October 2021 Featured Educator: Jovita Gandolfo
In a first for WIDA Featured Educator, we spotlight an educator who was nominated by her student. Jovita Gandolfo is a teacher of the Deaf and hard of hearing at La Follette High School in Madison, Wisconsin. She was nominated for Featured Educator by Nallely Gonzalez, 2021 WIDA high school summer intern. In another first for Featured Educator, Nallely was the one to interview Jovita. Today, we highlight their discussion, which included a few questions from Katie Stenz, curator of Featured Educator.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Katie: Nallely, why did you nominate Jovita to be WIDA Featured Educator?
Nallely: I nominated Jovita because I feel like she’s the teacher – for a long time – that I’ve liked. She’s been helping me find programs, such as Escalera and TEEM Scholars. She’s been happy every time I go to her class or to her little room that she has. She’s always in a happy mood, she has snacks for us, she helps me with my schoolwork. If I have any questions, she helps me with them.
Katie: Nallely, can you talk more about how you and Jovita have worked together over the past few years?
Nallely: I have individual study hall with her. She has me be on my computer doing my work and if I have questions, she’ll help me. Also, for TEEMs, she helped me fill out some paper forms. She helped me with my driver's license and helped me use her phone if I needed to call. And if I had a question for it, I asked her.
Katie: It sounds like Jovita is an important part of your life: more than your school life, your entire life. That's so awesome! Now, I’ll turn things over to you, Nallely.
Nallely: Can you start by talking about yourself? Where did you grow up? If it wasn’t Madison, how did you come to live in Madison?
Jovita: I grew up in Madison and spent most of my childhood and my adult life living in Madison. My mother is an immigrant from Europe, so there were portions of the time, where I was able to take extended stays in Europe with my family. I did study abroad over there, but right now Madison is my home.
Nallely: I guess it was fun to go to Europe. I’d like to do that with my family. What do you like to do in your free time?
Jovita: I enjoy being outside. Anything I can do outside, I'll do it! I'm especially fond of running long distances, so I enjoy marathons and half marathons. I like backpacking and camping. In the summer I enjoy gardening. During the winter – you know it's Wisconsin and it gets cold – I enjoy reading.
Nallely: What is your current position and how long have you been in that role?
Jovita: I'm going into my 18th year of teaching. During that time, I've had a variety of roles. My current role is teacher of the Deaf and hard of hearing. I’ve been at La Follette in my current role for the last 11 years.
Nallely: So, you’ve always been an advocate or helper for students that are Deaf or hard of hearing?
Jovita: Actually, my master's degree is in speech and language therapy, so I started as a speech and language therapist. I did that for a year before realizing that special education and Deaf and hard of hearing education was my jam. Instead of seeing students once a week, I want to be more involved in case management, academics and getting to know my students better. I went back to school and got my certification in special education and deaf and hard of hearing education – and, recently, reading education. I'm interested in how growing up Deaf and hard of hearing can limit access to spoken language and how that can transfer to difficulties in reading and writing.
Nallely: I feel like being hard of hearing or Deaf growing up is different than becoming deaf in middle school or high school. Can you tell me more about your background and why you chose to become an educator?
Jovita: I have a lot of family members that are either hard of hearing, or have, as we call it, post lingual deafness, which means someone might have mild hearing loss when growing up and then gradually lose their hearing as they become an adult. That had an impact on me and that's why I chose speech and language because I was interested in communication. But that morphed once I got into the school setting. There was so much more I wanted to learn and do. I think I was a late bloomer. When I started at the high school, I had this vague idea that I would like it. And, wow, I just fell in love with it. Which led to me wanting to learn more about how to be an effective teacher.
Nallely: Could you describe what you love about your job?
Jovita: The relationships that I get to form with my students. That relationship looks different from student to student because you all need different things from me. I'm not going to lie, it's a stressful job. There's a lot of paperwork – and in special education there are legal processes that need to be done. But in all that, what it boils down to is even on my hardest days, I tell myself that this is an opportunity for me to care about a bunch of people. If I’m leading with love in my heart, I don't have to worry about whether I'm doing the right thing because I know that my intentions are good.
