When English teacher Kimberly Dickstein Hughes steps into her classroom at Haddonfield Memorial High School, she remembers one of the principles her beloved Grammy stressed: “Listen to learn, and learn to listen.”
As an educator for 11 years, Hughes seeks to instill that same passion in her students and beyond as the New Jersey Teacher of the Year for the 2019-2020 school year. She was the first Camden County teacher to receive the honor since it was established in 1969.
“It’s a great honor and it’s a call to action,” Hughes said. “It’s no longer about me. I want to lift as many voices and empower as many educators as possible.”
Hughes, 33, of Voorhees, has spent her entire career in Haddonfield, where she has earned a reputation for her passion and ability to connect with students. She also stresses global citizenship at the school, which enrolls about 800 students in grades nine through 12.
“She does a lot of teaching and getting the students involved,” said sophomore Jack Tanner Bowman, 15. “She makes you want to be in her class.”
Hughes began her career at Haddonfield as a student teacher in 2008 while attending Rutgers University. She was hired full time the following year. She was partly inspired by her late grandmother, Rose, to become a teacher.
”If you want to give back to your community, you become a teacher,” Hughes said. "I wanted to help people.”
During a recent sixth-period English class, sophomores broke into small groups to prepare for an upcoming performance from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which tells the story of Shylock, a Jewish man who lends money to Antonio, a Christian, with the condition that he would get to cut off a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he defaults on the loan.
Each student was required to learn 120 lines from the play’s courtroom scene, one of the most challenging sections in the story because of its derogatory use of the slur “Jew." Shylock‘s character gets duped and is forced to convert to Christianity to keep part of his fortune.
“This is a super heavy way to teach,” acknowledged Hughes. “But we have to force ourselves to look at hatred and discrimination and understand why it is wrong.”
The students handled the controversial topic with sensitivity. In groups in the classroom and in the hallway, they rehearsed their lines and gestures and discussed their wardrobes.
“She always helps everyone step out of their comfort zone,” said sophomore Grace Ann McGrath, 16.
Hughes later encouraged students to talk about the power of their words, bigotry, and racism at school and in the community. To make the lesson relevant, she pointed to the deadly Dec. 10 shooting at a kosher market in Jersey City that investigators believe was motivated by anti-Semitism.
Haddonfield was thrust into a national spotlight two years ago when a white boys’ lacrosse team player hurled a racial slur at a black female track athlete from another school. When the girl was unable to identify him and no one came forward, the school superintendent canceled the remainder of the lacrosse season.
Hughes said she wants her students to be more socially conscious. Last year, her 10th grade world literature class helped raise more than $81,000 to assist Garang Buk Buk, a former child soldier from South Sudan who is seeking a master’s degree at Emory University in Atlanta. It is one of her proudest moments.
”She has a polite way of pushing things to happen,” said Buk Buk. ”She’s very important in my life.“
Principal Tammy McHale said Hughes’ enthusiasm, endless energy, and focus on teaching initiatives that engage students made her “a hands-down, clear winner” to represent Haddonfield as a teacher of the year. Hughes teaches five classes a day, including English and public speaking.
“I’m exhausted just watching her,” quipped McHale.
Katrina Arndt, 15, an aspiring physician, said Hughes’ engaging teaching style makes school fun. A petite 5-foot-2, Hughes almost blends in with her students.
“She has great humor; you can relate to her,” Arndt said. Added classmate Keelyn Shim, 15: “Her class is the best part of the day.”
The affection is mutual. Hughes chose the school’s campus for her nuptials in September when she married her sweetheart, Phil, in a courtyard ceremony. Students handed out programs and an a cappella group performed.
“I love this place,” she said. “It’s an extension of my family.”
In January, Hughes will begin fulfilling her responsibility as Teacher of the Year. She plans to visit all 21 counties, share best practices with other teachers and listen to their concerns about how to improve education.
Hughes is excited about starting the six-month sabbatical after the holiday recess but said she will miss her students. A permanent substitute will take over her language arts and public speaking classes.
“I’ll miss my students, my colleagues, and my routine,” said a misty-eyed Hughes. “I’ve only known this place for my entire career.”