Christine Girtain, a high school science teacher and the Director of Authentic Science Research at Toms River High School North and Toms River High School South in Toms River, has been named the 2022-23 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year. She leads the Authentic Science Research Program, a three-year program that meets both during and after school hours and allows students to pursue topics that interest them. As the director, Christine has guided student projects that have covered a range of topics, from the effects of fruit seed extracts on bacteria to bioengineering E. coli to studies of bees. She has connected students and teachers with research and STEM educational trips that have taken them to cattle farms and to Costa Rica.
Girtain’s love of learning began early, as her family nourished curiosity and taught their children the value of education. Her parents instilled a love of learning, curiosity and a sense of adventure in her and her brother, Paul. It was this curiosity and having some inspirational teachers, who motivated her to become a teacher, a role she fully embraces. Consequently, her brother Paul is a history teacher at Toms River High School North, where her mother was a secretary for years. A Toms River Schools graduate herself, Christine has been teaching in the district for twenty-eight years.
Girtain’s own career journey began thirty-two years ago, when during a teacher shortage, she received a Governor’s Teaching Scholarship from Governor Florio. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology with a concentration in education from The College of New Jersey and a master’s degree in earth science instruction and curriculum from Kean University.
Girtain loves the bonds she has made with her students, especially teaching the research class. Her work to push the limits and give students hands-on research opportunities have led to her to being named the NJ STEM Pathways 2019 STEM Teacher of the Year, the National Association of Biology Teachers 2022 Genetics Educator of the Year, and the 2021 New Jersey Finalist for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. In addition, Girtain has brought in more than $185,000 in grant funds to fund student research projects and STEM camps.
Girtain’s impact on her students and community reaches well beyond the classroom walls. As an educator, she is always trying to learn something new to add to the crop of experiences her students can choose from. She tries to meet new people and build connections with academic, industry, and government leaders. She does this to enable her students to have a better sense of what career will bring them happiness and fulfillment. She loves her job and wants the same experience for her students.
Girtain has formed partnerships with the United States Army and Navy to establish a K-12 STEM pipeline with a goal of ensuring the sustainability of the STEM workforce in the United States. She and a colleague took students to Europe for a cultural trip last spring to do research and in 2017 to Costa Rica with Seeds of Change. Girtain continues to build pathways for her colleagues, funding local teachers and hosting teachers from six different states for bioprospecting workshops, whose focus is to find new potential antibiotics to protect humans, crops, and animals. She and her students have built a Global STEM Wolbachia project with Dr. Pirchi Waxman from Giv’atayim, Israel. Their students get support from the Bordenstein Lab from Penn State running their “Discover the Microbes Within: Wolbachia Project ” to look for the prevalence of a bacterium called Wolbachia in insects, which has been found to be a sustainable means of blocking the spread of Dengue and Zika viruses. Girtain’s students build friendships and work across time zones. They presented their final work to a panel of scientists from the US, Israel and Switzerland. She firmly believes that teachers are the farmers of education, growing the next generation of citizens in a global economy.
She has shared her message as a national presenter and advocate for increasing agricultural literacy working with organizations that include Nourish the Future, the National Corn Growers Association, the United Soybean Board, the Beef Checkoff, and The American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture. In her presentations, she stresses that to ensure an equitable education for all students, teachers first must ensure that the basic needs of all their students are being met, which means access to food and eliminating food insecurity.
Girtain credits her success to the efforts of everyone in the district, from the school bus drivers, the cafeteria staff, the custodians, and support staff, to the teachers, administrators, and Toms River Board of Education as they all work together as a team to make the best educational experience for students.
“We are so proud of Christine Girtain,” said NJEA President Sean M. Spiller. “As we examine the world around us, as we seek answers to our questions about climate control, for example, Christine is the very teacher that we need at this time. She is teaching her students critical thinking skills, how to draw conclusions based on the facts, and how to explore and examine the world around them with an eye to seeing how things work. She is truly a dedicated professional, always willing to think outside the box in an effort to provide her students the best educational experience in her classroom.”
“Teaching has always been a noble profession and it is important we have people of strong character, steeped in the principals of truth and knowledge, as representative of what we do best in New Jersey,” stated Steve Beatty, NJEA vice-president. “On every benchmark, New Jersey’s schools are number one in the nation, and teachers like Christine are the perfect example as to why we have that distinction. Her passion for finding out the answers and the facts, for asking the questions, and doing the research is what inspires her students to do the same and thrive in an environment where questioning what we see in the world is honored and expected.”
“Christine, and teachers like her, are building a brighter future for students and public schools,” said NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Petal Robertson. “Christine’s expertise and voice serves as a guiding path to show how educators can create synergistic relationships between their students and community organizations, so that both the students and their communities achieve their goals. Christine’s desire to see her students succeed, not just in the classroom but with real world skills, will continue to make a difference. Congratulations, Christine, we are humbled by your dedication to your craft.”
Some of the perks of being the New Jersey Teacher of the Year, are that Girtain is entitled to an all-expense paid, six-month sabbatical from January through June 2023 to attend national and state conferences, to tour the state visiting classrooms and to work on various initiatives at the New Jersey Department of Education, courtesy of program sponsor ETS. ETS also provides $3,000 worth of technology equipment. NJEA will provide a rental car, equipped with EZ Pass, to help her travel to speaking engagements and meetings across the state. NJEA also will provide complimentary access to all major NJEA workshops and training opportunities, a $500 clothing allowance, media training and communications support, and funding for a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with the other state teachers of the year and the President of the United States.
Girtain promotes agricultural education
Recently, NJSTOY Christine Girtain, was interviewed on the importance of incorporating STEAM and agricultural education into her science curriculum. The interview was arranged by Nourish the Future, which is funded by the National Corn Growers Association and the American Soybean Board.
“Farmers do care about education,” said Girtain, “and they’re investing their hard-earned dollars to make sure that education is happening for teachers across the country.”
The interview, which gives listeners the opportunity to hear Girtain’s story about becoming involved in agricultural education as well as the examples that she shares of ways educators can incorporate these lessons into their classes, can be heard below. Additionally, educators can go online to Nourishthefuture.org, where they can apply to be a teacher-leader. Applications are now open to apply for the next cohort.