Sarah “Scissorhands” Pandohie-Levien always felt like she was wearing the black coat of a licensed master cosmetology teacher, even though technically her coat was grey, marking her as a student-teacher awaiting certification. Now though, her coat is black, and the master has arrived.
Pandohie-Levien, who was the subject of a story in The Weehawken Reporter in 2010 when she was named student of the year at the Robert Fiance Beauty School in West New York, recently passed the state cosmetology exam and was simultaneously named the school’s 2012 student teacher of the year.
“I felt so honored when I found out about the award,” said the Weehawken resident and mother of four. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t love what I’m doing here.”
To obtain a cosmetology certification in New Jersey, a student must log 1,200 hours at an accredited beauty school, such as Robert Fiance. Once you log 600 hours, you are allowed to start practicing on real people, with real hair, nails, and faces. But you spend the first 600 hours with Pandohie-Levien, which can be both a blessing and an immense challenge.
“Being that my students are young adults, I have to be strict with them,” said Pandohie-Levien, who credited her stern teaching style to her Jamaican upbringing. “My classroom has lots of structure.”
Her students agreed, but also said she’s not as much of a dictator as she lets on.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t love what I’m doing here.” – Sarah Pandohie-Levien
But other than that, by all accounts, Pandohie-Levien’s students love her.
“If you have any doubts about being in school for [cosmetology], she’s the type of teacher who will you help you work past that,” said Sarah Caraballo. “She pushes us to do better.”
Many of Pandohie-Levien’s students talked about the type of classroom environment she is able to create, which, by the sound of it, resembles some of the great classroom movies of our time, “Sister Act,” “Dead Poet’s Society,” or “Stand and Deliver.”
“We’ve really become a family in here,” said Maria Rivera. “So I guess she’s like our teacher, our mother, our friend, and our mentor all wrapped up into one.”
An interesting journey
Pandohie-Levien started doing hair as a hobby, styling her friend’s and family member’s while she was in medical school. A biologist by trade, she was studying at Rutgers University when life, as it sometimes does, got in the way. Pandohie-Levien and her husband, who works for the township of Weehawken, had their first child, and she dedicated herself fully to motherhood.
When she decided to go back to work, it was not so much biology that called to her, but rather cosmetology. Interestingly, however, she says the two are connected.
“I think having the science background makes this a bit easier for me. There’s a surprising amount of chemical and biological knowledge that you need to have to do hair,” she said.
As a third, part-time profession, Pandohie-Levien also worked as a substitute teacher in Weehawken for several years. She said that like biology, the skills she gained lend themselves naturally to teaching at Robert Fiance.
“I learned to take charge of a classroom, and that doesn’t really change with the age of the students,” she said. “I think of my students as my children.”
Robert Fiance’s Education Director, Paul Ferrara, praised Pandohie-Levien’s work ethic and classroom demeanor.
“She took her background in science and her background in education and merged them to be something really special,” said Ferrara, who has followed Sarah’s progress closely since she joined the school in 2010. “She’s able to connect with the students on their level in an amazing way.”
Ferrara also recalled how in 2011, when Pandohie-Levien graduated from Robert Fiance, he was quick to offer her employment as an apprentice teacher, and said he was thrilled when she decided to stay on full-time.
“I really like to promote from within. We love our candidates to stay on,” he said. “Her ambition mirrors the ambition of our students. She wants them to succeed.”
Succeeding in cosmetology, according to Pandohie-Levien, is harder than you might imagine. She addressed some of the misconceptions about the profession, including an article she recently read which ranked cosmetologist as only slightly better than truck driver on a list of the worst professions.
“I read that and thought it was absolute nonsense,” she said. “Maybe it’s looked on a bit shabbily, I don’t know, but I don’t think you can really appreciate how prestigious it is until you’re doing it.”
So, what’s next for Sarah “Scissorhands”? She plans to continue to teach at Robert Fiance, and eventually open her own full-service salon in Weehawken.
“I want to keep it in my town,” she said. “I really love living in Weehawken.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org