Breaking the ‘problem child’ myth

Meet 2023-24 NJ State Teacher of the Year Joe Nappi

By Kathryn Coulibaly 

Joe Nappi knows what it’s like to be labeled “a problem child.” After his parents divorced when he was four years old, he split time between his mother’s home in Tinton Falls and his father’s in Bayonne. Things came to a head when he was suspended from public school for the final 10 days of eighth grade and subsequently banned from graduation.  

To try to get Joe back on track, his mother got him a scholarship from their local church and moved him to a local Catholic school. He was kicked out by Thanksgiving of his freshman year. So his mother had him enrolled in a juvenile probation program to try to “scare him straight.”     

His reputation preceded him when he entered Monmouth Regional High School after Thanksgiving.  

“They had heard of me as someone who got kicked out of previous schools,” Nappi recalls. “No one gave me an orientation, and no one took the time to explain the rotating schedule. They told me it was a ‘J’ day and thought I would just understand what that meant.”  

When he tried to follow the schedule as he understood it, he was repeatedly told, “You don’t belong here.” On his first day of school, he was rounded up in the hallway and received detention, but still no one explained the schedule.  

The second day of school, the same pattern repeated. Nappi showed up at classes and was told he was in the wrong place. He got upset and tried to leave. Then he ended up back in front of the vice principal who suspended him from school. When his mother found out he was violating the terms of his probation she had him arrested.   

The next several years were tumultuous for Nappi. After spending time in a group home, he ended up living with his father and, while he was able to graduate from high school, he missed almost an entire year of school due to truancy. By the end of his senior year, after numerous discipline infractions, the district grudgingly made a deal with him: take your diploma and go—no prom, no senior trip and no graduation ceremony.  

In a generous understatement, Nappi now says, “I did not love high school. It was not my favorite thing at all.”  

Nappi instructs Monmouth Regional High School students in world history, U.S. history, and a dual-credit class with Kean University titled Holocaust, Genocide and Modern Humanity. He prioritizes his relationship with his students. His goal is to give voice to his students who aren’t normally heard.

Changing course 

Nappi attended Ocean County College for computer science where he followed his father’s advice to choose a profession where he could make some money.  

“I hated it,” Nappi says. “Sitting in a cubicle all day reminded me of being back in high school.”  

Two factors changed the course of his life and made him a teacher.   

On Sept. 11, 2001, Nappi was affected by the terrorist attacks on the United States.  

“Losing two family friends profoundly changed my life,” Nappi says. “I wanted to do something that matters.” 

The other life-changing event was the influence of his wife, Cristina.  

“I’ve known my wife since middle school,” he says. “She always had this dream that she and I would go back to Monmouth Regional and teach together. When she told me I should be a teacher, I laughed her out of the room. I hated school, why would I want to do that? But then she said something I couldn’t stop thinking about: ‘if you’re in charge, it can be whatever you want it to be.’ That flipped the script for me and set me on this journey.” 

Eighteen years and hundreds of students later, Nappi teaches history, psychology and a dual-enrollment class with Kean University called Holocaust, Genocide and Modern Humanity at Monmouth Regional High School. His classroom is right down the hallway from his wife Cristina, who teaches English and mindfulness, and who also draws on her past to engage and support students. Together, they sit on Monmouth Helping its Own, a charitable committee that he co-founded. They were both also advisers to Student Council for many years, creating an annual tradition called Battle of the Classes.  

Today, this former problem child has been named district teacher of the year twice and now the 2023-24 Monmouth County and New Jersey State Teacher of the Year, a distinction that continues to astonish him.  

Over the course of those years, Nappi has racked up an impressive resume. In the summer of 2022, he worked with PBS to develop lessons for Ken Burns’ documentary, “The U.S. and the Holocaust.” He is a Museum Teacher Fellow with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. In addition, he is a member of Phi Alpha Theta, the New Jersey Council for History Education, and the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education (CHHANGE) at Brookdale Community College. Nappi is Monmouth Regional’s representative to the Kean University Diversity Council on Global Education and Citizenship.  

Nappi is also the district’s former academic advisor and an assistant coach to the football team and currently serves as the Key Club adviser, part of the district’s Equity Council and the chair of Monmouth Helping its Own, or MHIO.  

Among his many honors, Nappi was named the Dr. Frank Kaplowitz Human Rights Educator of the Year from Kean University in 2017 and the Ida and Jeff Margolis Medallion for Excellence in Multicultural Education from Rowan University in 2005. 

Reaching students who have been written off 

But the fundamental focus of Nappi’s career has been reaching those students others may have written off.  

“Building relationships with kids is what matters to me,” Nappi says, as he remembers what it was like to feel as if no one in his life cared about him.  

“Foundationally, I wanted to do that differently,” he says.  

Nappi recalls the student who inspired him to create Monmouth Helping its Own. He was in his second year of teaching when he encountered a student who was considered a “problem” student, as he was.  

