope with Brandon’s death is the realization that nobody is truly unique. At first, it seems like a discouraging thing to hear. But once you understand that people have struggled through and made it out of the same ruts that you’re in, you’ll see that there is a way out.

“How great is it that you’re not unique.”

He’s always tried to teach this lesson in his classes. He knows that each student goes through their own struggles and thinks that this is important for them to hear.

“Think about your happiest moment — wouldn’t you want other people to feel the same way? Wish for everyone to have the same happiness that you have, and when you are sad, know that it’s not going to be forever. There’s more to everyone than you know. So be compassionate. Be understanding. And like I said, you’re not unique in that you can come back from the worst things that happen. The best things that happen — wish for everyone else to have.”

He often takes a minute to think about all the other people around him whether he’s driving on the highway, walking down the street, or sitting in a classroom. Everybody has a different end goal; everybody is dealing with something invisible.

“Letting go of that autonomy — that what you’re thinking is the most important thing — is kind of nice.”

Too often, we form preconceived ideas about others without a second thought. Mr. Panarella believes that a little compassion would go a long way.

“I hate how we judge each other instantly. We see differences before we see how we’re similar. The truth is we’re so, so similar. And we’re all just trying to get by, trying to be happy, and we forget that. We kind of isolate each other through our differences before compassionately saying ‘I am that person too.’”

He says that the most important thing is to genuinely love life.

“If you can love every day, every minute, even if you’re faking it ’til you make it, why else would you be here? Choose love. That’s the key to all of this.”

Everybody should be passionate about something, but not everything should be serious all of the time.

“Be passionate about your own life. And be compassionate. Be able to laugh at yourself, forgive yourself, and laugh with other people and forgive them.”

It’s important for him to make the most out of life and this shows every day in the classroom.

“I want people to say ‘I had fun when I was around him. He made things better.’”

Every day, Mr. Panarella comes to class with a smile (and even some dance moves every now and then). He’s proud of “finding a way to be, in life, legitimately happy all the time. Or at least trying to be.”

“I’ve always tried to be present in what I’m doing in my life and with other people.”

Everyone has their own opinions of what a teacher should be. Some would say it’s not a teacher’s responsibility to care about each person he teaches. But when you see the way Mr. Panarella’s students truly love to be around him, you see that he’s doing something right. In Mr. Panarella’s classroom, there’s never a moment wasted.

Mr. Donoghue

It’s one thing to be taught something, and another to listen to somebody talk about their actual experiences. For me, this is one of the many things that makes Mr. Donoghue a great teacher.

Because of his passion for seeing the world, he’s able to share personal stories with his history and world geography classes. He’s able to give his students insight and personal knowledge that would never be found in a textbook. He’s always planning his next big adventure. And while he tries to live in the moment, he lives for creating good memories and always having something to look forward to.

“It just opens up your eyes to what else is out there. ‘Cause you can be very close-minded and you don’t realize that there are seven and a half billion people out there who have completely different lives. So you get to see, just for a little bit, what it’s like to live where they live, and how they live. I think that’s really, really awesome. So I think everybody should experience that at some point.”

Because he travels so often, he’s able to see things from many different viewpoints.

“I think there are too many people who have extreme ideas one way or the other. I think whoever has an extreme idea — let’s just say in politics — people who are far right conservatives, people who are far left liberals, those people don’t understand someone else’s perspective. So they’re wrong, I think.”

This is an important belief for teachers to have. Every single class has so many different students from so many different backgrounds. To be accepting, kind, and understanding of students is key and it’s something that his students really appreciate.

“People are kind of blinded sometimes by their own beliefs and they hear the other side but they don’t actually accept that that’s a valid point of view. And again, not even just in politics. It could be for anything. I think people should just be accepting of other people’s views or beliefs. You should be able to see someone else’s point of view, and if you don’t agree with it, at least understand it.”

Mr. Donoghue makes sure that his classroom is a place where his students know they can comfortably share their thoughts and ideas.

“You should be able to see someone else’s point of view, and if you don’t agree with it, at least understand it. I think that’s something that I would really like to see more ‘cause I feel like too many people are just on opposite sides of things.”

He grew up in a small town with a happy family, a sister he’s very close with, and a close-knit group of friends he’s still in touch with today. In fact, he and his friends are going to Scotland next week.

Naturally, his dad was one of his biggest role models growing up.

