The 2019-20 NJ State Teacher of the Year takes learning beyond the books

By Kathryn Coulibaly

As she was growing up, almost everyone told Kimberly Dickstein Hughes that she should be a lawyer. With her boundless energy, determination, and desire to make the world a better place, it was a logical conclusion.

“I was an English and political science major at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, and I was taking some classes that would lead toward a career in law and government, but I came to realize that being a lawyer wasn’t my calling,” Dickstein Hughes remembered. “I went to see Dean Justine Hernandez Levine and I started crying in her office because I was afraid to make the wrong choice. She encouraged me to follow my passion, which was my English classes, and to explore some education prerequisite classes, which interested me. And that’s where I found my people.”

For Dickstein Hughes, turning to an educator at a moment of crisis in her life was nothing new. She had always relied on her teachers to get her through challenging times in the past.

At 17, her best friend Alicia DiNatale passed away after a 13-month battle with cancer. Dickstein Hughes, only 16 years old herself, processed her grief by throwing herself into school. She was still hurting, but because her coping mechanism was a behavior that most people celebrate, those around her assumed she was doing fine.

 

Dickstein Hughes’ family and her teachers got her through that time, as did her work with the foundation that DiNatale’s family created to honor her memory and support other teenagers fighting cancer.

“The Alicia Rose Victorious Foundation works to improve the quality of life for hospitalized teens, so we sponsor programs like proms, movie nights, teen lounges at hospitals and art therapy,” Dickstein Hughes said. “All Alicia wanted to do was go to school and be with her friends and her teachers. We want to give teens a sense of normalcy in an abnormal time.”

It is not totally accurate to say that everyone in Dickstein Hughes’ life wanted her to be a lawyer. Her parents, Kathy and Howard, always saw that spark in her and believed education      was in her future. In fact, they raised two daughters who went on to become teachers. Dickstein Hughes’ sister, Katelynn Brotz, is a teacher in Moorestown. She credits her sister with inspiring her to enter the education profession.

Both women were heavily influenced by another important figure in their lives: Grandma Rosie, affectionally known as Grammy.

“My grandmother made everyone feel like the most important person in her life and that’s what I hope to do for my students, my colleagues and this community,” Dickstein Hughes said. “I think about my grandmother all of the time, and I carry with me the mantras that she instilled in all her grandchildren.”

In fact, Dickstein Hughes has quoted Grammy in many of her speeches and interviews since becoming Teacher of the Year, and she continues to live by them.

“Giving back and making others feel special is why I became a teacher,” she said. “And that is definitely due to her influence. Grammy made others feel special every day.”

A career in Haddonfield

In 2008, Dickstein Hughes first walked through the doors of Haddonfield Memorial High School as a student teacher. She worked with English teacher Julie Smart, and was humbled by the faith Smart placed in her.

“When I found my passion as an educator, that’s when things really came together for me,” Dickstein Hughes said. “I came to life as an educator. Through student teaching, I learned that you have to trust yourself. And Julie trusted me before I trusted myself. She really had a confidence in me when I didn’t have it in myself. And now I’ve had the opportunity to teach her children.”

Dickstein Hughes completed a master’s degree in English secondary education from Rutgers in 2009 and was quickly hired by Haddonfield.

Since joining the staff, Dickstein Hughes has taken on a number of other projects. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, she serves as an advisor to extracurricular clubs Stand with Camden and Model United Nations. In 2018, her students competed in the English-Speaking Union’s National Shakespeare Competition.

She first appeared in the NJEA Review magazine in January 2019 for a project she and her students took on to help a former child soldier from South Sudan raise more than $50,000 to help him study development at Emory University.

Dickstein Hughes engages her students in all of her projects—personal and professional. In addition to her work to assist Garang Buk Buk, the former child soldier, she has encouraged her students to participate in the Alicia Rose Victorious Foundation.

Celebrating milestones with students and community

Dickstein Hughes is so deeply connected with the Haddonfield community that she and her husband, Phil, a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya, chose to hold their wedding in the courtyard at Haddonfield Memorial High School. In this way, all of her students could be included.

“In every other culture of the world, the whole village celebrates a wedding together,” she said. “I wanted my village there, and I’m incredibly humbled that my village showed up.”

The Haddonfield community is certainly proud of Dickstein Hughes. They held a firetruck parade for her after she was named New Jersey State Teacher of the Year. She fit as many of her students as she could on the two fire trucks. In Haddonfield, it’s usually the football team that gets to enjoy such a reception, but since Dickstein Hughes also brought home a state championship—as well as being named Camden County Teacher of the Year—the mayor and council felt it was right to celebrate her in the same manner.

Dickstein Hughes was touched by the reception, and the way her community continues to celebrate with her.

