At one point in her 40-year teaching career, Theresa Maughan toyed with the idea of becoming a vice principal or a social studies supervisor. Luckily for the hundreds of students she’s taught since then, she decided to stay in the classroom. Maughan RC’81 realized, she says, that teaching “was where I could have the most significant daily impact on my students.”
The extent of that impact was undoubtedly one of many reasons that Maughan was named the 2021–22 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year by the state’s Department of Education. She teaches, she says, “because I want to help students become the best versions of themselves, become upstanders, not bystanders, and become lifelong learners.”
In her decades as an educator, her enthusiasm for generating change—in her students, the curriculum, the teaching profession, and herself as well—hasn’t waned. Teaching, Maughan says, is never static or stagnant. “Every day is different,” she says, “and I love the challenge of that.” Her aim is to “not only deliver content but also help prepare my students for what life holds for them.”
Maughan teaches 10th-grade social studies at East Orange STEM Academy High School. Her students come from diverse backgrounds, many hailing from Africa, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. She describes them as “eager learners. They’re resilient and motivated to compete in anything I ask them to.”
She encourages her students to enter state essay contests and national history competitions, in which many have been finalists or first-place winners. For several years now, Maughan’s students have won the Black History Month essay contest, sponsored by the New Jersey Bar Association, and the New Jersey Department of State Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Commission essay contest. They’ve also been state finalists in the New Jersey History Day competition. In 2021, five of Maughan’s students advanced to the New Jersey History Day State finals. “Their success beyond my classroom is one of my greatest achievements,” she says.
When Maughan entered Rutgers in 1977, she wanted to become an immigration attorney. Her family had emigrated from Belize to the United States when she was 5 years old. Six years later, she witnessed firsthand the difference an immigration attorney could make during what she describes as the long, complex, and challenging naturalization process. “I wanted to make it easier for other families,” she says, “so they wouldn’t go through what we did.”
But during her first year at Rutgers, she realized how much she loved being in a classroom. And she remembered how her seventh-grade social studies teacher, Marilyn Roman, initiated a schoolwide letter-writing campaign during Maughan’s family’s naturalization process, resulting in media attention and support for the family. “I likely wouldn’t be in the United States today if Mrs. Roman hadn’t stepped up to help,” Maughan says.
Instead of law, she decided to major in education and history, passions kindled by teachers like Roman. Thanks to Rutgers, Maughan says, she graduated with a keen understanding of major pedagogical strategies, notable among them how to create lessons that engage students by reflecting their cultural backgrounds. To help her do this, she begins each year by assigning an essay titled “Who Am I?” to learn, she says, “what my students value and their cultural norms and traditions, which I can incorporate in my lesson design.”
She also uses techniques that have helped her students develop “rigor and higher-order thinking.” One of them is the structured academic controversy (SAC), a cooperative learning strategy in which small teams of students learn about a controversial issue from multiple perspectives and then seek consensus. Maughan has assigned SAC lessons about Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, and Reconstruction.
Ultimately, she wants her students to become lifelong learners, as she is. In 1993, she earned a master’s degree in administration and supervision in urban schools from New Jersey City University, and she’s finishing a second master’s in American history at Pace University. “I’m a history geek,” she says. “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.”
Throughout her career, she’s helped foster change by writing social studies curricula. “I think it’s important to review and revise the curriculum constantly,” she says, “and make sure that it reflects the diversity in our student body.” The question that always guides her, she says, is, “Are we ensuring that our students don’t feel invisible and that they see themselves within the materials?”
A goal of diversity
When Maughan was named State Teacher of the Year, Governor Phil Murphy praised her for her part in making New Jersey’s public education system one of the strongest in the nation. “That distinction can be attributed to dedicated educators like Theresa,” Murphy said. “She embodies the strength of New Jersey’s school system and our proud immigrant community.”
To fulfill her duties as Teacher of the Year, she’ll take a six-month sabbatical from the classroom. She’ll miss teaching, but she’s excited about the opportunity to work with New Jersey’s Department of Education on teacher recruitment and curriculum standards. Through speaking engagements and professional development workshops, she hopes to encourage teachers in the workforce to “stay the course.” The pandemic, she notes, “has been an exceptionally challenging experience for teachers on so many fronts, and quite a few have chosen to leave the profession.”
She also hopes that she can help recruit new teachers, and she’s a fervent supporter of “grow your own” programs that encourage middle and high school students from diverse backgrounds to go into education. “All students,” she says, “benefit when they have teachers from diverse backgrounds.” It’s clear that they also benefit when they have teachers—like Maughan—who are never content with the educational status quo and who never forget that their calling, as Maughan notes, “is to have a direct impact on shaping someone’s future.”
Theresa Maughan is the second Rutgers graduate to be named New Jersey’s State Teacher of the Year in recent years. Read about Kimberly Dickstein Hughes RC’08, GSE’09, an English teacher who received the honor in 2019.