Poly’s Multidimensional Faculty: Teachers’ Careers Before the Classroom


Sadie Schoenberger, Arts Editor

Editor’s Note (1/17/23): The Polygon originally published that Ms. Aberlin’s sister was working at Poly; however, she was a student at the time Ms. Aberlin completed her presentation.

Our beloved teachers at Poly are known for their mastery of their respective subjects, but what about their careers before the classroom? Poly prides itself on fostering multifaceted students, which means it’s no surprise that our teachers are the same. Did you know that Peter Nowakoski, Head of the English Department, was head chef at an award-winning restaurant for 10 years and  certified in French cuisine from an internationally famous culinary school? Or what about Phoebe Aberlin-Ruiz, who worked as a victims advocate and crisis counselor at a 24-hour rape crisis center before coming to Poly? 


In graduate school, Nowakoski took a leave of absence, moving to London in pursuit of something new. He began working in kitchens while attending the world-renowned culinary school Le Cordon Bleu. It was at that school where he got his certification in cuisine, specializing in French cuisine. “But I’ve done everything,” Nowakoski reflected, “I’ve been a pizza guy, I’ve been a grill cook, and I have done classical French cuisine.” Nowakoski took his certification back to the States, where he worked at some famous restaurants as a chef. He spent ten years as the head chef at Rats, an upscale French restaurant located near Princeton.  


“It’s a fantastic restaurant. Everyone should go there,” said Nowakoski. He ran the restaurant on the grounds, which also housed a sculpture park, an homage to renowned French artist, Claude Monet. “It was a well-traveled French kitchen. So everything was using French technique, French methods, and often very local where we could get it,” Nowakoski described. “So I had worked with farmers, and we had our own farm, but we had influences from around the world… a lot of it informed my academic interests as I studied world literature, postcolonial literature.”


“Everyone watches Gordon Ramsay or Chopped, those cooking shows. And actually, I had tons of folks work for me who were on them,” Nowakoski commented. “So it’s kind of funny watching these. I had them as 18, 20 year-olds, and they were five or ten years later on Chopped China.”


“When my kids got old enough that they were in school, I realized that you know, I sort of had to make choices about whether I was going to continue to be a chef at that level. And it’s really, if you do it right, a seven-day-a-week job. And so it was tough. And, I had always enjoyed teaching,” explained Nowakoski. “I started teaching at a local language institute, I got a fellowship at my alma mater, and then I started working in a wide variety of schools. And this is where I am now. So that’s awesome.”


While Poly currently does not offer cooking classes because of the lack of needed facilities, Nowakaski explains that it’s definitely been discussed. “If there’s a way to work it out, I’d be happy to do it. It’d be really fun.” 


After attending Occidental College in Los Angeles, Aberlin, who majored in gender studies with an emphasis on human sexuality, started work at The Bergen County Rape Crisis Center in New Jersey as a victim advocate and crisis counselor for sexual abuse and domestic violence victims. “Our team ran a crisis hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” explained Aberlin. “We responded to all local hospitals and police stations 24 hours a day and did a lot of community education in schools, helping companies and corporations evaluate sexual harassment policies and doing corporate training…that was more the daytime stuff, and the police and hospital elements were usually during the middle of the night into the wee hours of the morning.”


Aberlin’s job varied from day to day, and of course, day to night. “I’d go to different communities to educate on how to recognize signs of sexual abuse, prevent it from happening, who to go to legally if you need help,” Aberlin explained. “And then I carried a pager for my own clients. So anyone I had spoken to on the hotline could reach me directly 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I was also on call for new clients or to respond to hospitals or police stations, usually two days a week.”


“I learned a lot about humans and how they treat each other. Not always in the greatest way,” Aberlin reflected. “It’s definitely not a job that I think is sustainable for most people because you literally spend most of your time either seeing or hearing about the worst of the worst of what humans do to each other. And we would usually move them on to services. So there was a lot of like getting them in crisis mode but never really knowing how it turned out.”


Aberlin looked back on the impact of working in such a position, which led to her transition to Poly. “Just mentally I couldn’t do it anymore. It was after a particularly rough case at 3 a.m.. Gosh, that involved two pagers, two cell phones, and my house phone,” Aberlin recalled, shaking her head. “But I won’t get into the details of that.”


Aberlin’s sister was a senior at Poly at the time she came to Poly and did an assembly on sexual harassment, similar to the kind she’d lead at schools in New Jersey. “And [Poly] was looking to expand the health program at the same time…it was great timing. That’s how I ended up here.”


Once at Poly, Aberlin earned her master’s in health. In her first year, she taught a music appreciation class. “You should not ask about that,” Aberlin said, laughing. “That was a very old required 10th-grade class. And then the more health expanded, the more of that I took on. And I always helped with Latin a little bit.”


Women’s Affinity is hoping to host a discussion with Aberlin on her knowledge regarding sexual violence. “I think it’s a conversation you have to have constantly,” Aberlin said. “And I’d love to have a health curriculum for every year in high school because, you know, it’s a different conversation every year.”