Herald Head of the Class 2021: Gia Nigoghossian, Glenwood Landing Elementary School, Third Grade


Why did you become a teacher? 

To be honest, I didn't always know I wanted to become a teacher. I knew I enjoyed helping people, but I wasn't a very good public speaker, so I didn't think teaching was in the cards for me. Towards the end of high school, a teacher asked me if I would be interested in working with the Career Development Students during their Physical Education(PE) classes.These students were in a Special Education program which focused on life skills. I decided to take part in their PE class and help out any way I could, rather than take the general education PE class. 

From the first day I worked with these students, I completely fell in love with the feeling of being a part of motivating and inspiring someone. Seeing their faces light up when they accomplished one of their goals was a feeling I knew I wanted to continue having for the rest of my life.

Tell us about a teacher that inspired you as a student.

When I think of the quote, "Be somebody who makes everybody feel like a somebody," Mr. Verdi will forever come to my mind. Mr. Verdi was one of my teachers in high school and was truly an inspiration to everyone he met. He was the kind of teacher who noticed every single student and made them feel special in some way. He not only was an incredible teacher of english, but he went above and beyond outside the classroom. His door was truly always open. Whether you wanted to share something funny with him, work on your college essay, or vent about something that was upsetting you, he was always there. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2019, but he lives on through every one of his students. When I found out I was nominated for this award, he was the first person that came to mind because he will forever be the teacher I strive to be. He made learning fun and he made every student, and I mean every single student, feel like they were important. I will never forget that in my yearbook Mr. Verdi wrote, "It is a person like you who motivates someone like me." I truly hope he knew how much his morals and character motivate me as a teacher every single day.

What did you experience or learn about teaching—yourself, your students, the process, etc.—during the pandemic that you think you will carry forward?

One thing I learned about teaching this year is how important it is to be flexible as a teacher. I think we can all agree that this year was not only hard on adults, but extremely confusing and scary for children. Although I consider having a structured classroom extremely important, this year has also taught me the importance of noticing your students' emotional needs and addressing them right then and there, regardless of having a little less time for a lesson originally planned. In order for kids to be able to attend and learn, they first and foremost need to feel safe. In the beginning of the year, I spent a lot of time talking and modeling the new protocols which took away from some academic time, but I truly believe it was absolutely necessary in order for my kids to feel comfortable. 

I also embedded several social-emotional activities into our daily routine. For instance, I now have a "Calming Corner" where kids can go and take a break. One of their favorite activities in this corner is our "Relax Wall," where there is a giant coloring poster that the kids can color when they feel they need a few seconds to refocus their worries. Being a little more flexible based on my students' emotional needs rather than feeling like I need to use every second of my day for my academic lesson plans is something I will carry forward with me in the future.

In regards to what I learned about my students is how amazing their resilience truly is. Regardless of the circumstances and how different this year was, they came into school with smiles on their faces almost every single day, grateful to be in school rather than learning remotely. I can honestly say my class has hardly ever complained about their masks this entire school year. Although you could see their excitement and relief when their individual plexiglass was taken down, they never once mentioned it was a bother to them when it became part of their daily routine. It was amazing to see how much they truly wanted to be in school through this and were so grateful to still be able to be around their teachers and peers.

What's the most memorable thing a student has said to you?

"You are no ordinary teacher! You are special, fun, silly, kind, heart-warming, smart, and creative! You always made me feel special! Thank you for inspiring me!"

What has been your toughest challenge as a teacher so far?

My toughest challenge as a teacher so far was definitely transitioning to remote learning last school year. I will never again take being able to stand in front of my students for granted. Feeling so far away from my students when their faces were on the screen directly in front of me was heartbreaking for both myself and my students.  Despite the circumstances, we did our best to make it feel like our usual school day. I would invite students to have "lunch" with me once a week via Google Meets. I sent them a "Flat Ms. N" emoji picture of myself and the students would do different activities with "Flat Ms. N" and share them with our class as a way for us to still feel connected. I never in my life imagined having to teach through a computer, but it taught me so much about the value of face to face interactions.

What has been your proudest moment as a teacher so far?

