SANTA FE, NM–New Mexico Highlands alumna, Tara Hughes, was honored earlier this year with the Golden Apple Excellence in Teaching Award and she was named the 2023 Santa Fe District Teacher of the Year.

Hughes has been teaching in New Mexico for ten years and graduated from NMHU in 2014 with a master’s degree in special education. She currently serves as a State Ambassador with the New Mexico Public Education Department, and she is a member of the Teacher Leader Network. Hughes teaches a four-year-old inclusion pre-kindergarten class at the Nye Early Childhood Center in Santa Fe.

Hughes’s love for education was sparked by her experiences helping in the home daycare her mother ran when Hughes was growing up.

“I helped out after school and most of them were neighborhood kids and there was always so much energy,” Hughes said. “There were always kids around and always something happening and so much learning and excitement.”

Hughes later went on to study technical theatre and studio art in college in Connecticut. A job opportunity doing carpentry and welding at the Santa Fe Opera brought her to New Mexico for the first time in 2000. Hughes then returned to the East Coast where she worked in a two-room schoolhouse.

“Both of the rooms were for students with diverse abilities; there were no neurotypical students in the classroom,” Hughes said. “I fell in love with teaching. I saw the power of early childhood education and early intervention services on students and their families. I witnessed the hope that came with families watching their children be successful in a school setting and said, ‘yeah, this is what I want to do.’”

Knowing she wanted to pursue a career in special education, Hughes returned to New Mexico and completed a master’s degree at NMHU. In her role as a public educator at the Nye Early Childhood Center, Hughes teaches four-year-old children with a range of exceptionalities who have aged out of home services but are too young to enter kindergarten and receive services there.

“We bridge that gap,” Hughes said. “And my classroom is a little different because it’s considered an inclusion classroom where I’m the case manager for children who have individual education plans.”

Hughes said she is honored to be the first early childhood educator to receive the Teacher of the Year award.

“Sometimes early childhood education can be misunderstood,” Hughes said. “Through intentional play we are setting strong foundations for kids to be collaborative, to have strong social-emotional skills, and early literacy and early math skills. We are setting the stage for children to be able to cooperate, share ideas and be kind humans.”

Hughes is hopeful that receiving the Teacher of the Year award will help her spread the message about the importance of inclusion in classrooms and the importance of high quality, early childhood education programs.

“It’s such an honor and I really hope I’m able to elevate other teachers in this profession,” Hughes said. “When we elevate other teachers, we are elevating our students.”