Triple Threat Aaron Burt: Math, Sports, and the Community
LEADER OF THE PACK: Aaron Burt is co-director of a camp for local children in the summers — a change of pace from his main job teaching math to third, fourth, and fifth graders, and coaching cross country, girls’ basketball, and girls’ lacrosse at Princeton Charter School. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Burt)
By Donald Gilpin
Among the driving forces in the life of Princeton Charter School (PCS) math teacher and coach Aaron Burt are his passions for math, coaching, working with elementary and middle school kids, and his hometown of Princeton.
“I’ve always enjoyed the energy that kids have,” he said. “I enjoy working with that energy. I always thought I’d like to be a teacher. Especially at the elementary level, the kids’ love of learning, their eagerness to be at school, to be with friends, to be with teachers, is great. It’s so much work, but the energy and excitement make every day exciting and fun. I wake up every morning and I’m excited for another day.”
Burt, who grew up in Princeton and attended Princeton schools, graduated from Ithaca College and went to work in various jobs with young people — in Nevada and California, in Albuquerque, New Mexico — before heading back to Princeton as sports director at the Princeton Family YMCA. Deciding that the school classroom and coaching would be the place for him, Burt earned his teaching certification at Rider University.
As he was earning his certification and student teaching at Johnson Park Elementary School, he realized that he wanted to teach in the town where he’d grown up. “I really wanted to teach in Princeton,” he continued. “I love the town and I love the schools. To be able to find a teaching job in Princeton at a wonderful school was a great opportunity for me.”
In 2004, 10 years after graduating from college, he signed on at PCS for his first and only full-time teaching job.
Burt recalls his grandmother as a particularly strong influence on his decision to become a teacher. “She had been a teacher and had always encouraged me to be a teacher,” he said. “Early on when I wasn’t teaching after college, she would say, ‘You really should be in the classroom. You’re very good with kids. You’re very good with people.’ She kept it in my mind that that was something I should be moving towards. I give her a lot of credit for my decision.”
His father had been an engineering professor, so, Burt added, “The idea of prepping for your classes, grading students’ work, figuring out the best ways to reach your students and teach them, was something I knew about in the house when I was growing up.”
Emphasizing the value of mathematics for his students and the advantages of being able to focus on math in the classroom rather than teaching an array of different elementary school subjects, Burt explained, “Math is problem solving. Everything in life is going to involve problem solving. They’re going to apply it to everything they do in the future.”
Long before the start of school in the morning, Burt can often be found presiding over the math club that he started at PCS. “Almost every fourth grader has signed up for it,” he said.
“They decide for themselves whether they will come or not. To see every level of student excited to join the club and wanting to join the club to try out some interesting, cool math problems together — for me that’s exciting. And they’re walking away saying, ‘Hey, I’m part of a math club. math’s really important to me.’”
Sharing his thoughts about engaging young math students, Burt continued, “To enjoy math, you have to be challenged in it. You have to have success. You don’t have to answer every single question correctly, but you have to feel you’re getting better at it.”
Burt noted that PCS, for a number of reasons, “is a very good fit for me.” He mentioned the advantages of a K-8 school, the small-school environment, and an administration that has high expectations and encourages creativity.
“I really like the K-8 model,” he said. “I get to know the students really well in third grade, then I get to know them as they develop all the way to eighth grade. I get to see them every day on the playground and in the halls, and I get to talk to them all the time.”
He continued, “There’s also a lot of communication here between parents and teachers. I feel I have a good relationship with the parents of students in my classes. It’s a nice small community, an extension of the Princeton community. When I go around town to the library, McCaffrey’s, to the CP pool, it’s the same parents and kids I get to see — in the classroom, on the basketball court, or on the lacrosse field. It’s an awesome position I’m in. I love teaching in my hometown.”
Burt, who played soccer and ran cross country when he was a student at Princeton High School, has always seen sports as an important part of his life, and coaching is a key component of his world at PCS. “I love coaching for the same reasons I love teaching,” he said. “It’s fun to see kids both in the classroom and on the practice field or in the game, to see them improve in skills they are working hard at, to see them succeed at things they didn’t realize they could do, to watch them cheer each other on.”
Burt has had extraordinary success with his coaching and with his Hawks Game Camp, which signs up about 150 children each summer. He spoke about the advantages of sports on the middle school level. “It’s still for the fun of the game and to be with friends. It hasn’t gotten so serious where everybody feels they’re training to try to get accepted into a college sports program.”
He continued, “From my own son’s experience, I’ve watched the direction youth sports have gone. I’ve seen some of the joy of sports disappear with all of these travel programs. I feel like they leave out a lot of kids who would just like to play the sport.”
The sports program at PCS, he noted, “offers the opportunity to play, have fun, get better at a sport, get some exercise, but not have the pressure that winning is everything. The fun and the discipline are important to me. I run a hard practice. I expect a lot from my kids. The fact that so many kids keep signing up for my teams is a sign that they’re enjoying it. I’m trying to push them beyond what they think they can do, but I want them to enjoy it.”
PCS Head of School Larry Patton described Burt as “a wonderful educator, colleague, and mentor to students. He is kind, caring, and thoughtful in all of his interactions with his students. He has had a great impact on his runners, many of whom have gone on to run at high school and college. He is an outstanding mathematics teacher who has been able to reach all students in his classes, always willing to help and always with a positive attitude. He is a great role model for our students.”
PCS Physical Education Teacher and Athletic Director Mark Papp, who hosts the summer camp with Burt, commented on his “caring, loving, infectious personality.” Papp added, “I am envious of his non-stop energy and his love for the children of Princeton.”
With Burt’s intense schedule of teaching and coaching, it’s not surprising that he looks forward to the contrast of a bit of serenity. “I love teaching,” he reiterated, “but it is a loud occupation. I like having quiet time, which is why I love walking and running through the trails of Mountain Lakes and the Sourlands. It’s peaceful and quiet. By the end of the day, certainly by the summer, it’s nice to have some peace and quiet. The idea of taking a long solo hike is enticing.”
Burt, who has run in the New York City marathon a few times, is currently training for a 50K trail race later this spring, his first ultra-marathon (more than 26 miles). “I’ve gotten into trail running, which I find so much easier on my joints,” he said. “I’m a little nervous, but excited for it.”
Burt and his wife, Camille Hernandez-Burt, who met and married in Albuquerque before they returned to the East almost 20 years ago, live in Princeton, “just seven houses down from PCS.” Their son Joaquin goes to Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, and her three older children, Burt’s step-children, live in the area. Burt’s parents still live in Princeton in the house where he grew up.