Building connection and community with the 2021-22 NJ State Teacher of the Year
By Kathryn Coulibaly
East Orange School District social studies teacher, Theresa Maughan, cannot—and will not—stop learning. An educator now in her 34th year teaching in East Orange, Maughan has a bachelor’s degree in history and secondary education from Rutgers University, a master’s degree in administration and supervision of urban schools from New Jersey City University, and she is nearly finished with a second master’s degree in American history from Pace University, sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute.
In addition, she constantly attends workshops on a variety of subjects, including New Jersey’s Amistad Commission’s Summer Teacher Institute, where she is an Amistad Scholar. She attended a seminar on Abraham Lincoln at Oxford University, and she is a member of a Twitter book club, #sschatreads, looking at pedagogy and content knowledge.
“I love history, and I love research and being a student,” Maughan said. “I’m happiest when I’m in a class learning from professors and listening to my classmates.”
Maughan’s path to the classroom was influenced by two very special teachers at pivotal times in her life.
Maughan had originally thought she would pursue a career as an immigration attorney, inspired by another teacher who helped her family when they faced an immigration issue when she was in sixth grade.
“My family emigrated from Belize when I was 5 years old,” Maughan said. “My father had an issue with his visa that threatened our immediate family’s status in the U.S. My teacher, Mrs. Roman, launched a letter-writing campaign and arranged for coverage in the Jersey Journal about our situation. The school community rallied around us and we were able to go through the naturalization process, eventually becoming American citizens. She showed me that teachers and students can have a huge impact by applying our civic lessons to real life.”
Her plan to study law was altered thanks to another teacher who singled her out for a special role.
“When I was in high school, Sister Bettyanne Schultz at St. Dominic Academy in Jersey City encouraged us to think like historians and uncover historical evidence through research. I was hooked,” Maughan said. “I was honored to receive the history award at my high school graduation, and it influenced my decision to become a history and education major in college.”
A passion for history
After graduating from Rutgers and student teaching in Franklin Township, Somerset County, Maughan began working in East Orange in 1987. Inspired by her students, she has been there ever since.
“Growing up, my sisters and I were always the only Black children in our classes,” Maughan said. “Wanting to assimilate, I did not share a lot about my culture with my classmates, although I did have two very close friends who I met in fifth grade. Working in East Orange helped me become more comfortable and accepting of my ethnic background and my racial identity. I work with students from all over the world. I see how proud they are of their cultures and it reinforces my pride in my culture. In order for me to create an environment that provides students a safe place where they can share who they are, I have to be comfortable with myself.”
Maughan has taught history at three of East Orange’s high schools, and she has high praise for all of her students, although she is now at STEM Academy.
“My students at the STEM Academy are phenomenal, but I think that’s what every teacher would say,” Maughan said. “My students are eager learners. They are resilient and willing to compete in anything I ask them to. They’re really accepting of each other, and I think we’ve developed a classroom environment that encourages that.”
Maughan’s passion for history and learning is mirrored by her students.
“I’m a history geek,” Maughan said. “I always tell my students that I’m a student of history, just like they are. So any time that I can get them engaged in research, it’s just wonderful to see that light bulb go off where they become very excited about what they’re learning.”
Prior to the pandemic, Maughan had her then-sophomores participate in the Hamilton Education Program.
“It was a lot of work,” Maughan said. “But they rose to the challenge. They had to conduct research using primary source documents. They had to create their own Hamilton-style projects. One of my students was chosen to perform their project on stage for the student workshop. And they were just amazed by the experience. Most of my students had never been to a Broadway show, so for them this was an extremely memorable event in their lives.”
Maughan said her students love the line in the musical about who tells your story. She encourages them to become history detectives to uncover more stories, and tell a fuller picture, than might have previously been told.
“Growing up, there wasn’t a diverse curriculum,” Maughan said. “I learned most of what I know about the contributions of diverse populations in American history by attending workshops and summer institutes, mainly through the Amistad Commission. I tell my students that I try to learn something new every day, and I love to bring that back to the classroom with me.”
Recruiting teachers from diverse backgrounds
One way education can tell more diverse stories is by recruiting and supporting more teachers from diverse backgrounds.