“He was a teacher, a football coach, played sports growing up, eventually became an athletic director and a principal. I’m going back to school for my administrative certificate so I think he was probably number one. When you’re a young male, I feel like you just always really look up to your dad.”

He’s always been proud of his younger sister too.

“I’m always proud of my sister one way or another… She’s an architect. She does really, really cool stuff. And I obviously miss her now that she’s not around anymore and I kind of have to see what she’s doing through social media. And I know she’s super smart — probably even smarter than me — so I definitely take some inspiration from her. She’s really, really tough; she’s her own individual. And I definitely miss her.”

Like many high schoolers, he had a hard time imagining where he would end up after graduation. He just knew he was excited to move on to the next chapter and focus more on his schoolwork after a busy four years in high school. After a year of going to college at Rutgers, his first year not playing school sports, he decided to transfer to do what he loved — play football — while he was still able to.

He never imagined that he would end up teaching at Seneca, the place where he went to high school. He had done interviews at other schools when a position at Seneca opened up. He was unsure about returning since he was already known there — he had been a student there and his mom had worked there since the school opened.

“I already knew she had established herself as one of the ‘it’ people at Seneca.”

However, he knew that his mom played a huge role at the school which could work in his favor.

“I’ve grown up at Seneca, my mom works at Seneca. [I asked myself] do I really want to be at Seneca? And then after thinking about it a little bit, I was like ‘Alright, this is an easy decision. Let’s just do it. I can always leave if I want to.’ And now I never want to leave.”

Now, he can’t imagine his life any other way.

“I can be my own person, but kind of follow her lead. She set the example of what Seneca and ‘Seneca family’ really should be.”

Having his mom by his side was definitely an advantage, but it was also important to him to establish himself as his own person.

“I think it takes getting to know someone before anyone can actually see who you really are. Even when I started back at Seneca, people saw me as my mom’s son. They probably saw me as what I was in high school: a guy who liked to play sports. And maybe they didn’t know anything else about me. Maybe they didn’t know how much I really love school, how much I really love kids.”

He loves the path his life is going down.

“Every year, I think stuff just gets better. In high school, you think it’s the coolest thing, you’re with your friends. And then you go to college and you’re like ‘Wow college is so much cooler than what we just had in high school.’ And then you graduate college and you had a great time and then you go get a job. And then you have money and you can kind of do whatever you want, and you’re on your own. So I feel like things just keep getting better.”

Though many changes have happened in his life, his family’s support has been constant.

“It’s really cool when you have your family as your core group. Not everybody has that, so I always try not to take that for granted.”

This year is his mom’s last year before retirement. Of course, this change will be very new to him but he’s excited to help Seneca carry on her energy and spirit.

“Everybody’s gonna have to pick up the slack. So, if I’m one of those people, great. Let’s just keep moving this thing forward.”

Last year, his family hit a bump in the road. They had to face a possible reality that they never thought they would have to face.

“It was after she had a doctor’s appointment. So I just come up the steps and she was in my kitchen, kind of being weird, tears in her eyes. I’m like ‘what is going on?’ You just get that panicked feeling. And that’s when she told me she had breast cancer. You don’t expect it. My mom’s fairly young — fifty-six, turning fifty-seven. You’re expecting your mom to live on forever and then something like that happens. I think that’s the scariest moment, especially recently, that I can remember.”

Obviously, nobody deserves to hear this news. Especially not somebody like Mrs. Donoghue.

“My mom is definitely the most positive person that I know. And we’re gonna really miss her at Seneca, but I think that’s something that this school is gonna carry over too — just kind of embracing everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are — you could be the custodian, you could be the kid who sits in the corner, you could be the coolest kid in school — it doesn’t matter. She treats them all the same and makes them feel good.”

Moving forward, he will approach life a little differently because of this experience.

“Time runs out at some point but you just don’t expect it to be soon. I think it just makes you not take anything for granted. You then see your family — the life that you’ve had for so long — being challenged. That’s really scary. And then you realize, ‘I’m thirty years old, what’s to say that something like that couldn’t happen to me or someone else that I’m close with who’s even younger than that?’ I think it gives you a lot of perspective. It’s scary to think about but it’s just another challenge that you sort of have to battle through.”

Seeing something like this happen to such a prominent figure in his life was extremely difficult.

