After five decades at South Jersey Quaker school, "best teacher ever" will retire

Fourth-grade teacher Liz Martino has spent nearly her entire life at Westfield Friends School - as a student, parent, and teacher.

After more than five decades in the small Burlington County school in one capacity or another, Martino is leaving the classroom next month and retiring - almost.

"I love my job. It's, like, awesome, really," she said during a break in her fourth-grade classroom - the same room in which she attended fourth grade.

"This is where I've been my whole life, literally," Martino, 66, said last week. "I really never left, ever. I always wanted to be a teacher."

Described by colleagues as the heart of the one-story brick building on Riverton Road in Cinnaminson, Martino estimates that she has taught more than a thousand students.

"She's the best teacher ever," said Nicole Jung, 9, one of the 15 fourth graders in Martino's class this year. "She's so kind and smart. I'll always remember her."

When her older sister, Elena, started prekindergarten at Westfield in the early 1950s, Martino, then Liz Kelchner, went as well, tagging along for school activities. She enrolled several years later in what was then the Westfield Meeting House.

"I can still see myself as a kid walking around the halls," she said. She also recalls napping on cots erected between the wooden Quaker meeting benches.

She graduated from sixth grade in 1962. Seventh- and eighth-grade classes were added later; today, the school, established in 1788, enrolls about 150 students in pre-K through eighth grade.

After graduating from Merchantville High School in 1968, Martino enrolled in West Chester University to pursue a dream of becoming a physical education teacher.

But she dropped out a year later to marry her high school sweetheart, Tommy. They started a family and her career dreams were put on hold.

She sent her first son, T.J., to Westfield Friends in 1975. She returned at the same time to start the school's aftercare program. A second son, Michael, enrolled a few years later.

Martino became a second-grade teaching assistant in 1979. She had Michael as a student. He called her "Mom" instead of "Mrs. M." like his classmates.

"I couldn't pull the wool over her eyes, ever," he recalled with a laugh. "It certainly made for a tight ship."

Like his brother, Michael followed in his mother's footsteps. Both are middle-school science teachers, Michael in Eastampton and T.J. in Lumberton.

"We are so blown away by what she has done, the hard work, determination, and grit," Michael Martino said. "I couldn't have a better role model."

Added T.J. Martino: "I wanted to be like her, without a doubt."

While her children were young, Martino enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania to finish her degree. She maintained a grueling schedule, working full-time during the day at the school and taking courses at night.

It took seven years for her to obtain a bachelor's degree in education. She graduated summa cum laude in 1990.

"I didn't want my children to see me fail," Martino said. "The only way I knew not to fail was to get A's."

Colleagues say Martino brings that same drive to teaching. She was a fourth-grade co-teacher from 1990 to 1992 before teaching second grade as the lead teacher. Martino has taught fourth grade since 2008.

"There's just something about her," said Debra Hojsak, the school's director of advancement. "She just loves what she does so much."

She typically arrives at school around 6:30 a.m. for tutoring. She stays after school for more tutoring, until around 8 p.m. She developed a world curriculum and created lessons plans on New Jersey history and geography.

"She's all for the students," said her husband of 46 years, a retired Pathmark employee. "She's just an amazing woman."

On a recent morning, Martino sat on a chair during language-arts instruction with her students sitting on the floor at her feet. The class listened intently as she read from a book about the Holocaust as part of a curriculum on immigration.

When Martino, engrossed in the lesson, lost track of time, a student gently interrupted her, "We have to get to art."

"Oh, boogers!" she responded with a laugh. She said her teaching style doles out humor and discipline and she seeks to create an environment to make students eager to come to school. Her students have her home phone number and call regularly.

Martino escorted the class to a lower level where students were making plaster face masks. When a student began a sentence with "you and me," she quickly corrected him, living up to her nickname from students as "the grammar police."

"She always wants you to try your best," said Lorenzo Rizzieri, 10. "A lot of teachers let you slack off, but this one doesn't."

Said Julia Brown, 9: "She never gets mad unless you don't do your homework."

Martino hears regularly from former students, and is often the first person those students seek out when they return for a visit.

"It's hard to lose someone with that much history of the school," said Peter Pearson, head of the school, who also is retiring this year.

Martino says she will miss teaching, although she plans to continue tutoring after she retires June 9. She wants to spend time with her family and care for her 98-year-old mother, Maudie.

"I feel sad because it's her last year," said Adrian Harder, 10. "She's the best teacher. I want other classes to have her as a teacher."

mburney@phillynews.com

856-779-3814 @mlburney