For the first time since 1972, a New Jersey educator is a finalist for National Teacher of the Year.

Amy Andersen, an American Sign Language (ASL) teacher at Ocean City High School in Cape May County, has been announced as one of four teachers who are in the running to earn the 2018 title this spring.

Although the official announcement was made on Thursday, Andersen received the good news just before winter break.

"I don't even know how I got through the rest of the day," Andersen told New Jersey 101.5. "I was just so shocked and excited, and excited for my students. The recognition for them that this will bring — I'm just so proud of that."

Andersen, 45, was named the 2017-18 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year in the fall, and that's when she got to work on the national application. The other national finalists teach in North Carolina, Ohio and Washington.

“On behalf of the entire education community of New Jersey, I want to congratulate Amy on this remarkable honor,” state Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington said in a news release. “Amy is receiving national acclaim for the life-changing impact she has had on her students, and her dedication to not only teach but empower children in her community.”

The Cape May Court House resident began teaching at Ocean City High School in 2004, following a stint as a teacher of the deaf in Boston. She "fell in love" with sign language at the age of 7 when her mother — a former educator — started taking classes to better communicate with a deaf student.

Amy Andersen, 2017-18 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year
Amy Andersen, 2017-18 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year, is one of four finalists for the national title. (Photo provided by Amy Andersen)

Andersen attributes her New Jersey title to collaboration beyond the classroom that helped make the school's ASL program so unique and helped transform Ocean City into a "deaf-friendly community."

There's currently a wait-list for students wishing to enroll in ASL courses at Ocean City High School. Andersen is the only teacher of the subject at the school; about 140 students are enrolled in the three levels of ASL offered.

Recruiting ASL teachers in New Jersey will be a primary focus for Andersen over the next few months. With the state title comes a six-month sabbatical — during which she'll work with the Department of Education on special projects and attend conferences throughout the state and nationwide to share lessons and her experiences.

Andersen is excited for the opportunity but admits it was not easy to leave her students behind.

"My students are like my family and I tell them I am their forever teacher, and I sincerely mean that," she said.

Andersen said if she could give one piece of advice to new teachers, it would be to establish a rapport with students — make it a priority at the beginning of the school year, let your students know "you like them."

"When a student knows that, then it doesn't matter what you're teaching them," she said. "As long as you're passionate about it, they're going to want to learn and they're going to want to make you proud, as much as you want to make them excited and enthusiastic about what you're teaching them."

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