A peek into the wonderfully-weird world of Mr. Pliskin, the Governor’s Educator of the Year

A conversation with RV’s most eccentric teacher

Mr. Pliskin has been featured in the Burlington County Times for his dedication and energetic spirit for the arts.

On Tuesday, Michael Pliskin, the performing arts teacher at Rancocas Valley, received the Governor’s Educator of the Year Award. Pliskin, an RV alum, has become a mentor and a staple at RV through his constant dedication to students and the arts. Pliskin’s devotion and commitment to RV were influenced by other notable teachers before him, including April Wagner, John Furno and former theater teacher Peg Welch. Pliskin helps many students express themselves through theater and puts his heart and soul into all Red Devil Dramatics productions. He is known by students and faculty for his sense of humor and lighthearted-nature. Pliskin is also known around Rancocas Valley for his goofy outfits, big personality, school spirit and volunteering his time to multiple other school-related activities. 

The Holly Spirit sat down with Pliskin on Wednesday to ask about his journey as a teacher and his motivation for continuing to be a role model for the students at Rancocas Valley: 

Note: this transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Holly Spirit: Why did you decide to become a teacher?

Pliskin: Well, I went to RV, and I have two older brothers. I don’t know what situation my family was in, but I just think I was lacking some direction. I think I felt kind of like I didn’t have specific talent or a sort of direction. So I got put into an intro acting class. My teacher was Peg Welch, who is my predecessor, and she had had my middle brother and I guess she thought he was really talented. She really made me feel like if I wanted to do this I could. When someone offers [some direction] to you, you’re like “great!” I really wasn’t much of a theater kid but I slowly became [one], because this teacher made me feel like I was special on the subject matter.


Holly Spirit: One of our questions was, do you think RV has had an impact on you wanting to be a teacher? Would you say that [your theater] teacher was one of the people who strongly influenced you becoming a teacher?

Pliskin: Yes for sure. If I had a stronger direction, maybe I would’ve wanted to go to a bigger university or had bigger dreams. In my mind, at the time teaching, was my only way out. The way that she inspired me I was like, “alright, I can offer this to the world.” At least I can take care of kids like me who needed someone, and maybe I can help them through theater, whether they wanted to become theater experts or not…I also had John Furno, the art teacher. He was like, 23 at the time, and he was like, super young and I just decided he was the coolest guy ever. I’d go to his class and I’d do art and I had ipods, they’d just come out, and he’d let us listen to music and paint and it was like, “do whatever you want,” and it was so artsy-fartsy and I was so into that. I didn’t realize that you could continue this occupationally without becoming a famous artist or whatever. I could’ve just as easily gone into visual art, I just don’t think I was as talented. But both of them, I was like, that’s an awesome job, you come in and you paint with kids and you have fun and you inspire them and that’s your job? What else could you want?


Holly Spirit: So does this connect to your greatest motivation to continue teaching?

Pliskin: That grows in me more and more. The more that time goes on and the more alumni come back say that the program or the school affected them positively. The more I’m like “oh my God we’re doing something more here this is really cool.” I believe that RV is cooler than other schools and I believe our kids are cooler. I believe that they’re more down to earth, that they’re more worldly, and I believe that we have a product to give to the world from this weird town in South Jersey. You know that by the time kids are seniors, you’re friends with some of the weirdest people you would never be friends with, and I just think that’s so cool.


Holly Spirit: Okay so, a little more about you becoming a teacher. How was your first day as a teacher, how did you start out?

Pliskin: [In high school], Mr. Holland was my assigned disciplinarian. I was in Mr. Holland’s office every other day, that is not a fabrication, for some things worse than others. When Death of a Salesman, our all school play, opened my junior year, I was playing Willy Loman, and I got suspended from RV. I was dating this girl, and we went to the beach because the weather was nice. I called and pretended I was her dad and she called and pretended that she was my mom. I got suspended, it’s funny she only got a detention, how sexist is that? I think they knew that it was my idea, so I got suspended and [former theater teacher Peg] Welch had to talk to my disciplinarian because the play was opening that night. All these kids worked so hard to put on this play and I was about to ruin everything, which goes to support the idea that I really was lost. I was troubled a little bit and theater was the only thing in my life that really felt structured and clean and good, and [I thought] I’m gonna figure this out and it all starts here. 

So the first day of teaching I had to prove to everyone that I wasn’t that kid anymore. Here I am teaching at the school that I went to. I wore really dorky semi-formal pants, my shirt was tucked in, I’m wearing plaid and a tie. I look back and it’s just so frumpy. I was just desperate for people to not think that I was still that kid from Mr. Holland’s office. When I started teaching, Mr. Holland was there, and I swear he was looking at me like “oh my God what are you doing here, how did you get the job?” I’m like “dude, I know.” Then he says, “just a little immature,” and it was hard for me to figure out how to balance the formal side of me without losing my personality. I was so hell-bent on being a real teacher that I think that my personality was stifled a little bit.


Holly Spirit: So you would say that is probably one of the most challenging moments that you’ve had as a teacher?