One of my proudest moments as a teacher was a few years ago when I was teaching fifth grade in Upstate New York. I spent some time teaching the students about 9/11 and then we sent thank you cards to the Port Authority Officers of New York and New Jersey. The Port Authority President wrote us a beautiful letter back and asked if they could send $200 for my class to have a pizza party.

My students replied with, "You always say we should use what we learn to make the world a better place, why don't we use the money to create a memorial for the school?" We did indeed use the money to buy a bench in honor of all those who sacrificed their lives on 9/11. We also invited Port Authority Officers to come for our 9/11 memorial celebration when the bench would be revealed. Our class had breakfast with the officers and learned about their experiences. The students then recited poems and songs for these officers before presenting the bench. It was truly a beautiful day and I was so proud that the students wanted to take their knowledge to do something meaningful and important.

What surprised you the most when you first started teaching?

What surprised me when I first started teaching, and still surprises me on a daily basis, is how teaching is the hardest AND most rewarding thing I have ever done. When students tell me that I am the reason they now love to read or that I helped them feel confident, it makes the countless hours beyond worth it.

How do you keep students engaged and interested? 

I think a huge factor in student engagement and interest is getting to know your students very well and incorporating what you know about them throughout your lessons. Before the school year even starts, I send an email to parents asking them to explain their child to me in, "A MIllion Words or Less." Parents will send me letters that are pages long, explaining their child's interests, strengths, weaknesses, fears, etc. This allows me to try and form a connection with students on day one of the school year. I stand outside my classroom every single morning to greet my children individually and I often use their interests to spark a conversation. This helps me not only gauge how they are feeling as they are starting the school day, but also get to know them even better. I find that taking the time to get to know them and what they're passionate about builds trust and if a student trusts you, they will try their best in everything they do. I incorporate their names and interests throughout my lessons every day. For instance, almost every math word problem I use includes the names of my students and things such as their hobbies or the name of their pets.

Another way I keep students engaged and interested is by keeping them on their toes and switching up activities. For instance, if they seem tired or distracted, I will have them take a quick brain break and have a one minute dance party. They always say that is one of their favorite activities throughout our daily routines. I also try to incorporate hands-on and game based activities whenever possible. This year I tried to take my class outside whenever possible for math games, such as multiplication tic tac toe or chalk line plot stations. Third graders seem to love learning about our concepts through hands-on tasks that allow them time to explore, which is why I try to increase engagement through these types of activities. 

What is an aspect of being a teacher that you think most people outside the profession don't know or fully understand?

 One aspect of being a teacher that I think most people outside the profession don't fully understand is how much of our day revolves around our students. I am constantly worrying about my students from the time I wake up until the time I go to bed. How will so and so grow as a reader? How can I help this child believe in herself? How can I help this child's family through this difficult time? Am I teaching these kids in a way that will make the world a better place without imposing my own opinions on them? The worries are constant. I love my job more than anything in the world, but I don't know if people outside this profession truly know how much our lives revolve around trying to help our students reach their fullest potential. 

What advice do you have for aspiring teachers?

First: "My teacher thought I was smarter than I was, so I was." If your students trust you and know you believe in them, they will reach for the stars and work their hardest. Be their biggest cheerleader!
Second: Don't let people tell you teaching isn't what it used to be and discourage you. Regardless of the paperwork and meetings, it is the most incredible job in the world. You will have the opportunity to make a difference in not only one student's life, but our future as a whole. You will have the opportunity to inspire little minds every day to try their best and accomplish their dreams. I may be biased, but what other job allows you to pause and have a dance party when you feel you need to brighten up someone's mood?

What is the most important thing you hope a student takes away from your class?

This is such a hard question because there is so much I hope students take away from my class as they move on in their life. I guess the biggest thing I hope my students remember from me is that they can make a difference in the world. I want them to realize that the slightest gesture could mean the world to someone. I want them to realize that standing up for what they believe in may be hard, but it is important. I know they often think they are just kids and that kids can't make a difference, but I hope when they leave my classroom they realize that is not true and that every single action they take or word they say can make a difference.