Codey leaves legacy of compassion in WOSD

After 16 years at Gregory School, former first lady of NJ retires, will focus on mental health initiatives

Mary Jo Codey, pictured with her husband, Richard, is retiring from Gregory School after 16 years.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — After 16 years in the West Orange School District and a career in the field of education spanning more than 30 years, Gregory School teacher Mary Jo Codey is ending her career as an elementary school teacher.

Codey, who served as a basic skills teacher at the Gregory School, is well-known throughout the school district for her work ethic and a willingness to collaborate with just about anyone to help her students achieve success.

What some might not know is that Codey was shaped by her own experiences as a student in the WOSD, becoming a better educator from the examples set by her own teachers.

“I had an emotionally abusive teacher in elementary school and then I went to Lincoln Junior High School and then Mountain High School. At Mountain High School, for the first time in my life, I met teachers that loved children and these teachers cared about all of us,” she said in a recent phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle. “They wanted to see us emotionally grow and academically grow, and I decided that I wanted to be a teacher just like them so that when I got my students they could reach down and find themselves and when they had hardships they could survive it.”

Codey went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from Caldwell University, a master’s degree from Seton Hall University and a certification as a learning disabilities teaching consultant.

“I started in Orange teaching at Mt. Carmel School in 1977; I had 36 sixth-graders and received a salary of $5,000 for the year, and then taught for Orange School District for 10 years at different schools teaching basic skills, mostly Oakwood Avenue School,” she said. “Then my husband and I had our son, Kevin, after three years of trying. I couldn’t wait to be home with him, but I immediately got blindsided with postpartum depression and gave up tenure to be home with him. I had to be hospitalized and it was touch and go for a while. I subbed for a while on and off in West Orange, took a pre-school position so I could take baby to work with me, and then eventually got a job at the Gregory School, where I spent the last 16 years and then retired.”

Codey’s courageous battle with postpartum depression took on a new landscape when her husband, Richard, became governor of New Jersey in 2004.

Suddenly thrust into the role of First Lady of New Jersey, Mary Jo Codey saw a unique opportunity to educate people on a different subject: the realities of postpartum depression.

She helped launch a statewide campaign that raised awareness of PPD and offered education and resources to women, their families, and health care professionals. The campaign — “Recognizing Postpartum Depression: Speak Up When You’re Down” — featured her in radio and TV promotions.

Ever the educator, she also served as ambassador to the Governor’s Book Club, which encouraged reading and literacy skills among elementary school children. It gave her an opportunity to visit schools around the state doing something she loves: reading to children.

In 2012, Mary Jo Codey and her husband began The Codey Fund for Mental Health to erase the stigma associated with mental illness and to increase care; she continues to be one of the nation’s most sought-after speakers on the subject of postpartum depression.

With her unflagging work ethic, Codey has used the same philosophy in speaking about her postpartum depression that she brought into the classroom: Use education to empower others.

One of those Mountain High School teachers who inspired her to see how teachers could change a student’s life was none other than retired Superintendent Jerry Tarnoff, who had Codey in his social studies class when he was just beginning his own education career.

“She was a good student and, even to this day, I remember the same things about her that I admired about her teaching style: She was respectful, cooperative and organized,” Tarnoff said in a recent interview with the Chronicle. “Now coming full circle she came back to work for us, and as a teacher she was a basic skills teacher. In that role, you may not have as many students as a teacher in a regular classroom, but what people don’t understand is that these are students who struggle academically and it’s wonderful when you can have a teacher who can take a few at a time and work on their academic deficiencies so that they can build on their confidence.

“There are other teachers in the school whose students were having difficulties and they would go to her for advice and help,” Tarnoff continued. “It’s really a very important job that a lot of people in the public don’t recognize that (students) get in elementary school so they can get early intervention before they get way behind the eight ball. She had respect for not only her students, but also her fellow teachers and was always willing to collaborate with them to follow the students’ progress and provide insight into behaviors and academic performance.”

In fact, Codey’s work in education was so inspiring to others that she was honored earlier this year by the West Orange Board of Education with an annual scholarship in her name in the amount of $20,000.

“She was always willing to go the extra mile with anything; her children loved going to her. She picked them up for her classroom and they wanted to tell her what they did over the weekend. It was nice to see and they really always had smiles on their face going with Mary Jo,” Gregory School Principal Michele Thompson said in a recent phone interview with the Chronicle.

“They always knew that if they did what they were supposed to do, they would get something from her treasure chest. The kids always came first. She worked with kids before school, after school, in the summer, trying anything she could for each individual child; she was very good with trying to figure out what the child needed. She had a nice rapport with the staff, and anybody could go to her for help; she was a great asset to education. She will be missed not only by the students, but also the staff and the parents.”

For Tarnoff, who serves on the board of trustees for the West Orange Scholarship Fund, the award was indicative of Codey’s dedication to her craft and to her students.

“As the superintendent, it’s not often that you have the first lady of the state as one of your teachers. During the time that I was there when she was first lady, you would expect her to have a certain aura about her, but she was still committed to teaching. She continued to be the same teacher that we have always known her to be, and I really admire the way she handled both of those tremendous responsibilities,” he said. “There aren’t many first ladies doing a full-time job and then doing all of the things that you have to do as a first lady. People listen to her, they respect her and she does her job in such a way that you don’t feel overwhelmed or embarrassed about coming to her for help.”

As a basic skills teacher, Codey’s role was to work with students who showed signs of struggling academically but were not classified as needing special education instruction. For these students, she would work in conjunction with what they were being taught in their regular classroom, and give them more individualized instruction to help them master the concepts.

“I taught them what they were learning in the classroom in a smaller setting. You take the kids who might flounder in the classroom and give them a lot of emotional attention and build their confidence. My teaching philosophy is to never make the kids afraid to ask questions. I wanted them to feel confident and I wanted them to feel strong academically because when I was in elementary school I felt stupid,” she said. “I owe West Orange and Mountain High School my whole motivation for becoming a teacher because I saw how much they loved kids. Now I see my students in the community and they remember me and I remember them, and it’s very rewarding to see how they have grown and flourished.”

Though she has retired from teaching, Codey still plans to continue educating, now focussing all her energies on furthering the conversation about mental health.

A former member of the board of directors of the Mental Health Association of Essex County, she also pioneered a postpartum support group that began at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in 1994 and continues to help women and their families today.

“I always had stress because people wanted me to speak all over the country and I would have to leave work to do so and it was a good cause, but I never liked leaving my class to speak. I was torn because so much is not known about postpartum depression,” she said. “I have spoken at Harvard twice, and traveled as far as Arizona. Now I feel less pulled between the two worlds and I can do it with a clear conscience and not worry about kids not getting instruction. I wasn’t happy with how many people don’t know about postpartum depression. I really want to educate people and spend time with my new grandchild.”

And as she enjoys time with her new grandchild, she encouraged all local parents to enjoy their children, her former students, while they are still young.

“You get a lot of free hugs working with children, when they get off the bus they’re so adorable and excited to see you,” she said. “If you are good to your kids, it lasts a lifetime. I knew I had to be good to my kids.”