“When I got off the firetruck, there was my middle school drama teacher, Mr. Cotter, standing there with my parents, alongside Mario DiNatale, Alicia’s father,” Dickstein Hughes recalled.

For Dickstein Hughes, this year will be a challenging, but joyful one. She is looking forward to connecting with educators across the state and learning from them.

Recognizing teachers and all school employees

“One of my goals this year is to boost teacher and school employee recognition programs. People need to know that they have the support and encouragement of not just their school community, but their entire community.”

That sense of support and encouragement is one that Dickstein Hughes tries to instill in each of her students. She teaches classes on global literature, Greek drama, and Shakespeare. But what she really hopes to teach them is something that can’t be found in any book.

“I want my students to know that there is always someone who believes in them,” Dickstein Hughes said. “That’s what my teachers have been for me. We all would be better off and walk a little taller if we believed in ourselves and had at least one other person who supported us,”

Her colleague Julie Smart sees how Dickstein Hughes builds up those around her, both students and staff.

“Kimberly makes a concerted effort to have her students take a vested interest in their educations,” Smart said. “She pushes them to find something that inspires them, and they never forget that. Her students are her biggest champions.”

For Uri McMillan, a senior at Haddonfield Memorial High School, the impact Dickstein Hughes has had on him won’t be forgotten, and he plans to keep in touch with her after he leaves Haddonfield.

“Mrs. Dickstein Hughes really cares about others,” McMillan said. “She’s trying to make the world a better place; she’s using her access to help others. She doesn’t just care about the curriculum; she wants to help make you a better global citizen.”

As Dickstein Hughes said, “I see myself as a conduit for learning. I hope over the course of this year that all of my experiences help benefit the teaching and learning here in Haddonfield, but also across the state.”

A lifelong learner

As the New Jersey State Teacher of the Year, Dickstein Hughes will have a six-month sabbatical to tour the state, meet with other educators and attend conferences, and work with the New Jersey Department of Education. ETS, one of the sponsors of the program, will cover her salary and benefits during the sabbatical. ETS also provides her with a new laptop computer.

NJEA, which also sponsors the program, provides Dickstein Hughes with a rental car, equipped with EZ Pass, to help her travel to speaking engagements and meetings across the state. NJEA also provides complimentary access to all major NJEA workshops and training opportunities, a $500 clothing allowance, media training and communications support, and funding for a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with other state teachers of the year and the president and vice president of the United States.

“This is a wonderful honor, but it is not about me,” Dickstein Hughes said. “This is about the 200,000 other educators in this state who are going to teach me so much over this time. I’m going to do my very best to learn as much as possible.

“For me, being a teacher means you’re a lifelong learner, and I think every teacher would echo that. To achieve that means that you have to learn alongside your students. You need to take risks that may not always be successful. But the beauty of education is that you always have more chances to explore and do more and eventually get to a point where you’re satisfied. I’m trying to teach the way I’d want to learn.”

Meet New Jersey’s County Teachers of the Year at njea.org/2020-CTOYS

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. She can be reached at kcoulibaly@njea.org.

County Teachers of the Year

Atlantic, Leslie Kronemeyer, Mainland Regional High School District; Bergen, Leah Jerome, Pascack Valley Regional High School District; Burlington, Michelle-Anne Spring Willingboro; Camden, Kimberly Dickstein Hughes, Haddonfield; Cape May, Thomas Belasco, Lower Cape May Regional School District; Cumberland, Amanda McCloskey, Bridgeton; Essex,  Yanelis Cabaleiro, Belleville; Gloucester, Brittany Mason, Washington Township;Hudson, Martha Garcia, Jersey City; Hunterdon, Therese Squicciarini, Flemington-Raritan School District; Mercer Helen Corveleyn, Hopewell Valley School District;  Middlesex, Jennifer Olawski New Brunswick; 

Monmouth, Elizabeth English, Freehold Regional High School District; Morris, Sarah Guza, Lincoln Park; Ocean, Kelly Cerbone, Brick Township; Passaic, Patrick Slater, Wayne; Salem, Tracy Demarest, Woodstown-Pilesgrove School District; Somerset, Suzanne Updegrove, Branchburg; Sussex, Jennifer Caputo, Sparta Township; Union, Brian Lowe, Clark; Warren, Debra Koch, Belvidere

Alicia Rose Victorious Foundation

The Alicia Rose Victorious Foundation is a national, nonprofit organization that provides age-appropriate programs and activities for children receiving treatment for cancer and other life-threatening illnesses in 38 states. Since 2002, it has dedicated more than $2.6 million in funding for Victorious 4 Teens programs.

For more information about the foundation, go to victoriousfoundation.org and watch Classroom Closeup’s story on one school’s efforts to fundraise for the foundation: classroomcloseup.org/segments/teen-cancer-awareness.

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