After 40 years as a public school educator in the Garden State, Theresa Maughan still considers herself a “work in progress.”
Maughan, the 2021-2022 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year, recently sat for a virtual interview with Ray Pinney, the NJSBA’s director of county activities and member engagement, for an online YouTube video series called Education Matters.
“This is a tremendous honor. I am so blessed to have received it. I accept it with service as an ambassador for all teachers within our state and all of the students within our state,” she said.
“I am constantly trying to modify and adapt myself to whatever the situation is and really addressing the changes that we need to do.”
The Randolph resident currently teaches 10th graders Early U.S. History at the East Orange STEM Academy in Essex County. She also has taught advanced placement courses in U.S. History, Government and Politics, Law and World History.
She credits two teachers for changing the course of her life.
Born in Belize, Maughan and her family immigrated to the United States when she was in elementary school. In middle school, her parents’ visas expired and her social studies teacher launched a community letter-writing campaign to their congressman and arranged for local newspaper coverage. A few years later, her family gained permanent residency and later citizenship.
She then had a high school teacher who instilled in her a love of history and research, so she intended to become an immigration attorney. But, while a student at Rutgers University, she decided to change her major.
“By the end of the freshman year, I started to reflect – and I realized that for me I wanted to provide the kind of support that I received from my teachers to others, and so I actually switched to become an education major,” she said.
Maughan went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in history and education from Rutgers College and a master’s from Jersey City University. She is currently completing another master’s in American History from Pace University.
Despite having attained advanced degrees, she has chosen to stay in the classroom. Maughan calls working with students her “vitamin B 12 shot” that energizes her and keeps her in the profession, especially this school year when she has worked to develop a sense of community to help her students feel comfortable after they returned from remote/hybrid learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the state Teacher of the Year, Maughan will serve a sabbatical with the New Jersey Department of Education, where she said she plans to focus on diversifying the education workforce and curriculum and addressing the teacher shortage.
She is especially interested in recruiting future educators through a “grow your own” pipeline by learning more about how to prepare middle school and high school students and introducing them to the concept of pursuing careers in education. One idea she shared is to include education in technical and career programs throughout New Jersey.
“We’ve talked about diversifying the teacher workforce, but we need to look at our curriculums to see if our students’ cultural backgrounds are truly reflected within the material that we use. We also need to diversify the administration as well. We need to do more to bring in administrators who will support all teachers,” she said.
Maughan told Pinney that she believes all students benefit from having diverse educators in their schools and she wants to attract, support and mentor teachers to avoid the high attrition rates that so many public districts have been facing.
“Having students see themselves reflected in those who help to educate is something that really enhances the likelihood of students’ success,” she said.
When Pinney asked Maughan how she has stayed passionate and committed to education throughout the decades, she attributed it to her “growth mindset” and discussed her drive to keep learning by taking graduate courses and attending seminars and workshops during summers off from teaching.
And, when it comes to keeping students engaged, she builds their confidence by giving them a say in their education.
“The key to any teacher in terms of motivation is learning how to tie into student voice and having our students participate in decision-making within our classroom, our learning communities,” she said.
In the beginning of the school year, Maughan said she intentionally connects with her students and discusses developing class guidelines such as respect as their guiding focal point.
During the year, she conducts simulations of trials in her classes so students can showcase their particular learning styles. Maughan has held “structured academic controversy” sessions, where she provides students with a topic, has them research different perspectives, present their evidence to support their findings, and see if they can gain a consensus among their classmates to support them. While she knows that social studies can more easily lend itself to these types of opportunities, she said that citizenship can be developed across subjects.
“Some people hear the word civics and citizen and they think that it is solely the responsibility of the social studies teacher, but it is not. It is really something that the skillset should be presented across the disciplines – and I really think that will help us develop the character traits that we want in our citizens today and in the future,” she said.
As a curriculum writer and a College Board advanced placement reader for the U.S. History AP exams each year, Maughan has mentored pre-service teachers from Rutgers and presented several interdisciplinary professional development workshops for her school district.
She is affiliated with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, where she has attended history teacher summer seminars at Oxford University, the University of Kansas and Yale University. Maughan also is the 2021 New Jersey History Day/National History Day senior division Teacher of the Year and an ambassador for the New Jersey Amistad Commission.
Maughan has given her students memorable experiences outside the classroom over the years, including an opportunity to participate in the Hamilton Education Program (EduHam) and attend a performance of Hamilton on Broadway, pre-COVID.
She guided her students through the analysis of primary sources, and after completing the curriculum and archival research, they created performance pieces such as a song, poem, rap or monologue about the founding era. One of her students even performed a monologue about Theodosia Burr (the daughter of Aaron Burr, the third U.S. vice president) on the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York. The program culminated in a full-day theater experience for the students, including a Q&A with Hamilton cast members and a matinee.
Maughan has encouraged her students to enter numerous statewide and national academic contests. They have won the Black History Month Essay contests sponsored by the New Jersey Bar Association, the New Jersey Department of State Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Commission essay contest and were state finalists in the National History Day competition.
Maughan is married to her husband of 33 years and has two grown children — both graduates of The College of New Jersey. She has passed her love of teaching to her daughter, a special education teacher in the state.