“She handled it well on the outside. To everyone else. So if you asked her about it, she’d be totally fine. But I know internally she was not fine. And I think it’s the little things, too. Stupid things, like ‘Am I gonna lose my hair?’ Does that really matter? No. But on the outside if somebody doesn’t really know you then they just pencil you in as ‘Oh, that person has cancer.” And you don’t want to be defined by any one thing. You want people to just know you for who you are.”

It’s always been important to him not to judge people, but this made it clear to him more than ever before.

“Most people — especially when you get to talk to them and take down their walls a little bit — you can have a legit personal connection instead of just what you see on the outside.”

I see this belief come through in class every day. It’s clear from Mr. Donoghue’s passion and enthusiasm that he genuinely loves teaching and working with his students. He shows interest in every single student and treats them with respect and kindness.

“I always liked being around kids, whether it was my little cousins or when I was in high school, I just felt like a school environment is where you really have a lot of impact on people. And it’s the little things that could send somebody on a path that leads them to really figuring stuff out. I think you see that in school a lot.”

Not only does he teach his students, but he listens to and learns from them every day.

“Every day I feel like you can learn something from kids. When kids open up to you, now you understand where they’re coming from: their background, their family life.”

From his current coworkers to his fifth-grade science teacher who chose him for a science award, many people have touched Mr. Donoghue’s career. His high-school history teacher had the biggest influence on the teacher he is today.

“She was just the best teacher that I ever had. She was really dedicated to the subject material, but she also was really great at connecting to kids.”

The little things like this made a big difference for him both as a person and as a teacher.

“I think teaching is an underrated profession. I think there are some people out there that don’t give teachers the respect that they deserve. I know how hard all these other people work at Seneca, so even if it’s not credit for me, credit for educators in general for the impact that they have on young people. I think that’s huge. I would really like to see teachers get recognized for all the hard work they put in. ‘Cause again, you’re not doing this for the money. You’re doing this because you want to have an impact on young people.”

The great thing about teachers is their passion for what they do. They teach because they want to, not because they have to.

“I think it’s a lot more fun and worthwhile to have a job that is impactful on other people.”

As long as he plays a small role in his students becoming passionate, kind people, he’s happy.

“That’s what [teachers] like to see — is that we have some kind of impact on making cool people for the world.”

The big picture is more important to Mr. Donoghue than the small inconveniences in life.

“Don’t stress out so much about all of the little things, because in the end, it’s the big things that really are going to matter. So just make the right decisions — the right decisions for you — but don’t stress out about the small things. It’s easy to look back and say ‘I regret this, I regret that,’ but I think you just have to keep rolling with the punches. There’s always a new opportunity for you to make something of yourself.”

He’s not worried about getting attention and being well-known; he just wants to be remembered by the people he loves.

“The people that are gonna know your legacy are the people that you’re closest to. So I think that’s the only thing that really matters — if they know that you were doing the right thing. But overall legacy-wise, if you think about it, you’re one in seven and a half billion people. So it’s so hard to have a legacy that’s going to be remembered except for those people who are close to you. So as long as they know I was a good person and did the right thing, that’s the only legacy that I want to have.”

Mr. Donoghue is the person he is because of his strong family values and the role models he’s had throughout his life. I know that I can walk into his class every day and learn from a teacher who is caring, energetic, and passionate about what he’s teaching. And as a high school student, these things can make all the difference.

Mr. Cassel

I had Mr. Cassel for three classes throughout my junior year: English, Literature of the Holocaust, and Discussion and Debate. He was different than other teachers I’ve had for two reasons. One was his story – the way he grew up and his openness in sharing it with us. The fact that he didn’t hesitate to tell us about where he came from played a big part in how we viewed him. He showed us that he was human and that he came from a lot less than many of us did. Mr. Cassel grew up with ten siblings, the majority of them adopted.

“Even though I was surrounded by people, it was kinda lonely.”

However, there was a large age gap between his older siblings, his younger siblings, and him. The only one he was close to in age was his sister.

“My sister is my same age but she’s severe special needs. So she was like my closest friend.”

His huge family wasn’t as close-knit as you might imagine. He grew up fairly poor (he still has no problem eating his cereal with water instead of milk). He wasn’t supervised much because of the attention his other siblings required, but he didn’t see that as an excuse to slack off or behave poorly.