“I went out of my way to build a relationship with her,” he says. “We were playing a review game on a Friday when the student came in and refused to participate. She was scowling at me. I left her alone but approached her at the end of class to remind her that there would be a test on Monday and asked her to take the review document. She flipped out, tossed her desk, picked up another desk in the hallway and broke a window. 

“At the end of the day, I saw her waiting for the bus and I felt like I had to talk to her,” Nappi recalls. “I asked her what was going on. That’s when she told me that her mother had left for Atlantic City ten days prior and hadn’t come back. This student had no food and no one at home for ten days. She was only coming to school for the free breakfast and lunch. So of course, she was infuriated that with everything going on in her life, I was bothering her about a test.”  

It was Friday afternoon. Nappi gave her the money in his wallet, but he couldn’t let the student suffer throughout the weekend. He went to her guidance counselor and asked what they could do. They made calls and got her some support, but Nappi felt like he needed to do more. That night, he wrote the charter for Monmouth Helping its Own and set out to talk to staff about what could be done to help their students.  

Joe and Cristina Nappi, an English teacher at Monmouth Regional High School, collaborate at home, at work and on student clubs and charities.

Monmouth Helping Its Own 

Sixteen years later, Monmouth Helping its Own, a charitable organization which runs completely on staff donations, has provided more than $75,000 in direct aid and scholarships to students.  

“I work with a team that includes a guidance counselor, Cristina, the school nurse, a member of the child study team and our student assistance counselor,” Nappi says. “We see who needs resources, and then we do our best to provide them.” 

Students can receive Thanksgiving food baskets, holiday cards, winter clothes, vocational programs, SAT registration, and even the cost of utilities or groceries. 

In addition to caring for—and connecting with—students who are in need, Nappi is constantly looking for ways to make school fun for his students.  

Acknowledging each student’s humanity 

His classroom, despite dealing with often very serious topics, is lively and engaging. With a voice like a game show host, Nappi weaves humor with information in a way that keeps his students’ attention. However, he knows he’s competing against very compelling distractions: computers, cell phones, teenage drama and sometimes even heavier issues. Through it all, Nappi’s goal is to make sure every student knows he cares about them as a human being.  

He also knows that life has a way of derailing the best plans. After earning his associate degree from Ocean County College and a bachelor’s degree from Rowan University, he was on track to earn his master’s degree when his father had a stroke. Any discussion of graduate school was put on hold, and he went home to work and help his father pay the mortgage.  

Navigating the twists and turns and painful parts of life has provided Nappi with a unique perspective on life and undoubtedly given him empathy for his students as well as his two daughters, Gianna and Toni.  

Nappi is proud to have been named the Monmouth County Teacher of the Year and now, the New Jersey State Teacher of the Year. Among the perks of being named the Teacher of the Year is a six-month sabbatical where he will work with the New Jersey Department of Education in Trenton. But it’s a bittersweet benefit of the position.  

“I’m really bummed not to be with my students throughout the year,” Nappi says. “This is what I love to do.” 

In addition to the sabbatical, courtesy of program sponsor ETS, Nappi also will receive $3,000 worth of technology equipment. NJEA will provide a rental car, equipped with EZ Pass, to help him travel to speaking engagements and meetings across the state. NJEA also will provide complimentary access to all major NJEA workshops and training opportunities, a $1500 clothing allowance, media training and communications support and funding for a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with the other state teachers of the year and the president of the United States. 

Joe and Cristina Nappi with their daughters Gianna and Toni, at the New Jersey School Boards Association Workshop 2023.

Teaching about the Holocaust and taking care of each other 

Nappi hopes to use his year in the spotlight to visit schools and talk about his experiences in founding Monmouth Helping its Own, in the hopes of seeing similar programs pop up around the state.  He is equally looking forward to talking about what he has learned throughout his career as a teacher of the Holocaust in order to help teachers not just meet the state mandate, but to do the important work of teaching towards bias and prejudice reduction.  

“Teaching about the Holocaust can show students why it’s so important to stand up for themselves and others around them,” Nappi says. “It allows students to realize that this didn’t have to happen and gives them the chance to examine what can happen when we allow bigotry and intolerance to go unchecked. I want to use whatever influence I have to make sure these lessons of the past are not forgotten. Intolerance should never be tolerated, and unfortunately, we need to be reminded of this now more than ever.”   

Nappi also wants to share his story with teachers to help them realize that there are no bad kids, only kids who are going through bad times in their lives.  

“If you build relationships and get to know your students and their stories, you will be shocked at what you might find out and just how far showing you care will go with them,” Nappi says. “I start every year by telling my kids that I don’t ask around to other teachers about them. I could always tell the teachers who had heard of me when I walked into class, their expectations of me were already set, and I was more than happy to play that role for them.”  

Nappi hopes he can help break this “problem child myth” and help kids who, unlike him, didn’t have the positive influences outside of school that helped him find success.  

“Many of these kids are on their own,” Nappi concludes. “If we can’t help them, who will? I’ve done a lot of things in my career, but none of them has meant more to me than the kids I’ve helped. That’s the most meaningful part of the job for me. It’s not always easy, but nothing in life that’s worth doing ever is.”

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to She can be reached at