National Teacher of the Year finalist was a problem child

He’s at the head of the class.

Joseph Nappi, a history teacher at Monmouth Regional High School in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, is one of four finalists in the country for the 2024 National Teacher of the Year award. But, growing up, the 41-year-old was a terrible student who struggled with disciplinary issues and undiagnosed ADHD. He was kicked out of one high school as a freshman, and, a few years later, wasn’t allowed to attend his graduation ceremony at another.

“I was the kid who was a pain in everybody’s butt,” Nappi told The Post. “So, going into school for education was really not in my mind whatsoever.”

Nappi, 41, won New Jersey’s Teacher of the Year honor in September. The decorated educator who detested school as a boy now takes great pride in connecting with each student, he told The Post. Tamara Beckwith/NY POST

After finishing Bayonne High School, he took some computer science classes at a community college, but the prospect of a future spent in cubicles while staring at screens made him “absolutely miserable.”

He wasn’t sure of his path, and then came 9/11. A close family friend was killed, and Nappi reevaluated his life.

“I wanted to do the opposite of what I had witnessed,” he said of the terror attacks. “I just really didn’t have any idea of what.”

His then-girlfriend, Cristina, suggested becoming a teacher, but he was hesitant, given his checkered past in the classroom.

Nappi teaches US history to sophomores at Monmouth Regional High School, as well as a course for seniors on genocide, modern humanity and the holocaust. Tamara Beckwith/NY POST

“She said to me, ‘If you’re the one in charge, it could be anything that you want it to be,’” he recalled. “It didn’t have to be the same experience. And that’s really what interested me – examining what I had not connected with in school and what I could do differently. I kind of became obsessed with it and it led me down this rabbit hole into teaching.”

He went back to school and got a degree in history and secondary education from Rowan University. In 2006, he started at Monmouth Regional High School, where he teaches sophomores US history and runs a course on the holocaust, genocide and modern humanity for seniors. Nappi also serves as a teaching fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and, every year he takes dozen of students to Washington, D.C., to visit the acclaimed institution.

“He just has a way of explaining things and he’s someone the kids can relate to,” Monmouth principal Brian Evans told The Post. “The way he speaks to the kids, he makes them feel they can pretty much do anything they put their minds to.”

Nappi, of Jackson, New Jersey, credits his wife Cristina for pushing him to consider a career in education, despite his disciplinary issues and inability to focus in the classroom as a boy. She also teaches at Monmouth Regional High School. Tamara Beckwith/NY POST

The father of two also makes sure students have what they need to thrive.

He cofounded Monmouth Helping Its Own – a faculty-run charity that’s generated more than $75,000 in staff donations to supply students with essentials such as eyeglasses, winter coats and even groceries. Those efforts have also contributed to college scholarships for 45 students.

Nappi, who was named New Jersey’s 2023-24 Teacher of the Year in September, is now competing against three other educators — from Alaska, Georgia and Tennessee — for the national award. If he nabs the top prize when it’s announced in April, he’d be the first from the Garden State to take the honor.

Nappi, a teacher fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum since 2019, has chaperoned more than 600 students during class trips to the Washington institution. Tamara Beckwith/NY POST

But Nappi already considers himself lucky, regardless of the eventual outcome.

He’s currently enjoying a fully paid, six-month sabbatical thanks to his state victory. Cristina, the girlfriend who pushed him toward teaching, is now his wife, and they live in Jackson with their two daughters, ages 9 and 12.

He credits Cristina, who teaches English at Monmouth, with helping him find his purpose.

New Jersey education officials honored Nappi at Monmouth Regional High School in Tinton Falls on Feb. 19. He’s now vying to become the state’s first National Teacher of the Year. Tamara Beckwith/NY POST

“She saw in me something that I didn’t even see in myself and inspired me that I could do it,” he said. “In its purest form, that’s what this job is really all about – unlocking kids’ passions and putting them on the right path to do something positive.”

The former problem child added, “There’s no bad kids, just kids going through bad times.”

Written by SaleemBaloch

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