“I think I’m most proud that I would fully consider myself someone who is always looking to get better. I would consider myself a self-made person. Not that other people didn’t help, but I’ve always had the internal motivation to get better.”

Following a nasty divorce, he didn’t see his father from the time he was nine until he was seventeen.

“I got my license, and then I drove to the Moorestown Mall, and I bought a t-shirt, and then I drove to his house and knocked on the door. We didn’t really talk about it. I told him I didn’t wanna talk about it. I said whatever it was, it was, and it’s over with.”

He often told us stories about the struggles he faced as a child, but he never seemed bitter or resentful. He spoke highly of his father, despite what had happened when he was young.

“I’m a big believer that holding a grudge is not a good thing. There’s no real reason to. Even all the way up to the point where he died, he was always trying to apologize and I never let him. I always told him he never had to.”

The adversity he faced as a child is the biggest reason that he became the person he is.

“I play a very active role in being a parent. I enjoy spending time with my kids … I always try to make sure that I do the right thing and spend time with them. So I coach all their sports. Even though they sort of don’t understand anything different, so I would probably say my kids take it for granted at this age. But they just assume everybody’s dad’s the coach. And I try to talk to them a lot and tell them about me as a person – good and bad, flaws and things that are good.”

He makes sure his kids get the time and attention he missed out on for a long time. He was able to turn those difficult experiences into something positive for his own kids.

“I will be a successful dad if my kids are good people – whatever that means. It has nothing to do with their careers. It has nothing to do with how much money they make or where they live. But I guess it’s really about how they live their lives. If I’ve done a good job, then they’ll be successful in whatever they do. But I just want them to be really good people – compassionate people for other people.”

While it shaped who he is as a dad, it also put him on the path to becoming a teacher.

“Because I didn’t have a dad for a decade, my teachers and my coaches, my friends’ dads – they all became like pseudo-dads. I always looked at my teachers and they were always smiling. And I thought that would be a great job. And they always seemed like people who I wanted to be like.”

The second reason Mr. Cassel stood out to me is the way he taught. As a student, he’s one of the few teachers I’ve seen who’s aware of the impact he has.

“I am always willing to, figuratively speaking, take the shirt off my back for people. I would go out of my way to make sure I help others. So I guess that’s the core of teaching; that’s what you do as a teacher. But that goes past the school day into my personal life.”

Mr. Cassel’s class came at a time when I needed it most. While a lot of my appreciation for the class came from the material, a lot came from the way he taught us. If I hadn’t had Mr. Cassel for eleventh grade English, I would probably still not know what path I wanted to take in life.

I realized this during a college visit last winter. The speakers talked about the importance of following your heart. They said to start by thinking about the classes you love going to, and figure it out from there. That’s when it became clear that English class was the only one I consistently looked forward to. Mr. Cassel was one of the people who encouraged me and made me truly excited for the future. I was at such a tipping point. If somebody told me that my writing wasn’t good, I probably would have abandoned it completely and pursued the wrong path in life. I know my writing wasn’t the best he’d ever read, but he made me feel like I had potential. Little things – like the comments he left on our essays – made a big difference in my case.

He helped start a fire – a passion for storytelling and creating – something that might be more important than raw talent itself.

To any teachers (or anyone people look up to) reading this: show interest in your students. Talk to them – about them and about you. Encourage them. Tell them when they’re doing a good job. You may not make a huge difference for every single person, but you will make a critical difference for many. We can tell when a teacher loves what they do, and when they just want to get grades in the book. Be the difference between having to go to class and getting to go to class.

“I really care a lot about what I do. A lot. I take it very seriously – not that I can’t laugh at myself – but I take it very seriously because I know how important it is … So I think if I were a chem teacher, or if I taught algebra 2, or if I taught freshman business, I think I would be exactly the same.”

To any students (or anyone who looks up to someone) reading this: if you have a teacher that’s moved you, thank them. Let them know. It’s important for people to hear that they’re doing a good job.

I used to wonder how Mr. Cassel was “just” an English teacher. He seemed so much bigger than what he was; it always seemed to me that he had the potential to be extraordinary.

The longer I was in his class, though, I began to realize that I was wrong. Mr. Cassel loves what he does. He goes out of his way to let people know they’re cared for. He impacts lives every day.

You may not be in the spotlight; you may not receive constant praise and attention. But if you work hard and love what you do, you are unquestionably extraordinary.