Reality show focuses on Lenape high school teachers

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Shawnee High's Margaret Fanourgakis at volleyball tryouts. She teaches physical education and health, advises the student council, and coaches. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)

Margaret Fanourgakis is as tall as Snooki is tiny, her family background is more moussaka than calzone, and, from her Shamong home, the Jersey Shore is a hike.

But one day in April as Fanourgakis, a 30-year physical education and health teacher, drove her white Ford Edge to work at Shawnee High School in Medford, a television cameraman was in the passenger seat, filming her every move.

Even for somebody who gets watched every day, it was a little weird.

"In the beginning, I was very cautious of everything I was doing, everything I was saying - for about two periods," Fanourgakis said. "Then it got very natural, until the kids said, 'Mrs. Fan, what are they doing?' "

They were helping a star be born. Several stars, actually.

Soon, South Jersey will welcome a new reality-TV show, an indie production if ever there was one - and worlds apart from MTV's Jersey Shore.

Mark your calendar: Sept. 6 will be the premiere of We Teach, a six-episode series created by the Lenape Regional High School District to show what education looks like in its four high schools.

The actors aren't actors, not even Tony Danza. They are Lenape Regional teachers and students, and there was no script. The goal: to show how educators really spend their workdays.

Superintendent Emily Capella said she had gotten the idea after the 2009-10 school year and its seismic school-aid cuts, statewide teacher layoffs, and open warfare between Gov. Christie and the state's largest teachers' union.

In the midst of all that upheaval and a poor economy, the image of public employees, including teachers, took a battering.

"In the whole political/economic crisis that we have been in, there are many negative fingers pointed at public education," Capella said. "As a leader of a great school district, I got tired of it."

So in the beginning of the past academic year, Capella announced the day-in-the-life-of-teachers project. It attracted a $1,000 grant from local financial planner John Costello of MetLife Resources to defray expenses, but the district didn't need to hire a film crew. It already had Lenape District Television, its educational access channel.

Other than Lenape Regional staff and equipment, no district resources were used to produce the series, Capella said. About 150 hours were shot.

In fairness to public education's critics, We Teach is intended as public education and community relations, not journalism. A committee picked the eight featured teachers. No lemons are shown. The series reflects the overall quality of the teachers, Capella said, and a second season is already planned.

"Our schools should be used as a model of a public school district that is working and not painted with the broad brush of negativity that all public schools have become victims of," she said.

The series tries to show the many parts of an educator's day: teaching classes, helping and connecting with students, preparing lessons, and dedicating long hours to student activities. It features teachers early in their careers and those who have taught for decades.

You get the sense they are passionate about what they do.

"Until you become an educator, you don't see all the planning that's going on," said Tom Tamburello, 33, of Lenape High School in Medford. "You do a lot more than stand in front of a bunch of kids and spill out facts."

Tamburello knows well the impact a teacher can have on students' lives.

When he entered Cherokee High in Marlton as a student, he hated math and failed freshman algebra. The next year, his geometry teacher, Marilyn Trotta, now retired, took him aside and counseled him on his work habits. It clicked.

Now a math teacher, Tamburello said he told his students every year how he had flunked algebra.

"I use that story all the time to tell them, 'I could be one of you guys, and I turned it around,' " he said.

The crew filming family and consumer science teacher Lynne Ritter at Seneca High in Tabernacle had a long day. It started at 7:30 a.m. and ended at 11 p.m.; she was helping out at the Sophomore Cotillion. She's also a class adviser and oversees the Future Chefs Club.

On the day of her filming, Fanourgakis, who is in Episodes 3 and 4, was at school until 10:30 p.m. supervising the Mr. Shawnee Contest, an annual student-council fund-raiser that is a boy version of the Miss America Pageant.

At one point in the evening, she said, she asked the camera to be turned off so she could grab a bite. She didn't want to be filmed eating; she'd had lunch on the fly and no breakfast. Usually, she eats in the car on her way to work. But that day she knew a camera would be rolling.

"I didn't want the kids to see me driving with one hand," she said.

 


The first episode of "We Teach" is scheduled for 8 p.m. Sept. 6 and 7 and 9 p.m. Sept. 8 and 9 on Comcast Channel 19 and Verizon FiOS Channel 21 and online at www.lrhsd.org/LDTV. Watch a preview at www.lrhsd.org/WeTeach.

Contact staff writer Rita Giordano

at 856-779-3841, rgiordano@phillynews.com, or @ritagiordano on Twitter.