Learn more about the 2020-2021 New Jersey County Teachers of the Year:

What is your name & job title?

My name is Jessica Merz, and I am a Teacher of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing at the Marie H. Katzenbach School for the Deaf.

Do you love your job? What do you love about it?

I absolutely love my job. I get to go to work every day and be greeted by a class full, really a school full of students who are genuinely happy to see me and share their lives with me. I call my students “my kids” because I would do anything for them just as I would my own children. Our school is more like a family, we have small class sizes, and we get to know our students and their families very well throughout the school year. It brings a very personal level to the job, which I love because it allows me to impact my students in a bigger way, not only inside the classroom, but also in their lives at home and in the community.

I think my colleagues, especially in my elementary team are one of the biggest reasons I love going to work. We all work so well together, collaborate on themes, special events, trainings, new curriculum and finding creative ways to make learning come alive for our students. I love going to work every day knowing my students are excited to be there and that they look forward to our interactions all day long. Most of them don’t have the same level of communication in ASL at home so when they get to school it is a place for them to open up and tell me about what is happening in their lives.

Tell me about your students.

I’ve had many different roles in the classrooms, and I’ve taught everything from our infant/toddler playgroup to third grade multiply disabled students. ALL of my students are amazing in their own way! All of the students at Katzenbach have some degree of hearing loss, from profoundly deaf to a mild hearing loss. Some of my students use assistive technology such as hearing aides, cochlear implants, or BAHAs and others don’t use any assistive devices. All of my students are learning American Sign Language alongside learning English in a bilingual program. More than 90% of deaf children are born into hearing families which is true of my student population. Their families are trying to learn American Sign Language alongside them, therefore they arrive to us with little formal language. We offer family sign language classes at Katzenbach and provide many resources for our families encouraging them to learn ASL so that they can communicate effectively with their children.

I call my students Rockstars because they are working twice as hard and they are killing it! In addition to my students learning social and academic language, in both ASL and English, I am also teaching them all of the content and curriculum standards required for their grade level. We use a hands-on approach to everything, engaging all of their senses in their learning. We use a lot of visuals, role playing, manipulatives and anything else we can to provide them with an experience they can attach language and concept development to.

My students have various classifications medically and intellectually. Some have Autism, CHARGE Syndrome, Deaf-blindness, as well as rare syndromes that include deafness as a result. My response to that is to be aware of the challenges and “see the able, not the label” That way I’m in no way limiting their successes/achievements by only getting them to the limits of their “label”.
They all have very different personalities, strengths and needs and are capable of so much. Their growth can be measured in tiny increments or giant leaps, which can be the same depending on the student.
I don’t think I could pick a favorite experience since they have all been so unique and so different. My students challenge me each day to “see” them, learn more, and keep providing opportunities for them to push their limits, and to push my limits.

Tell me about a project related to your work that you’re really proud of.

The first thing that comes to mind when I talk about a project related to my work that I’m proud of is creating an ASL/English Bilingual program and celebration at Katzenbach. My passion is Deaf education and making sure my students have direct accesss to communication and instruction in American Sign Language, and having an accessible school environment that doesn’t put any restrictions on their growth and development as an independent child.

For this question though, I wanted to discuss a project that was new to me this past year. I was inspired by one particular student I had who has austism and ADHD in addition to being deaf. He was struggling to maintain attention throughout the day in order to access his education and I started to research sensory input in the classroom and the benefits of different sensory diets.

After doing a lot of research, talking with occupational therapists who specialize in sensory input and some trial and error in my own classroom, I was able to expand our sensory options for our students. My administration was very supportive of the need to purchase sensory equipment, flexible seating options, and allowed me to create 2 separate spaces for students who needed extra support in maintaining their sensory input in order to focus throughout the day. We created one space that was a soft and calming area, with visual and tactile stimuli. We also enhanced our current sensory room by adding a variety of sensory equipment that would either help students who were over or under stimulated to regulate their bodies. The impact I saw with my particular student was tremendous. Once we learned to read his body and his needs, and provide him with sensory options, he started to recognize his own needs and was able to request the sensory input needed to get him back on track. His attention to academics and the time engaged in class significantly increased from the sensory input which resulted in personal and academic growth for my student.

What is your connection to your union/local association?

Katzenbach is a unique school situation, where we are not associated with a single school district as we receive students from all districts throughout the state of NJ. As a state employee directly under DOE, my union is the Communication Workers of America (CWA). The CWA is not your traditional teacher union as we at Katzenbach make up a small percentage of the employees at DOE.

NJEA has been a big support network and resource that has been available to me as well especially through the annual teacher’s convention.

Why did you choose a career in public education?

Early language acquisition has always been a passion of mine, ever since studying in college the ways in which babies acquire language and learn. Language acquisition from an early age is critical and I knew that I could provide those opportunities to the most children by being a public education teacher. I wanted to inspire children to be the best version of themselves and to believe in their abilities. I realized quickly that most deaf children don’t come from families who are fluent in or even have the basics of ASL, therefore they depend on school to provide them with a strong language foundation. Although American Sign Language is my second language, I have worked on and dedicated years to learning, becoming a part of the Deaf Community and working alongside my Deaf colleagues in order to make the biggest impact for my deaf students.
Everyone knows and agrees that all children have the right to a free and appropriate education, but to have direct access to that education is the right of a deaf child. As a public educator at the Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf, I get to provide these students with language models in both English and ASL, where they have full communication access all day, every day.

Have you had a teacher or educational support professional who inspired you?

