Oak Knoll Upper School Dean to Retire After 30 Years
And The Rest, They Say, Is History
Growing up, Joan Paster remembers playing school with her two younger sisters where she naturally gravitated toward playing the role of teacher.
It was during those carefree days of make-believe that Paster’s love for the classroom was born and then further cemented in graduate school at Vanderbilt University.
While in pursuit of her master’s degree in history, Paster became a teaching assistant — thus changing the trajectory of her career.
There, Paster realized she was happiest spending her days interacting with students in the classroom. Now, after a dedicated career as an educator, 30 years of which were spent at Oak Knoll School, Paster will retire after the 2019-20 school year.
“Oak Knoll allowed me to grow and grow and grow,” said Paster, Oak Knoll’s Dean of Grades 10-12 and Upper School History Teacher. “I never did the same thing two years in a row. I truly could not have asked for more in terms of my personal growth and in the amazing opportunities that I have been given here.”
Paster first arrived at Oak Knoll in 1990 after moving to New Jersey from Manhattan. Her first teaching job, while communing from Manhattan, was at Greenwich Academy, where she spent eight years and dove head-first into what would become her lifelong career in education. There, she created a course on governments and ideologies and taught U.S. History and AP U.S. History.
While still living in Manhattan, Paster then worked for the Nightingale-Bamford School for five years where she taught AP U.S. History and Medieval European History.
Paster then took time away from her career to raise her two daughters. When she moved to Maplewood, New Jersey, and her youngest entered kindergarten, Paster landed a part-time position teaching U.S. History at Oak Knoll.
And the rest, they say, is history.
“I never dreamed of the all of the opportunities that I would gain when I first stepped onto campus at Oak Knoll in the early ’90s,” she said.
At Oak Knoll, Paster first taught AP U.S. History part time, eventually becoming a full-time history teacher with the school. While still teaching history, she stepped up to fill in as Oak Knoll’s Guidance Counselor for two years.
Then, 15 years ago, while still teaching history and acting as a homeroom teacher, Paster became Dean of Students for grades 10-12 — a position she held until she retired.
Edith Ticona, Dean for grades 7-9 and friend for nearly 20 years, said she continues to learn life-changing lessons from Paster — her office mate — every day.
“Joan embodies what a person can accomplish when they pursue their passion,” Ticona said. “Her passion is without a doubt education. She strongly believes in empowering every person through education and with her joyful and calm demeanor, she shares her wisdom and inspires us to be better students, colleagues and friends.”
According to Paster, she was never thwarted by the different positions she took on at Oak Knoll. In fact, she embraced them.
“At Oak Knoll I learned how to be truly flexible,” said Paster, who has also been president of Oak Knoll’s Chapter of the Cum Laude Society since 1992.
One of her proudest accomplishments, she recalled, was the time spent in collaboration with fellow history teachers Nicole Johnston and Jim Boisi in creating the Oak Knoll signature Survey of U.S. History course.
“Joan was my guide during my full day of interviews at Oak Knoll and in teaching a mock lesson,” said Johnston. “Since that very first day on campus, I found Joan to be one of the warmest, kindest, and most sincere people I had met.
“During the last eleven years of working with Joan, I found my initial impression to be completely true, but at the same time lacking the full breadth of who she is as a teacher, colleague, and person. I consider myself blessed to have the opportunity to learn from Joan – a person who always keeps students at the heart of the matter.”
Over the course of the last 30 years, Paster alone created several of Oak Knoll’s courses, including Immigration, U.S. Government, U.S. Economy for the tenth grade, (now split between the seventh and eighth grade courses), and Women’s Studies for seniors.
In addition, Paster also taught AP U.S. History, AP U.S. Government, World History and Survey of U.S. History.
“Ms. Paster is the epitome of a mentor and model teacher since she always listened to everyone’s thoughts, concerns, and opinions without judgement,” said Lily Matthews ’20, a student in Paster’s honors Survey of U.S. History class. “In class, she created a conversational environment and never discouraged students from speaking. It’s often hard to find words to describe Ms. Paster because she is truly a one-of-a-kind soul and individual.”
Paster’s colleague and Chair of the History Department, Zohra Ismail, said Paster is a role model, mentor and friend.
“Joan is a strong woman but also is very caring and a great listener and is empathetic,” said Ismail.
“Her calmness and sense of reason can deescalate any situation. The faculty, students and parents are so fortunate and blessed to have had her take care of us and our students,” she said.
This summer, Paster’s career at Oak Knoll will come to a bittersweet close as she delivers the Upper School commencement speech amid one of the biggest challenges that the school – and country — has ever been faced with: COVID-19.
“Even before the situation that we are all in now with COVID-19, I’ve learned that there are times when you can’t fix a situation, you just need to learn to navigate around it and to be flexible,” said Paster, who has been living with her daughters, their spouses and her 17 month-old granddaughter, Lila, since mid-March.
Paster will make her way down to North Carolina this summer for her retirement to live near her sister and brother-in-law. There, she will take a step back, decompress and ponder her next steps during the next stage of her life.
“Joan has been the most wonderful colleague,” said Jennifer G. Landis, Associate Head of School.
“Her intelligence, good humor, sensitivity, sense of purpose, and steady example of leadership and joy has been invaluable to us. Joan hasn’t just shared her example and her wisdom with us. She has shared herself with us. We say goodbye gratefully. With deep admiration and tremendous respect,” said Landis.
In time, Paster hopes that she will be able to continue helping those who she has been helping her entire career – students. In some capacity, Paster hopes to work with students who need help with time management and study skills .
“I feel thankful for 30 wonderful years at Oak Knoll,” said Paster. “I could not have asked for more in terms of my personal growth and with the opportunities I’ve been given.”