Cherry Hill resident tabbed Camden County Teacher of the Year

Chugh taps into immigrant experience to help students discover confidence.

Camden County Teacher of the Year Sonia Chugh.

LEAP Academy High School English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, Sonia Chugh, bested the field and was named Camden County Teacher of the Year back in late August. An educator for more than 20 years, Chugh has focused her attention on helping immigrants’ navigate language and cultural barriers during their high school years.

What eases the process, Chugh said during a chat with the Sun on Oct. 11, is that she, herself is an immigrant. Born and raised in India, Chugh came to this country, lived in and was educated in the American Midwest, before settling several years ago in South Jersey. 

On a daily basis at LEAP, she has to ensure her lesson plans and activities consider a wide variety of languages and cultural sensitivities. “My students can connect more with me, knowing I am an immigrant myself, and they have more confidence in my abilities and more in their own as time goes by,” Chugh said.

“Every year is different,” she acknowledged. “A couple of years ago, I had six different languages represented in these classes: French, Chinese and several of its dialects, Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese. And I speak Hindi so I counted myself in that group.” 

Chugh added that there is no universal approach to ESL classes, given the spectrum of students from different backgrounds. Her biggest challenge is finding ways to bridge gaps from native languages and familiar cultures, to English language and American culture. 

“Yes, we have to be culturally sensitive. I see my main role in being a teacher as a facilitator, someone who is adaptable and flexible, able to teach (my students) to attain their maximum potential,” she noted. 

Chugh has incorporated several tiers of teaching, based on an individual’s comfort and familiarity with English. She has to be proactive in matching those levels tailored to each student, while making the lesson as a whole easy to comprehend. 

“I call it differential instruction. I find ways to help students find their own understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses and try to elevate their knowledge from there,” she said. 

Knowledge came at a premium for Chugh, who began her studies and teaching career more than two decades ago in India’s capital of New Delhi. She chose the United States to further her education, landing at the University of Northern Iowa and graduating with a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction. From there, she taught in Milwaukee Public Schools for close to a decade, adding to her academic bona fides with a second master’s degree, a certificate in ESL through the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin. 

Currently, Chugh is working through her fifth year at LEAP, located in Camden. 

As usual, honors such as these come as a shock to the winners, and Chugh was no different. She still has no idea who fronted her name for consideration, but said LEAP’s leadership committee selected her as one of the teachers nominated for county prominence. Following an application to the Governor’s Educator of the Year program, her official recognition as Camden County Teacher of the Year arrived via a simple email around Labor Day, 

“It was a surprise. I was pinching myself. I was in tears,” Chugh admitted. “I was wondering if this was a fake. And I took it to my principal, as well as Dr. Santiago (Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, the founder of LEAP) who congratulated me, so only then did I know it was real.”

Despite her new title, Chugh’s new school year has begun much like any other, but she admitted there’s something special in the air in her classroom. 

“Some of my classes are almost the same as last year, but my students are more excited,” she noted. “They already knew how good I was, but now everyone else sees what I have done, and there’s so much more pride that I am their teacher.”

That pride will soon reach her neighborhood, Kingston Estates in Cherry Hill. Chugh and her family, which included two children that also looked to her for educational guidance during the days of virtual learning during the pandemic, knew the township was the right choice to settle down.  

“The sense of community was nice, and our neighbors are very helpful. I don’t know if anything will change that they’ll know I won this award. But I feel I made a good choice, I feel very safe in this environment.”

Although Chugh did not take home the state title — which went to East Orange STEM Academy social studies teacher Theresa Maughan — she plans on her title as motivation to do better in school and out of school. 

Find out more about Chugh’s teaching profile here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-TEapfiZjo

For a full list of New Jersey Teachers of the Year by county, visit: https://www.njea.org/meet-new-jerseys-2021-22-county-teachers-of-the-year/.