By ANTHONY SPAULDING
Director of Communications
Pope John XXIII Regional High School
SPARTA — For 45 years, Jo-Ann Higgs has devoted her life to two things: her students and the United States.
After all, the Pope John XXIII Regional High School eighth grade English teacher understands the big picture when it comes to the purpose of educating today’s youths.
“These students are the future of our country, that’s for sure,” Higgs said. “There is so much going on right now in our world and they have to know what is happening because they are going to be the decision makers someday. They need to understand what the veterans have done in the past and what current people in the Armed Forces are doing so that we can have a future in our country. “
Higgs’ drive to make her students better in the classroom and outstanding citizens led her to earning the Veterans of Foreign Wars Teacher of the Year Award for New Jersey at the junior high level. The award is given to elementary, junior high and high school teachers on the district, state and national levels who “promote America’s history, traditions and citizenship education effectively.”
Higgs, who also won the award on the district level after being nominated by Lt. Robert A. Madden VFW Post 10152 in Ogdensburg, was shocked that she earned such great recognition.
“It was a nice surprise,” Higgs said of the award. “It’s an honor to be selected.”
For Higgs, she has always been involved in helping her country.
Higgs has spent time volunteering for the VFW in Ogdensburg, where her husband, George, was the district commander after serving in the Navy. In addition, her father and his brothers were World War II veterans.
“Anything we could do to help, we did,” Higgs said. “We’ve always been taught to appreciate and honor our veterans for all they have sacrificed for us.”
The hands-on lessons Higgs learned translated into her educational practices wherever she was employed. Higgs first worked for St. Joseph School in Mendham for eight years, then was a teacher and principal of St. Joseph Regional in Newton for a combined 29 years before coming to Pope John, where she has worked for the last eight years.
Higgs applies her experiences and ideals of American patriotism by encouraging her eighth grade students to participate in the Patriot’s Pen Essay, a VFW-sponsored competition that gives students an opportunity to write essays expressing their views on an annual patriotic theme. Higgs first has her students write the essay for a grade in her class, then gives them the option of either entering the contest or not.
Many of Mrs. Higgs students have been recognized for the Patriot’s Pen Essay at the county and state levels, including current Pope John students Bridget Brady, Anastasia McCarthy and Nathanael Pluviose. Pluviose was named the District No. 21 winner as a representative of Sparta Post 7243, while Brady was named the winner for Newton Post 5360 and McCarthy was picked as the winner for Ogdensburg Post 10152.
Pluviose and McCarthy attributed their work on their essays to Higgs being able to share the American values that she has passed on to them.
“Mrs. Higgs is a great teacher,” Pluviose said. “She not only helped me outline my essay, but also helped me understand why it is important to respect and honor our veterans for what they have been through while protecting our country. I took that very seriously.”
“Mrs. Higgs has a different approach to her teaching,” McCarthy said. “She said, ‘It’s not just important to write the essay, but to understand why you are writing it.’ I feel I have gained a great appreciation for the U.S. and the history of our country.”
In addition to the Patriot’s Pen Essay, Higgs has had her students write other creative pieces over the years. This year for Veterans Day, Higgs’ students wrote letters to two family members of Pope John students who are currently serving overseas.
Pope John Assistant Principal/Eighth Grade Administrator Michael Schleer could not help but express how impactful Higgs is as a teacher and as a model American.
“Mrs. Higgs is a pillar for her students,” Schleer said. “They learn skills and habits beyond the classroom. She involves herself in their lives in and out of school, allowing her students to feel secure and loved, knowing she is always there to support them. Mrs. Higgs epitomizes all of the best qualities a private, Catholic education has to offer.
“Mrs. Higgs has been participating in this program for many years,” Schleer continued. “She truly believes in its mission and works tirelessly with students to help them present their best work. Mrs. Higgs has proven that she is an individual that consistently shapes young people's lives through her passion for education and patriotism.”
As the New Jersey state winner, Higgs' candidacy will be forwarded to the national level to be evaluated with the other 49 state winners. Regardless of what happens as far as the national selection, Higgs is going to do her job.
“If it wasn’t for my students and for the veterans, I wouldn’t be in this position,” Higgs said. “I just want our youth to have more than what we had as kids, and I always want to honor those who came before me.”