“I am passionate about inspiring people from diverse backgrounds to pursue a career in education,” Maughan said. “Oftentimes, Black teachers, especially male teachers, are not given the support they need. They’re pushed into a role of a disciplinarian. They are asked to take on challenges that are really not related to the course they were hired to teach. Our students deserve a teacher corps as diverse as they are, and we need to promote culturally inclusive classrooms that exhibit relevancy by providing an effective and safe learning culture that connects with our students’ prior knowledge and backgrounds. We need to ensure that our school curricula reflect this diversity and have educators who are willing to implement those lessons.
“We definitely need to make it more possible for people to stay in the profession,” Maughan added. “We’ve lost quite a few teachers as a result of the pandemic—they have left the profession for many different reasons. I always say that I am like a long-distance runner. I am on this track and in this race for the duration, but not everyone has the support they need in order to achieve that.”
Maughan also has participated in National History Day since 2011, when she served as a mentor to a student who qualified for the 2012 state contest and went on to win the bronze medal for the 2012 National History Day Contest in the senior individual performance category. She served as a lead judge at regional and state competitions and has mentored 11 projects that qualified at the state and/or national levels.
In addition to her other work, Maughan is a curriculum writer and has developed and presented several interdisciplinary professional development workshops for her school district. She is looking forward to the opportunity to network with more teachers across the state and the nation through the State Teacher of the Year program.
Maughan has already started collaborating with her county teacher of the year colleagues, who are an impressive group.
“After we were all announced, and I was able to get to know more about the other county teachers of the year, I started to mentally take bets on who would be the State Teacher of the Year,” Maughan recalled. “I did not rank myself among the most likely to win; this cohort does so much community outreach and has such an impact. I have always focused on the students in my class and branched out from there.”
An impressive resume
While Maughan is humble about her accomplishments, her resume could not be more impressive.
She has served as a mentor for new teachers and students studying history. She has previously been named the Teacher of the Year at East Orange High School, East Orange Campus High School, and East Orange STEM Academy. She is also the 2021 Essex County Teacher of the Year and the 2021 NJ History Day/National History Day Patricia Behring Senior Division Teacher of the Year.
East Orange has long been known for the talents of its staff. This year, in a history-making first, both the New Jersey State Teacher of the Year and the National Education Support Professional of the Year, Kimberly Scott-Hayden, work in East Orange.
“East Orange is a special place,” Maughan said. “I’ve been working here since 1987, and I think what makes it special is the people I work with. They’re not afraid to try different strategies and we are always trying to put our students and their families at the center of everything that we do.”
While she works in East Orange, Maughan lives in Randolph with her husband, Niall. They are the parents of two children. Bre is a special education teacher in Livingston, and Ryan is a recent graduate of The College of New Jersey now working in marketing and sales.
Although the pandemic may alter or delay some of the perks of being the State Teacher of the Year, as the New Jersey Teacher of the Year, Maughan is entitled to an all-expense paid, six-month sabbatical from January through June 2022 to attend national and state conferences, to tour the state visiting classrooms and to work on various initiatives at the New Jersey Department of Education, courtesy of program sponsor ETS. ETS also provides $3,000 worth of technology equipment.
NJEA will provide a rental car, equipped with EZ Pass, to help her travel to speaking engagements and meetings across the state. NJEA also will provide 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 the other state teachers of the year and President Joe Biden.
As exciting as being named New Jersey State Teacher of the Year is, Maughan is conflicted about leaving her classroom for the six-month sabbatical.
“I love everything about my job,” Maughan said. “I have been a teacher for 40 years, and I love interacting with my students. Every day is fresh and different, and I really enjoy giving my students an opportunity to become the best version of themselves.”
She is as inspired by teaching and by her students as she was at the beginning of her career.
“I take every year as if it is my first,” Maughan said. “I’m always trying to modify and adjust. Teaching gets harder every year; this year, I have to acclimate my students back to being in person. They need to remember how to interact with each other. It’s a challenge to help them figure out how to be more involved while still maneuvering COVID protocols and keeping students safe. They need to feel connected in order to learn, and that’s what education is all about: building connections between the student and the teacher, among students, and with each individual learner and the subject matter. That’s where the richness in education lies.”