LifeChanger of the Year Nominee Profile

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Katie Simpson

Position: TESOL Teacher
School: Columbia High School
School District: South Orange-Maplewood School District
City, State: Maplewood, NJ

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Katie Simpson was nominated by an anonymous friend.

Ms. Simpson has been a teacher in the South Orange/Maplewood School District in New Jersey for more than 15 years. She has taught at various levels and at most schools in the district, currently in Columbia High School and previously in both South Orange and Maplewood Middle Schools.

In New Jersey, the majority of towns have their own school district. The South Orange/Maplewood School District, however, is the only joint district in the state. It serves a very wide range of students from across the economic spectrum, from the very materially blessed to those for whom school lunch is a privilege.

As a Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Ms. Simpson has chosen to serve the most needy student population. Her students come from many nations, but the local TESOL student body is overwhelmingly of Haitian descent. Many of these students are economic refugees from Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Many of them came to Maplewood after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, and they have been enormously blessed to have the chance to rebuild their lives here in the United States.

Ms. Simpson has been a large and vital part of helping so many of these children rebuild their lives. She is often their first exposure to the mix of English language and American culture that makes up their new world. One of the things these children are missing in their lives is a sense of continuity and stability. Coming to America improves that, but there are often areas of personal and familial instability that continue. Ms. Simpson and her warm, welcoming TESOL classroom provide an atmosphere that facilitates learning and becomes a calm oasis in their lives.

Students who are integrating into American culture and our educational system often face significant hurdles which can lead to serious behavioral issues, particularly when coming from a difficult home situation. Though these problems often make for a difficult teaching environment, Ms. Simpson is remarkably successful in walking the fine line between dealing kindly but forcefully with unacceptable behavior and maintaining a successful learning community. No one is left out in her classroom, but no one is allowed to take learning away from others, either.

Haiti has a very deep, vibrant culture, and the Haitian community in the surrounding area is large and active. As she helps to integrate all of her kids into their school and their community, Ms. Simpson makes an ongoing and successful effort to involve their families in their learning process. There are multicultural evenings and opportunities to share language, music, art and food from various countries. The Haitian food is always eaten quickly; the students get to eat a big sheet cake in the colors of the Haitian flag every year! They may be learning English and integrating into American society, but they cherish their culture and their history, and it is always woven into the curriculum taught in Ms. Simpson's classroom.

Ms. Simpson has always made sure to keep up with the most successful practices in teaching English to non-native speakers. In addition to earning her Master's in TESOL from Hunter College and her undergraduate degree in History from the University of Virginia, she is also a National Board Certified Teacher, an advanced teaching credential offered by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, widely acknowledged to be the most respected K-12 professional certification.

"Katie gives all that she haves to give, whether it's by teaching summer school, writing curriculum for English Language Learners, teaching adult ELL's in the evening, or ensuring that effective learning of English occurs for all of her students from across the world in an atmosphere of inclusion and mutual respect," said her nominator. "She has earned the respect and admiration of her colleagues. Most importantly, her kids come back, year after year, often long after leaving the district, to visit her in that warm and welcoming classroom."



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