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

What is your name & job title?

Christina Gauss
Teacher of Spanish

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

I consider myself very fortunate to be able to work with amazing high school students that will be our future leaders. I love building a community of engaged learners by inquiring about their interests and lives outside of school and connecting that to what we study in class. It’s amazing to watch my students acquire their Spanish linguistic and intercultural competence skills… they leave my course well on their way of becoming knowledgeable and empathic global citizens! I am also grateful to work and continue to learn alongside so many like-minded teachers in my school, especially my World Language Department colleagues!

Tell me about your students.

My students are amazing! They are always up for a challenge and learn to accept that I push them out of their comfort zone in my class in order to grow. They are inquisitive, fun, energetic, caring, and committed to learning more about the world around them.

I teach a beginning Spanish course with 9th grade students who are just starting their journey, so I enjoy watching them become curious about the language, its cultural products, practices, and perspectives, and to really start communicating in Spanish. I also teach upperclass students in Spanish IV Honors and Advanced Placement Spanish Language and Culture, so we really get to dive deeper with communicating in the language to use it in real-world situations, to make connections, and to learn about and compare cultures to our own.

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

The school-wide project that I am most proud of is the identification and fostering of our sister school program in Avila, Spain to enable connections with youth from a culture different from our own. I established ties with the Instituto Isabel de Castilla and went to meet the administration and their English teacher, Aida, my counterpart. We discussed logistics and together came up with a plan for exchange both virtually and in person.

Then, it happened! We connected our students on an educational platform in year-long virtual activities and in-person exchange trips complete with homestays. We shared perspectives, practices, and products, discussed and compared customs and traditions, talked about our favorite leisure time activities, career goals, and even favorite ice cream flavors!

Four years and five exchange trips later, I am amazed by the impact that this initiative has had on students of Spanish as well as the greater RFH community. Through online activities, email exchanges, vlogs, video chats, homestays, joint cultural activities, and even an investigative research project that was entered into a University competition in Spain, we have broken down barriers and stereotypes, have opened young minds to another part of the world, and have created lifelong friends for many.

The response from the school community at large was incredible. I have had students that participated in the first exchange in the classroom and abroad write to me to inform me that these formidable experiences and opportunities afforded to them in high school helped to shape the path of their studies, with several deciding upon a Spanish major or minor, or making the leap to study abroad, or securing a job where they can employ their language and culture skills. I currently have students that sought out and have been accepted to renowned university programs for International Studies, influenced by their participation in our online classroom and exchange activities.

During our in-country exchanges, students live with and shadow their host student, attend all classes, meet new friends, go to sport practices, and participate in other clubs and activities. Our teachers open their classroom doors and welcome them in to get a glimpse of the typical life of the host student. The Chinese and French teachers at my school have been able to successfully make ties of their own for their target cultures, and through projects like these, we work on opening young minds and building the foundation of future global citizens. I am most proud of this contribution and value the positive impact that it has had on our school community.

What is your connection to your union/local association?

I have been a member of my local SEA for 15 years. Our leadership team does a fantastic job of representing and advocating for our students and its members. They participate in and sponsor many local events and most recently, during our virtual learning this spring, held a trivia night as a fun way to be able to connect with each other. I really appreciate their support and dedication to our association!

Why did you choose a career in public education?

I love sharing my passion with my students, and am proud to be a World Language advocate and teacher in today’s society to help prepare and produce multilingual and culturally competent future global citizens. I firmly believe that it is my responsibility to show students how knowledge of language and culture opens up doors for them in the future.

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

I’ve had many educators who have inspired me, but my favorite teacher of all time, Mrs. Kenderine from the Fourth Grade at Mill Road Elementary School, instilled in me a true love of learning. Mrs. Kenderdine certainly wasn’t the youngest or the hippest teacher of the school, and quite frankly, didn’t captivate too many of my peers in the same way that she did me. Her warm and caring nature and the lessons that she taught us felt so natural, and I remember thinking that I wanted to be just like her in that I wanted to be a part of making learning come alive for others. I used to beg my neighborhood playmates to play school with me in the basement. I remember the feeling when it was my turn to play the role of the teacher, and I embraced the challenge of how I was going to give my students a fun, powerful, and unique lesson. It was that same year that my mother recalls me declaring that I was going to become an “amazing teacher”. To this day, I couldn’t be happier carrying out those early intentions of igniting others’ minds and watching them grow while I continue my own journey of lifelong learning.

My current inspiration comes from a renowned chef and humanitarian, who although not officially licensed, is an educator to many. José Andrés is the founder of World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that provides food relief to communities that are impacted by natural and man-made disasters. José and his team of restaurant employees and community volunteers have provided over 15 million fresh meals across America and Spain since March of this year, and countless meals since the organization’s start in 2010. He’s teaching by example; showing the world that we must show up, care for each other, and create healthy communities. I had the pleasure of attending one of his speaking engagements this past September, and left with a full plate of inspiration! He’s a man of upstanding moral character and we share a love of Spanish tapas! I was able to meet him in person to tell him that my students had been following his efforts and raised funds to contribute to the WCK cause. His inspiration also led us to partake in food drives for our local food banks, and several of my students even started their own food initiative Compañeros de Comida in the wake of food insecurities for our local hispanic community as a result of Covid 19.

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

TRANSFORMATIVE.

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?

The biggest challenge of adapting to remote learning has been continuing to foster connections with our students during our time at home. My district was fortunate enough to leave the school building on a Friday and continue instruction virtually on Monday. We’ve learned so much during the last few months that will enable us to provide more effective instruction and to better connect with our students going forward, whether continuing virtually or with a hybrid schedule.

We know how student wellness affects their ability to learn, so we’ve made strides to continue to promote connections and to foster their social and emotional health. We have adapted our instruction to provide students with meaningful activities that they can relate to and really learn from during their time at home. We have acquired a collection of digital tools to engage students in online activities, to facilitate valuable discussions, to give feedback, and to ask for reflections. Most importantly, as teachers, we will continue to show our students that we are here for them and can learn together, even if we are physically apart.

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?

The Black Lives Matter movement has really prompted educators to pause and reflect on their products and practices that promote equity in the classroom, and ultimately form a lasting effect on their students as members of our greater society. My content area affords my students and I the opportunity to learn about many BIPOC communities of the United States and the twenty one Spanish-speaking countries in the world. Through the study and discussion of critical cultural concepts of identity, race, and privilege in many contexts, we are challenged to reflect about our own beliefs, practices, and place in the world.

This summer I have been dedicating time to be more introspective, first by reading many articles and following many social media sites that educate and challenge me to examine my own practices and cultural content that I present as a teacher. I look forward to engaging in discussion with my colleagues in a recently formed racial justice cohort to be able to examine our greater school community’s practices and to formulate how we can do more as educators to incorporate more critical and culturally-responsive perspectives and pedagogies into our practices.

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