She became at teacher at age 45. She admits driving some of her students nuts, the ones who want her to spell out what they need to do to get an A. She tells them there is no one way to do anything - take some risks.
"I say to them, 'This is your parachute. Jump off.' "
Assini, 57, who got high praise from the likes of Gov. Christie and state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf with the announcement of her award Wednesday, has taken her share of leaps.
Growing up in Somerset, N.J., and attending St. Matthias Elementary, she was a good student but a terrible speller. In the seventh and eighth grade, she had Mrs. Pastorini, one of those life-altering teachers, who confided that she was a lousy speller, too. Assini wanted to become a teacher.
But another teacher in high school started to sour her on the idea. Then her older brother told her it would take her forever to pay off her college loans on what teachers then earned.
"I graduated from high school in 1974," she said. "You were either going be a teacher or a secretary.'
She started community college, majoring in secretarial science. She lasted a semester. She liked her accounting course, but she couldn't type much better than she could spell. She got a job as a bookkeeper. About a year and a half in, she got a job review that threw her for a loop.
It was basically a good review, but she was told she needed to be less social on the job.
Later that day, she went for a haircut. It turned out to be an epiphany.
"I realized I had been told all my life to sit down and be quiet," Assini said. "I thought, maybe I should get a job where I could stand up and talk."
Teaching would have fit that bill, but she wasn't there yet. She called her fiance, Drew, who is now her husband, and told him she was postponing their wedding and going to beauty school. Two weeks later, she was in.
After getting married, the couple settled in East Brunswick and had a son and a daughter.
Her son, Drew Jr., was rowdy, so she was encouraged to chaperone on school trips, where she was assigned her son's fellow handfuls. She continued to volunteer when daughter Jamie's class needed help. Assini still got assigned the rowdies, which suited her fine. In retrospect, she said, it was good preparation for working with students at Delsea's alternative high school in Franklinville, one of her other hats.
She loved the school environment, and one of the teachers asked her: Why not become a teacher's aide?
"I didn't have enough credits," Assini said.
But she looked into it. Before long, she was enrolled in community college and then graduated with a bachelor's degree in social studies from Kean University. She managed that all in just 31/2 years while still working at the salon. She also went on to earn a master's degree from Wilkes University.
In September 2001, she started teaching at Joyce Kilmer School in Milltown.
Becoming a teacher later in life has affected the way she approaches education.
"Working in the outside world kind of gives you a different perspective of what is important," said Assini, now a Deptford resident. "My own two children were not perfect students. My daughter was an athlete. She went to school because there was a game in the afternoon. My son was a class clown. It gives me insight into the different kinds of kids."
Her daughter, Jamie Counard, is now a health physical education teacher at Delran High School, married to a teacher. Her son went on to earn a master's degree, is a behavioral counselor, and teaches psychology, but earlier in life, he wrestled with his own demons, including substance issues.
Jill Bryfogle, the Delsea middle school principal, said Assini had been open about her family's issues to try to help students and parents with their struggles."
"As a teacher, her whole platform is about mental-health issues - making sure kids that have these kinds of issues are addressed and counseled properly, making sure kids are healthy and safe," Bryfogle said.
Natalia Berarbelli, 14, one of Assini's pupils, praised her teacher for challenging students to think critically.
"When she teaches, she doesn't always tell us every single step," she said. "She wants us to figure it out on our own."
In the coming months, as teacher of the year, she will do special projects with the state Department of Education. She will give presentations around the state. The New Jersey Education Association will pay for travel expenses. The Education Testing Service will sponsor her on a six-month sabbatical beginning in January, paying the equivalent of her salary and benefits, and SMART Technologies, another program partner, will provide a SMART board package for Assini and her school. She will even get to meet President Obama.
Come next September, she plans to be back in the Franklinville classroom.
"I think this," Assini said, before heading off to her next class, "was always what I was supposed to do."
Inquirer staff writer Andrew Seidman contributed to this article.