Nallely: Can you describe a typical workday?
Jovita: There's no such thing as a typical day, right? Especially working in a high school. I team teach in academic classes. I also do literacy intervention and language intervention because a lot of our deaf and hard of hearing students have delays acquiring language. I use sign because it might be that their parents don't sign at home, or don't have the capacity to meet their children where they are linguistically. Our Deaf and hard of hearing students also have limited access to English, so they need that that linguistic support and development. I do guided study for students like you who don't need literacy and language intervention but could use a little extra support. I case manage and work closely with academic teachers, just to check in. Those are things that you probably didn't even know that I do.
Nallely: I will talk to my teachers, and they will say “oh, I talked to Ms. Jovita today.” You do so much behind the scenes. I know you are hard of hearing. Can you tell us how being hard of hearing affects your day-to-day work?
Jovita: There are some elements that make my day a little bit harder, but on the whole, I haven't lost anything. In the big picture it's been a gain for me. Day to day, I encounter obstacles and barriers just communicating with students, especially in the hallways, when there's a lot of background noise, or when I don't have access to an interpreter. But many of our students take American sign language (ASL) as a world language, so there's often someone around that knows some sign and can facilitate. Overall, it's been a positive thing. Both for me and for the students with whom I work. Because you're at school, you're doing your thing every day, you're fully aware of the barriers that you personally face. And I think there's some meaning in seeing a teacher that also must navigate similar barriers and figure out what works and what doesn't.
Nallely: I remember when we had meetings with my mom, and we needed a Spanish interpreter and an ASL interpreter. How does working with families and students who speak multiple languages impact your work?
Jovita: It impacts my work in a very positive way and it teaches me about different languages and cultures. I'm a teacher that follows my students all four years of high school, so I'm able to form relationships with students and their families. One of the ways multilingualism has impacted my work is in meetings. It's helped me focus on what the priority is: the most effective meeting is a meeting where everyone feels like an equal partner, and it’s not necessarily led by a teacher. It feels like we might be having a conversation about you, but we're all sitting around the kitchen table.
Nallely: So, the advantage is that it brings better communication with the students and the parents?
Jovita: Absolutely, it's not only communication, but also relationship building. What it has taught me, especially in Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) meetings that are multilingual, is families respond better when I look up from the paperwork and have that genuine conversation.
Nallely: In some meetings the teachers do the talking, but in IEP meetings it’s the student who is talking to the parents and teachers.
Jovita: You’ve led your own IEP meetings and can probably see the difference between going to those meetings when you were a middle schooler and maybe it was the teacher that talked about you versus when you're in high school you’re planning and leading your own meeting.
Nallely: Now that I'm in high school, students get to talk more without teachers butting in. Instead of the teacher saying, “they don’t do as good on this,” the student says how they think they did, and they can talk about any issues they are having at home or mentally.
Jovita: You brought up a really important point and that's working from a strength-based perspective than a deficit-based one. Being able to self-identify things that that you're interested in and that you're good at and then use those strengths to build on those areas of relative challenge.
Nallely: As people, especially students, are speaking more about social justice, what does uplifting student voices mean to you?
Jovita: When I think about uplifting voices, I think about self-agency and the ability to understand that there are some things outside of our control, like the world acts on us, but there are also things that we can do ourselves to act upon the world. We can consider that on a small scale and a broad scale. When I think about self-agency in the classroom, I always offer different places to sit. Where you put your body and what feels comfortable to you is your choice. When I'm teaching reading and writing, there's a lot of agency and voice around what book we're reading. It's important for us as readers to be able to see our own experiences in literature. Another way that I uplift voices is by bringing you to the forefront of your IEP meetings. Those are all small things, but in the end helping students develop their sense of value and their ability to advocate for what it is you need to be successful at school.
Nallely: The little things you do help a lot in a bigger perspective. The little things you do make us feel safer and make us feel like we can talk to you if we have any issues. For me, you feel more like a role model and not just like a teacher. We can talk to you if we have any problems, and you take a break to listen to us and give us advice.