The June teacher of the month is Laura Gitzinger, a Kindergarten teacher at Hawthorn Elementary School in Vernon Hills, Illinois where she has worked for 18 years. Her career in education began in Cincinnati where she worked as a substitute teacher before moving to her hometown to work in a new dual language program in the district that she attended as a child.
As a child, she spent extra time in school settings because her mother worked in the local district in various roles. For this reason, she was able to form strong connections with her teachers. Once she finished school, her mom continued to work at the district. Ms. Gitzinger was able to reconnect with former teachers and she began to work with them in their classrooms. During this time, she watched as her former teachers inspiring the next generation of students, and she decided that she wanted to do the same thing, inspire students to find their place in the world.
She was informed that Hawthorn was going to begin a dual language program and she was intrigued by the idea of teaching kids the value of knowing more than one language at such a young age. She grew up learning Spanish at home and learned English at school. Although she had the advantage of learning Spanish as a child, it was not until she was older that she understood the value speaking, reading and writing two languages.
She understood that she wanted to help inspire a new generation of children to embrace multilingualism. The new dual language program was just what she was looking for to help her reach her goal.
Her favorite part of being a teacher is getting to know the students, their families, and seeing them learn and grow. Kids change so much in one school year, and she enjoys guiding them and watching as they make academic progress. These strides boost their self-confidence and she feels privileged to be a part of their development.
Since she has been teaching in this district a long time, she has had the opportunity to watch as former students reach the milestones of graduating from middle and high school. She has been able to keep in touch with former students and always enjoys hearing about their many accomplishments and asking what their next goals are.
Ms. Gitzinger is proud of her involvement with Dual Language education which she views as fun, engaging, and collaborative! Her classroom is dynamic and always filled with energy and activity as the kids learn by experiencing hands-on activities and projects. As much as the kids work together to achieve our goals of bi-literacy, so do the teachers.
She appreciates being part of a kindergarten team that collaborates and plans together to make their program the best that it can be. They inspire and motivate the students by letting them have a say in what they learn along with hands on activities. They incorporate the interests of the students, as well as their learning styles so that we can incorporate activities to reach all kids’ needs. The collaboration with colleagues and students has helped to shape her into a better teacher.
She holds her students and their families accountable by giving them activities to do as a family that align with what is being learned in the classroom. These activities include reading at home to help build fluency and comprehension, since as kindergarten students, they are at early stages of literacy. The students love to teach their families the new words that they are using at school and parents appreciate knowing how their child is progressing.
Ms. Gitzinger is a recognized leader in her school community. She was nominated by a colleague who shared the following statement,
“Laura was instrumental in starting the program 18 years ago. Since then, she has continued working tirelessly to get her kindergartners off to a great start, advocate for the program to parents and the district, lead/ inspire other teachers, and connect with the community. She also helps run an after school program for low income students at the school. They participate in sports, STEM activities, and have an amazing Christmas celebration with gifts donated by the community." The strong components of her leadership style include collaboration, reflection, and focusing on the positive with her colleagues, parents, with the students as the center of all that is developed.
Laura sees her students as creative and supportive “sponges” who come into school at the beginning of the year with different levels of exposure to language and experiences, but through the year they soak up so much knowledge. Although a veteran teacher, she is still amazed at how much they learn and grow in just one school year. Their creativity comes out not only in their drawing, writing and contributions to discussions, but also in the connections they make between languages and experiences they have had. They are all very supportive of each other in and out of the classroom. They are always wanting to help each other and encourage other kids when they are struggling with something. She greatly enjoys guiding them on this journey.
As a dual language educator, bi-literacy is an important component of the daily classroom activities. When asked what biliteracy means to her she gave the following response,
“Biliteracy means more than just being able to read, write and speak in two languages. It is also the ability to think and flow between the languages sometimes without even realizing that you are using both languages to help you understand something you are reading or express yourself more clearly.”
Her goal for her students with biliteracy is to encourage them to practice the languages and to understand how biliteracy can help them in the future, especially in the job market. She shares her own experience with biliteracy and how she is able to speak two languages. Her mother volunteers in the classroom and they demonstrate to the students how they can both switch seamlessly between Spanish and English. She also shares about having family that does not speak English and the importance of speaking Spanish to be able to communicate with them. They also discuss the diversity of other languages spoken by students.
The school district recognizes the steps to achieving biliteracy by has implementing the Pathways to Biliteracy awards. In kindergarten, all students receive a certificate acknowledging that they are on their way to becoming bilingual and biliterate. The purpose is to encourage them to continue learning in two languages.
As they leave her classroom at the end of the year she hopes that she has instilled a foundation of love of learning in at least two languages so that they continue their studies and eventually see how much is has benefited them. Former students have shared with her they did not understand how great of a gift their parents had given them by putting them in a dual language program until they were in high school or older.
As her students go out into the world, she hopes that they continue to embrace multiculturalism throughout their lives by learning about other cultures. As they learn about other cultures, that they are able to inspire positive changes in the world, that will hopefully include traveling to experience these cultures.