Story and photo by Elie Mathews
It’s not often that people can truly “follow their passion” — have a profession doing what they really want to do above all else. Mary Ellen Phelan, newly appointed to the position of chairwoman of Watchung Hills Regional High School’s English Department, is one of those fortunate few whose life aspirations are being realize.
Phelan says there’s nothing she’d rather do than teach English, and now she’s also guiding others who are teaching that subject at Watchung Hills.
As department supervisor, Phelan oversees the efforts of 22 teachers of English at Watchung Hills Regional, six of whom are new.
Phelan, then a new graduate of Holy Cross (MA) College, came to Watchung Hills Regional High School in 1977 to teach English and, later, to also serve as an intern to then- Superintendent, Dr. Joseph Sabo.
Her career at Watchung Hills was interrupted by a family move to Massachusetts, where she taught in a middle school in Boston. She later returned to teach at Hills in the 2005-2006 academic year and, equipped by then with Master’s degrees in both Administration and English from Rutgers University and Kean University, she taught at both institutions, as well as Seton Hall University’s writing lab.
She recalled that she came back part-time to teach at the Hills while still teaching part-time in Rutgers University’s Writing Program.
Writing, in fact, is Phelan’s passion, her “love.”
All students can learn to write, she insists. "There’s just that one major hurdle they face: They’re afraid to put their authentic voice out there, afraid to bare their soul in public," she said.
Watchung Hills students nevertheless receive much encouragement as well as instruction throughout all four years of English instruction, she said. And, Phelan says, if she were not a teacher of high school English, she would want to direct a writing lab.
This year's newcomer English teachers at Watchung Hills regional were selected from a pool of 179 applicants. Phelan often is asked what she looks for when selecting a new teacher.
Phelan answered that she hopes to find teachers who enjoy kids, and are challenged by teen-agers, and who want to teach critical thinking and problem-solving along with literature.
Says Phelan, “Kids are kids. We are fortunate with our community producing terrific kids. Students still want to please adults, and our students and faculty have an inherent desire to succeed.”
Looking back in comparison to 1980 as a marker, the time when she left the area, Phelan said she feels that the field of education has been enhanced by technology.
“Resources which help students discriminate are at their fingertips," she said. "They can log in to a global world. They can be challenged in every way environmentally, politically, globally."
For example, she said, "Take a topic such as Puritanism. In ten minutes some 15 scholarly articles on the topic can be accessed, put into students’ electronic folders, and easily on hand for discussion, for studying a work such as "The Scarlet Letter," for example,” she says.
Amid all the technological advances, such as e-books, traditional skills, such as how to write a resume or a business letter, for example, are still taught, she said. The joy of reading — anything from "The Odyssey" to "The Kite Runner" in freshman classes — is still fostered, she said.
English, of course, is a required subject throughout all four years of the high school curriculum. Electives such as The Graphic Novel, Creative Writing, Science Fiction, Philosophy and Shakespeare also offered in addition to the four-year required courses.
Although well qualified to teach at the college level, Phelan says she would rather teach high school students.
“I love to watch the transformation over the four years during which students are here. They grow in all ways. They are much more interesting than college students who are already mostly shaped and developed,” she muses.
Phelan described herself as both pleased and happy to have been named department leader.
“I think our best days are in front of us,” she said. “This is a high-performing district because we have a high-performing administration and faculty, and kids who are committed to actualizing their potential.”
Mary Ellen Phelan recommends "Wonder" for student-readers
in the photo, Phelan, newly appointed English supervisor at Watchung Hills Regional High School, highly recommends “Wonder,” a New York Times No. 1 bestseller, for all English classes. During the upcoming weeks, student-readers will take part in reading circles in the school library to share their views about this book.