Wantagh High School English teacher discusses Harvard award and training colleagues


This is part one of a series on two Wantagh educators who were recognized as distinguished teachers from the Harvard Club of Long Island.

Wantagh High School English teacher Heather Naughton is a mentor to not only students, but to other teachers as well, and has received recognition for her influence on both throughout the district.

During this school year, Naughton, who has been a teacher in the district for 22 years, was accepted into the New York State Education Department’s Virtual Implementation of Teaching and Learning educator program, training participants to become experts in teaching virtual and hybrid instructions to their colleagues. The state program takes a look at what good came out of the remote learning process during the pandemic, and what educators can learn from that experience, Naughton said.

While reports of a learning loss among students swept through the country, Naughton noted that some positives included students taking their classes online, especially in Wantagh, where most had access to Wi-Fi and computers.

“What I actually heard from some of my students was that they found it to be successful for them,” Naughton said, “that they were able to make time for their families in a way that they hadn’t before because they were home all the time.”

Naughton said students adopt rigorous schedules, which include school, sports and extracurricular activities. Through remote learning, students said they had time to study, read a book and spend time with their families, according to Naughton. Some students found positives in remote learning, and Naughton wanted to find ways to merge both in-person and virtual learning environments.  

The state program centers on all types of learning environments and looks at what worked for students from emergency remote teaching, according to Naughton. She added that the program focuses on how to engage all students and their families and how to keep implementing these positive experiences that came from remote learning.

“It’s about the technology, it’s about the relationships, it’s about finding the best learning environment for all students,” Naughton said of the program. “But it’s also about maximizing every learning environment for all students.”

According to the program’s website, educators who complete all requirements will receive a stipend of $14,500 and statewide designation as a VITAL Trainer at the conclusion of their training in July.

Naughton is also co-director of the Wantagh-Seaford Teacher Resource And Computer Training program, also known as TRACT, which she has been a part of for 10 years. TRACT, a professional development center for teachers, introduced more virtual training workshops last year, which Naughton said has made it more convenient for teachers with busy schedules. With TRACT, teachers discuss teaching, best practices for students and how to grow as an educator.

“I’ve invested in teaching teachers for a long time,” Naughton said. “I think that the best parts of our practice grow out of conversations with each other.”

In February, Naughton received a letter from the Harvard Club of Long Island, announcing that she had won the club’s Distinguished Teacher Award for 2024. Each year, the club asks current Harvard undergraduates to write a letter nominating teachers who made the greatest difference in their lives.

Melanie Volz, Wantagh’s Class of 2021 valedictorian, wrote a letter describing Naughton as a “fearless advocate for us, and amazing mentor for two years, able to cater to all the students’ needs and help them grow in their success.”

Volz, a junior at Harvard University, nominated Naughton, who was her teacher for the AP Capstone program in Wantagh, because she wanted to show her appreciation of teachers who had a meaningful impact on her life.

“At Wantagh, the teachers really make the school an amazing, fantastic school to go to every day, and I just wanted to give back,” Volz said.

In the AP program, Volz worked on research projects and wrote reports while Naughton helped develop her writing style through discussions and commenting on her papers. Volz said that receiving criticism for her writing was hard, but Naughton’s comments left a lasting impression.

“After coming to college, I realized how much of a stronger writer I was compared to my classmates,” Volz said, “and it was solely because of this program and especially Miss Naughton for giving me a chance of explaining my own interests in research projects and also just always being there.”

Naughton said of Volz, “She was a phenomenal student. I joked with her all the time that she didn’t really need a teacher.”

Wantagh High School Principal Paul Guzzone said Naughton sets a high bar for her students to succeed, but she is there to help them reach it.

“She takes children who never thought they could do certain things, and by the end of the year, they’re doing those things,” Guzzone said. “I’ve seen tears of celebration between students and Miss Naughton. It’s truly magical with some of the stuff she does with students in her classroom.”

According to the Harvard Club of Long Island, Naughton is one of 10 teachers across the 125 districts of Long Island to be recognized for this year’s award.

“It is deeply humbling,” Naughton said of receiving the award. “I can’t lie and say teaching hasn’t been harder in the last couple of years, I think that’s just across what’s been unprecedented challenges. The kindness of students to recognize the work that you’ve done is what touches me most about it.”