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Williamsburg-James City County Schools’ teacher of the year became a high school science teacher in spite of her high school science class.
Jamestown High School earth science teacher Courtney Gonzalez-Vega was honored as the division’s teacher of the year in a ceremony earlier this month for her dedication to her students and educational achievements, but her path to the classroom was not a preordained one.
As a high school student in Newport News, Gonzalez-Vega was interested in geology. The environment, the natural world and how people shaped it fascinated her.
She was disappointed when her high school earth science class focused more on theoretical material in the textbook than hands-on activities.
“I’ve always liked it,” Gonzalez-Vega said. “My mom says I used to pick up rocks as a toddler.”
Although the class was disappointing, Gonzalez-Vega did not lose her interest in geology, going on to major in the subject as a student at Old Dominion University.
One class at ODU had a lasting impact on Gonzalez-Vega’s future, but it was not a science course. She enrolled in an introduction to education class to see if she would enjoy it.
Gonzalez-Vega enjoyed it so much she added education as a major, and turned it into a career after she graduated from ODU.
After a seven years of teaching in the Virginia Beach area, Gonzalez-Vega came to Jamestown High, which has been her home since 2008.
At Jamestown, Gonzalez-Vega teaches earth science, and will pilot the school’s AP environmental science program next year. Both classes combine her first love of geology and late blooming passion for teaching.
Her classes focus on things like mineral resources and water, and how human activity affects the environment. Drawing on her own disappointing classroom experiences as a student, Gonzalez-Vega incorporates as much experiential learning as she can in her lessons.
“We do lots of hands-on labs,” she said. “Science should be fun and engaging. Let me rephrase that. Science is fun and engaging.”
In an effort to maximize lab time during class, Gonzalez-Vega instituted a new practice called “flipping” into her lessons. She records lectures and posts them onto YouTube. Students can watch the videos at their own paces and come to class the next day prepared to put the material into practice.
Gonzalez-Vega said she emphasizes the practical application of science and lab work as a way to both teach the material and to teach life and career skills.
“It really helps out with what they need, like collaboration, problem-solving and working together,” she said. “The great thing about science is that they can create their own questions and their own answers. They can ask open-ended questions and work with partners to solve them.”
Her dedication to her students was a key factor in receiving Jamestown’s teacher of the year honor, where teachers nominate and vote for the building’s most outstanding educator from the past year.
Gonzalez-Vega was also named WJCC’s high school level teacher of the year for 2014-2015, putting her in the running for the division-wide teacher of the year honor.
For the second round of the competition, Gonzalez-Vega had to write a series of essays, was interviewed by a panel, and had division administrators sit in on one of her classes – unannounced.
“We were doing a lab, and then [Superintendent Steve Constantino] and the school board walked in,” Gonzalez-Vega said.
The observation went well, and Gonzalez-Vega was named WJCC’s high school teacher of the year, earning an invitation to a celebration at the College of William & Mary’s School of Education. It was at that ceremony she found out she had been honored as the WJCC teacher of the year.
“I was so surprised to find out I’d won when there are so many great teachers here,” Gonzalez-Vega said.
Gonzalez-Vega now moves on to the regional teacher of the year competition. She said she isn’t getting her hopes up, but already feels honored by the recognitions she has received from her peers.
“I was humbled and so proud of that,” Gonzalez-Vega said. “I love working at Jamestown.”