Meet 2022-23 NJ State Teacher of the Year Christine Girtain
By Kathryn Coulibaly
Christine Girtain appears to be in constant motion. She races down the halls at Toms River High School North and Toms River High School South, two of the three high schools in Toms River, Ocean County, while juggling her responsibilities as a science teacher and the director of Authentic Science Research, a three-year program that allows students to earn college credit while conducting independent research.
Somehow, with her packed calendar, Girtain will have to find a way to fit in being the Ocean County Teacher of the Year and the 2022-23 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year.
“My love of learning—and leading—displayed itself early on,” Girtain remembered. “I used to make my two cousins and my brother, Paul, do leg lifts and repeat after me, ‘E = mc2.’ We still laugh about this and have no idea why I had them do that, or why they listened to me! But today, my brother Paul is a history teacher at Toms River North, and both of my cousins worked in the schools—one as a teacher, now assistant superintendent, in Stafford Township and the other was a school psychologist who now runs her own family counseling practice.”
Girtain was heavily influenced by both of her parents. Her mother, Judy, was a secretary in the main office at Toms River High School North, which both Girtain and her brother Paul attended.
“She was like the mom of the school,” Girtain said. “She worked there for 18 years. She was always looking out for the new teachers and giving them advice on how to save time.”
Girtain’s father, Paul, worked for American Express and commuted daily into New York City, but he loved astronomy, geology and the sciences. He passed this on to Girtain who remembers the gift of a chemistry set as an early encouragement of her interest in the sciences.
Girtain began her education career in earnest when she received a Governor’s Teaching Scholarship from Gov. Jim Florio, who passed away earlier this year. The scholarship helped her to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology with a concentration in education from The College of New Jersey. She later went on to earn a master’s degree in earth science instruction and curriculum from Kean University.
Girtain applied for teaching jobs but held out hope that her first-choice district, her hometown of Toms River, would come through with an offer of a position. One thing people learn quickly about Girtain is her love for her community. She shares the history of Toms River and is arguably its biggest booster. Girtain was disappointed when she did not hear back from the district, and she accepted another position.
At a principal’s meeting shortly after Girtain accepted the other position, Ray Ryan, the principal of Toms River High School North at that time, told the other administrators that another district had already offered Girtain a job. The Toms River assistant superintendent, John Garrabrant, immediately got in touch with Girtain’s mother and asked her to call her in to sign a contract. A thrilled Girtain hurriedly left the beach on the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend and signed the contract.
For the next 28 years, Girtain has built an impressive resume. She was named the New Jersey Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Pathways 2019 Teacher of the Year, the National Association of Biology Teachers 2022 Genetics Educator of the Year, 2021 Army Education Outreach 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 grants to fund student research projects and STEM camps. She is now seeking funding to bring students to Costa Rica this summer to do research.
“I love the bonds I build with my students, especially teaching the research class,” Girtain said. “I am always trying to meet new people and learn new things that I can bring back to my students. The more I learn, the more I can help my students find fulfilling careers. After all, I love my job, and I want the same thing for my students.”
Girtain has formed partnerships with the United States Army and Navy to establish a K-12 STEM pipeline with the goal of ensuring the sustainability of the STEM workforce in the United States. In the spring of 2022, she and a colleague took students to Europe for a research and cultural trip. In 2017, they went to Costa Rica with Seeds of Change, an international nonprofit organization that immerses students in original research experiences to ignite a passion for science.
In addition, Girtain has worked with teachers from six different states on a bioprospecting workshop. The focus of bioprospecting is to find new potential antibiotics to protect humans, crops and animals.
“It is estimated that ten million people may die annually by 2050 due to antibiotic resistance,” Girtain said. “During the bioprospecting workshop, teachers use leading-edge microbial genetic analysis and bioinformatics tools to learn how to discover novel antibiotic candidates to fight microbes that are resistant to current antibiotics.”
Through Seeds of Change, Girtain is helping to establish an East Coast bioprospecting lab that Toms River schools will use to help train more teachers in the area. Part of the training will include how Seeds of Change will facilitate the school’s application for intellectual property rights. If a potential antimicrobial candidate is found by Toms River schools, they will be able to monetize it.
“Through this program, our students and teachers will be doing amazing cutting-edge work, and potentially fundraising for our schools at the same time,” Girtain said.
Girtain and her students have built a global STEM Wolbachia project with Dr. Pirchi Waxman from Giv’atayim, Israel. The students get support from the Bordentstein Lab at Penn State University to run their project looking for the prevalence of a bacterium called Wolbachia in insects. The bacterium has been found to be a sustainable means of blocking the spread of the Dengue and Zika viruses. Girtain’s students presented their final work to a panel of scientists from the U.S, Israel, and Switzerland.
“I truly believe that teachers are the farmers of education, growing the next generation of citizens in a global economy,” Girtain said.
Eliminating food insecurity
Girtain is interested in using her platform as the New Jersey State Teacher of the Year to help students understand where their food comes from, and why it is important to know that information. She has shared her message on increasing agricultural literacy by working with organizations such as Nourish the Future, the National Corn Growers Association, the United Soybean Board, the Beef Checkoff and The American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture.
“To ensure an equitable education for all our students, we first must ensure that their basic needs are being met,” Girtain said. “That means improving access to food and eliminating food insecurity.”
A family embedded in Toms River
Girtain credits her success to the efforts of everyone in the district working together as a team to make the best educational experience for students.
“My family has been part of the Toms River school team for many years, from my aunt working in the bus garage and later, at High School East, to my mom in the main office at North, to my brother and I teaching,” Girtain said. “My own experiences as a student in Toms River were wonderful. I had so many teachers who believed in me, encouraged me, and sometimes pushed me to succeed. I can remember my third-grade teacher, Virginia White, giving me extra math books to help me raise my math scores so I could qualify for the gifted and talented program. When she passed away, I was given her brass classroom bell.”
Girtain’s family is extremely proud and supportive of her achievements. When Girtain was named the New Jersey Teacher of the Year, her husband, Andy, who co-owns Girtain Sign Company with his two sisters, posted a billboard celebrating her across town. Several local McDonald’s restaurants have changed their signs to join in celebrating Girtain.
Girtain’s children, Josh, a freshman at High School North, and Jaime, a student at The College of New Jersey studying mechanical engineering, are unsurprised but delighted at the recognition their mother is receiving. As they have seen, her boundless energy and enthusiasm keeps things interesting, in- and outside the classroom.
As the New Jersey State Teacher of the Year, Girtain is entitled to a 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 will also provide her with $3,000 worth of technology equipment.
NJEA will provide a new leased 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.
“I’m excited to collaborate with other teachers and learn more about what they’re doing in their classrooms,” Girtain said. “I’m eager to bring all of that back to Toms River and my students once this year is over.”
Clearly, Girtain’s constant motion is unlikely to change any time soon.
Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.