Described as a venerable “school mom” in her nomination, Jennifer Wittman-Cahill stands preeminent among teachers, as she is a true mentor and guiding force for her students, not simply there for education, but life lessons as well.
“That’s my approach to teaching,” said Wittman-Cahill (affectionately known as “Witt” to her legions of devoted students). “I teach about life through example.”
And what a formidable example that is—diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer, Wittman-Cahill did not go gently into the blanket of treatment, but kept on training for her fourth Ironman Triathlon.
“The term ‘tough love’ would best describe Witt,” said former student Jenna Harclerode (Sayville High School Class of 2020). “She is always pushing people to be the best they can possibly be and always helping her students strive for greatness.”
Bringing her breakfast and lunch to school each day (Wittman-Cahill said, “I never say I’m ‘going to work’ or it’s always ‘I’m going to school’ because I never really left that sense of community and togetherness that comes with it”), Wittman-Cahill showed her students proper, healthy eating and its importance in athletic performance.
“When I got diagnosed with breast cancer, some of my students said to me, ‘So it was all for nothing? It was all a lie? You ate healthy, you exercised and you still got breast cancer?’ But I told them, ‘No, that’s not the lesson to take away. You will get many things in life, but we only get one body, and that body will age and deteriorate, so what’s important is that while we’re here and alive, we need to make sure we take care of our body daily, so while we’re here you should live life to the fullest through health.”
Starting her career in Sayville High School as an English teacher in September 1992, Wittman-Cahill confirmed her childhood longing to be a teacher (realized in eighth grade) and connect with students was indeed the right path for her, but it wasn’t until after the retirement of the only female physical education teacher, when Witt took over, that she truly understood what it meant to be a mentor for the young adults under her charge.
“There have been thousands of kids, and I’ve been teaching and coaching so long, but each kid, each year is an extra step of being,” said Wittman-Cahill.
Crediting her own fantastic teachers in youth, Wittman-Cahill wanted to affect her students’ lives with just as much positivity, tenacity, and posterity.
One of the most critical lessons she has taken upon herself to teach her students is that of humble appreciation through work ethic.
“Many students I have are fortunate to have top-of-the-line equipment,” said Wittman-Cahill, “but I want them to know to value that and know that it will not always be that way for them in the future.”
In one instance, Wittman-Cahill literally numbered a bunch of indoor balls from one through 25. She would have her team search the entire gym to collect all 25 balls and whichever ones were missing would translate into the number of sprints the team had to run.
“Forget the lessons, forget the victories,” said Wittman-Cahill. “If you have not gone through your education and learned about how your actions impact other people’s lives, you’ve lost the whole point.”
Speaking of her own daughter, a formidable soccer player in her own right, Aila, Wittman-Cahill said, “We will do everything for her to cultivate and manifest her talent, but what I want is for her to be the very best person she can be—through compassion, kindness and love. And in terms of life, we just want her to be the hardest-working person you can be. There is room for mistakes, but there is no middle road when it comes to effort.”
“Witt’s goal, aside from making us better players, was to make us better people,” said former student Melissa Pascarella (Sayville Class of 2006). “I’m a PE teacher and sports coach, and I think about those four years I played softball for Witt all the time, wishing I could get them back.”
Continuing the cycle of awe-inspiring teachers begetting other inspirational instructors, Pascarella went on to say, “She was and still is an incredible motivator, coach, and person that I strive to be like for my own student-athletes.”