I have had the pleasure of working with so many amazing teachers and educational support staff who have all influenced me, shaped me, and inspired me throughout my career. There are two people who stand out the most when I think about this question. The first was an Occupational Therapist I worked with 13 years ago, Karen Gionone. Karen taught me to think outside the box. She always said, it was our jobs to find a way to reach each student, to create a situation that meets the needs of my students and bring it to them. She was the first person to really teach me that children aren’t supposed to fit a mold, or in a box, and that learning doesn’t have to be traditional, it can be alive and active and fun. Karen was always coming up with new creative ways to work on skills and she taught me to not be afraid to try something new, push the boundaries, and believe in my students.

Karen always saw the best in the kids and brought out their confidence, while having fun and laughing. I continue to carry her lessons within me all these years later.

The other person who inspired me to be a better teacher was my mentor and first team teacher at Katzenbach, Lauren DeLucas. Lauren is the epitome of positivity and being a team player. I learned so much from her, and I’ll always be grateful to her. She is the first person to say YES no matter what the task was, as long as it was for the students. It didn’t matter how many committees she already sat on, or how many hours she was already putting in for her students, she always said yes. Lauren’s heart is genuinely filled with the love of her students, and of Katzenbach, and she inspired me to have the same level of dedication and love. Lauren is a lifelong learner, always ready for the challenge to learn something new and wanting to do it to the very best of her ability. I was inspired by her desire to always want to self-improve, and I continue to carry that mentality with me. Education is fluid, it’s always changing, and its imperative that as teachers we continue to change and learn with the times, making sure we are offering our students the very best. As a teacher, I go to school every day, not only to teach my students, but to continue to learn from them and for them.

If you had to describe public education in one word, what would that be?

Maybe if you had asked this question last year, or even a few months ago, my answer might have been different, something like essential or encompassing, but in looking at public education, right now in this moment, I would have to describe it as fluid. Public education is tasked with constantly evolving and changing to meet the diverse needs of all it’s students. Living through this pandemic with COVID-19, I’ve seen first hand just how fluid public education can be, changing the platform practically overnight, while working hard to make sure all of it’s students are being addressed. I know for me personally, at Katzenbach, we did just that.

Public education is facing many challenges. One is the impact that COVID-19 has had on how we teach and how students learn. What have you learned about how you, your colleagues, and your students adapted to remote instruction?

This experience with COVID-19 and schools going from in person teaching to a virtual learning experience overnight, without any protocols in place was a whirlwind for all involved. The biggest take away I have from this whole experience is how flexible, creative and especially dedicated our staff, students, families and administration are. We never lost sight of what matters the most, which is the wellbeing and education of our students. Most of our teachers and students had never experienced virtual teaching platforms before this, but we made it work, every day.

I am really grateful to our leadership at Katzenbach because they were on top of it from the very first moment and we were able to successfully transition overnight without missing a single day of education. Not to say that it was easy or without glitches, but our students came to school on a Monday, and Tuesday we were instructing them live, using Google Meets, from their homes. We held crash courses in Zoom, Google Meets and even Google classroom in the days leading up to the closure. Teachers were instructed to put together packets, materials, manipulatives and anything else we thought our students might need in order to continue their education from home. We quickly realized we had to adapt what we do in class to be meaningful to our students remotely.

While we were at home, it didn’t stop there. My colleagues and I shared ideas, materials or anything we learned that would help anyone else. We continued to participate in weekly share times, in addition to our PLCs, for ideas and to support each other and our students. We collaborated with our families finding ways to use toys or materials at home to supplement the lessons. We not only worked on our lessons, and the classwork, but also made sure to check in on the emotional well being of our students. We continued to provide them with as many opportunities for socialization as we could. Our counselor ran our PBSIS dance parties every Friday, their weekly recognitions for showing Respect, Responsibility and Kindness, which are our 3 rules of PBSIS. We held virtual celebrations, talent shows, field day, and so much more, because it was important that our students didn’t miss out on these moments.

I learned how resilient we are, both as a staff and our students. The level of dedication, in a completely unprecedented time, and the way we came together to create a meaningful, relevant experience for our school community is something I will always carry with me and be proud of.

As a result of George Floyd’s murder, along with other tragedies targeting Black people, more and more people are supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. How has this affected you as an educator, and as a person, and how do you see yourself addressing systemic racism through your work as a teacher?

Although I have not personally experienced any type of oppression based on my looks or who I am as a person, I am aware that it exists. I can not put myself in the shoes of a Black woman or man in this country to ever truly understand from their eyes. I can however be an advocate and use my voice to support the equal treatment of black lives, starting in my own community. I’ve always prided myself on speaking up when I see an injustice, and willing to take a stand for equality and fairness. Most of my experiences with these so far relate to oppression not because of the color of your skin, but based on your ability to hear or not hear. In the Deaf community this oppression is called Audism, when some hearing people look down on those who are deaf or hard of hearing, as having a disability or being less qualified, less worthy or not given the same access or privilege as someone who is hearing. As a hearing person, I know I will never fully feel the effects from this behavior, but I can educate myself and work to prevent it so others don’t have to go through it. I can talk to people whose lives it does affect and learn how to be an ally. I seek to help our students understand what is happening around them and teach them to be aware of being kind, respectful and being a good friend. At whatever level my students are functioning, I will do whatever I need to help students to not repeat the injustices done by others or develop qualities of unfairness. I try to teach from what has happened in the past and help students see how injustices occur and why/how laws were developed to prevent and deter future occurrences.
I used to say “I don’t see color” when I work with my students. After some reflection of reoccurring events, I can’t say that now. I have to see color because I have to be aware of the subtle and overt negative exchanges/interactions so they can be addressed. I guess it’s similar to what I’ve tried to do for our students with varying special needs, or for seeing signs of Audism. I’ve always tried to stand by the side of those who are wronged or treated unfairly, and as a result of these most recent tragedies, I will work to continue to identify ways in which I can be an ally.

Related Videos

Send this to a friend