Like many little girls, Stella Nwanguma pretended to teach her dolls how to read and add and subtract. Her family members told her she was a natural to become a teacher—her own parents were even in the profession. But Nwanguma resisted, studying journalism at Douglass College in New Jersey and graduating with an undergraduate degree in mass communications. Even when she landed a substitute teaching job while looking for permanent work after college, she swatted away encouragement from peers and her principal to take the teaching exam. Still, she said, everything in her life was pushing her toward a career in education, to which she dedicated 33 years. Nwanguma retires this month as principal of Winslow Township Middle School in Winslow Township, N.J., which she led for 13 years. She’s leaving with mixed feelings—and a lot of gratitude.
In her own words, Nwanguma reflects on the experiences that will stay with her as she moves into retirement. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
The idea of starting out at 23 and teaching students who become adults and then years later you’re the principal of their children—I think that’s the thing that stays with me.
I call them my ‘grand students’ because I’ve had their parents—and now I’m teaching them.
So the idea of the generational impact and generational relationships is awesome for me.
When I get to see our students blossom into wonderful adults, knowing that I had a small part in that and impacted their lives—that’s something I will treasure forever. I have had so many students in the stands while their children were walking through for graduation.
I remember one student in particular—I won’t say names. I was her 4th grade teacher. Years later, I saw her, and she was kind of down. Things were tough for her. She’d just had a child, and she was kind of struggling. But she made it through. She took whatever steps she needed to get herself where she needed to be. We started to be in contact here and there and on social media. Whenever I could be of help, I was.
Years later, a young man came up to me in my building. He said, ‘You know my mother. You were my mother’s teacher.’ I had taught so many kids up until that point. I looked, and said, ‘What’s your last name?’ I immediately knew who he was. I looked at his face. I recognized the features. I said, ‘Oh, I know who you are.’ It was a wonderful moment.
That was the same baby I saw her with that day when she was struggling. To see that that baby was now my student; he was doing well; she had done everything it took to get herself in a good position and get her child in a good position—that gave me joy.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing several young people from one family come through the middle school, and the parents often thank me for helping them in the process of raising their kids.
He should be a grown man at this time. This was in my early years as a principal, so probably about a decade ago. He was an excellent student, like she was. It was just a wonderful experience, and that’s happened over and over again, over the years.
We reconnected. I couldn’t wait to meet her. I sent her a message to please come and show yourself to me at Back To School Night, so we can connect. And that’s exactly what we did.
It was wonderful having him for two years in the school. I felt like I was another grandma.
Being in this town for 13 years, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing several young people from one family come through middle school, and the parents often thank me for helping them in the process of raising their kids.