When Haddonfield decided to go all out in the fall of 2019 to celebrate Kimberly Dickstein Hughes with a parade after she was named New Jersey’s Teacher of the Year, it seemed a fitting end to a long and fruitful journey both for the Haddonfield Memorial HIgh School English teacher and the town whose youth she has shepherded through the wonders of Shakespeare.
But the onset of COVID caused the cancellation of a ceremony in Washington, D.C., to celebrate Dickstein Hughes’ achievement, along with that of 49 colleagues across the country. Proper recognition would have to wait.
It finally arrived on Oct. 18, during an outdoor celebration from the south lawn of the White House. Dickstein Hughes joined the state and national winners from the last two years to receive their long-delayed kudos from First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, herself a career educator.
“Why are you here?” Biden rhetorically asked her audience. “What I mean is, what started you on the path that led you here? Why did you choose to be a teacher? Why have you dedicated your life to teaching?
“We all have our moment when our story began.”
For Dickstein Hughes, it was her grandmother, Rosie Dickstein, whom she affectionately calls “my grammy.” She admitted to being overcome with emotion when Biden mentioned the crucial role her own grandmother played in the first lady’s life.
“It really hit home,” the Haddonfield teacher noted. “Every single day of my life when she was alive, she said, ‘Listen to learn, learn to listen. Knowledge is power. Smile and the world smiles with you.’
“I live every day through that lens,” Dickstein Hughes added. “That influence has brought me here and it will continue to motivate me for the rest of my life.”
Biden continued to laud the honorees as some of the most innovative, talented, compassionate and effective educators who represented the apex of the profession. Those words reverberated so much that Dickstein Hughes needed a long pause during her Nov. 8 conversation with the Sun to articulate her feelings.
“I thought about it a lot, but I haven’t verbalized it fully yet,” she admitted. “I felt seen, heard and valued. That was genuine. I cannot express enough how grateful I am to have that experience.”
In August 2019, Dickstein Hughes was selected as Camden County’s top educator. Then, less than two months later, she was named the best teacher in the entire state, the first from the county to be so honored. Celebrated with hugs; high fives; hundreds of pictures and then a parade in her honor on Oct. 4, 2019, her accomplishments garnered attention everywhere from local television stations to “Good Morning America.”
Dickstein Hughes then embarked on a six-month sabbatical — during which her salary and benefits were covered by Educational Testing Service — to work at the state’s Department of Education.
In that period, she worked tirelessly, attending various events, making speeches and being available for a busy slate of responsibilities: acting as a liaison between the teaching community and the NJDOE; serving as education ambassador to businesses, parents and service organizations; and representing teaching by promoting professional development and sharing knowledge about programs and strategies that benefit instructors and students.
“I’ve been processing this now for two weeks,” she said. “When I think about little ol’ me, from South Jersey, getting an invitation to the White House as an educator, it was really humbling and awe-inspiring. It was an out-of-body experience.”
Dickstein Hughes was not alone in the seat of American power. She carried the hopes and good wishes of all of her communities: Haddonfield; her native Voorhees; extended family; her Shakespeare community; Camden County teachers; and the circle involved with Alicia Rose Victorious, an organization inspired by the loss of her childhood friend.
“Every single one of those communities has embraced me and I have hugged each one of them back,” Dickstein Hughes noted.
Now back in the classroom, she came away with a wider perspective than she could have imagined. Teachers are not just educators, but cheerleaders, mentors and organizers, too.
“Teachers are natural community organizers,” Dickstein Hughes reasoned. “Every single day, I organize and facilitate a community around learning. And that’s why I think my classes are so successful.”
Most uplifting was when Biden described the winners as representatives of the small miracles teachers perform in classrooms every single day. As the educational system still grapples with the challenges of the pandemic, Biden recognized how all educators found the courage and the strength to keep going.
For Dickstein Hughes, hearing those sentiments allowed her to let go of some ill feelings from some parts of the community who may have held teachers in lower regard, due to conflicts over the manner of instruction and masking protocols.
“Every educator has a place at the White House,” she reasoned. “So why not in your own community?”