Pliskin: I’d be a total lair if I said that I didn’t have aspirations to be teacher of the year. Teacher of the year is, in my mind…more like a lifetime achievement award kind of thing. Mrs. Welch, my teacher, got it after thirty years of teaching and she taught me and my brother and all thirty years of kids before me. I always dreamt of really putting in my time and the [being] most amazing teacher that one day I’ll become and someone will finally say “you did, you put in all that time.” It took me a long time to find whatever might be magic about my style or about whatever I can do with kids. It’s true that I can do good things with kids, even if it took me a while to get there.


Holly Spirit: How would you say that teaching has impacted your life outside of school?

Pliskin: I am obsessed with teenagers. It’s the first time in their [lives] that teenagers are adults, so it’s the first time that they can talk to other adults like adults. They’re kind of practicing and getting ready to be real communicators with adults, so I just think it’s so much fun to try and talk to them. 

At a block party birthday, my neighbor brought her two [teenage] nephews, and they had something on their shirt. It said something like about someone else’s mom or something like that, and I was like, “what’s up with you two idiots? Like let’s talk about what’s going on in your life.” I have this really great appreciation for teenagers. I love the idea that other adults think that teenagers are an issue, and they’re just annoying until they get out of college. I love that [because] I get that they’re the coolest. There’s nothing cooler than teenagers. Maybe college kids, but that’s it.


Holly Spirit: A little about current events right now, and about the pandemic. How do you think that has affected or changed your teaching?

Pliskin: I think it’s made me realize that the general banter and person-to-person communication between oneself and teenagers is so important. It’s important to stop and say “what’s up, what are you doing?” I believe it is a time in your life where communication is like a daily vitamin. This is the time where their brains are like “oh my God, I wanna leave my family, my family is so annoying and I need to communicate with other people.” 

Of course teenagers want to communicate with other people their age, but it’s also so important for them to communicate with other adults that aren’t related to them. It took me awhile, but I think I’ve built this kind of online banter of ridiculousness in the beginning of each class that isn’t just like “oh my God guys, we’re back from Thanksgiving weekend, what was your favorite part of Thanksgiving? Put in the chat, did you like the turkey or did you like stuffing?” It’s gotta be more than that, it’s gotta be fun and ridiculous and funny and edgy and borderline inappropriate, but always bring it back before we go and practice theater which is really the art of communication. 

I’m trying to think of a warm-up I’ve done recently. Like, today you had to put in the chat or make votes on who was most likely to be related. Everyone had to go in their house and find stupid signs that say “live life” and stuff [like that], and we all had to bring them in and we all decided which one was the most worthy. If someone’s sad, I’ll be like “oh my God Ashley you look so sad today,” and then I’ll be like “wait don’t say anything. Everyone put in chat what are the millions of possibilities of why Ash could be sad.” In the end the answer is like, “I’m not sad, I just woke up,” or “my face is just like this.” But what’s most funny is what everyone else puts in. People are like, her dog died, her boyfriend broke up with her, she just realized that she pooped her pants, and whatever, and then what everyone else says is funny. Stuff like that I think is quirky and cool and interesting.


Holly Spirit: So wrapping up, what are you most proud of?

Pliskin: I’m most proud of two things. I really am proud of some of the hard-to-reach students who, for any reason, I reach. I’m proud of finding the student that doesn’t have a teacher who is their buddy, who doesn’t have a friend and say “I don’t care what you say, there’s a new rule in town and I’m your new best friend and you can go to the principal’s office if you don’t talk to Mr. Pliskin. Stop by here everyday, or you know I’ll find out where you live and torture you or something like that.” Kids often think “oh my god psychopath,” but then a couple weeks go by and you can tell, they’re glad that I made you a buddy. Every kid needs a teacher [for whom] they can be like “I love that teacher, that teacher is one of the only people in this year who is like, I give a crap that you exist.” 

The other thing that I’m extremely proud of and always working on is that I do think our theater program, that our performing arts program, is elite in our regional area. I believe that we put on performances that push the outlook on what high schools can do and what high school actors can do, period.


Holly Spirit: One last question. What does winning Education of the Year mean to you?

Pliskin: I have to go back to the statement that it came a little premature. When I saw [other] teachers win, teachers that have worked so hard and never stopped…Those were the ones that I look at and I’m like, “dude, you’re so much cooler than me.” I can’t wait until I see some girl in my theatre class, and I’m like “wait, is your mom Ashley?” and she’s like “yeah, that’s my mom.” I’ll be like, “dude, taught your mom at one point.” She’ll say, “no way, you’ve been teaching this hard every day for this long?” I’ll be like “yeah, dude, I have.” That’s always the teacher of the year that I want to be. Rather than calling it teacher of the year, it should be called the lifetime achievement [award], and people should get it [after] 25 years of kicking butt in the classroom.


Holly Spirit: Is there anything else you want the RV community to know about you?

Pliskin: Just because you don’t write lesson plans doesn’t mean you have bad lessons.