It’s safe to say Samuel Gonzalez ’20 has stayed busy since graduating this past May from Penn State Abington with a bachelor of science degree in elementary and early childhood education.
Samuel served as an instructor at Abington for the campus’ summer camp program. He’s since been teaching the first-grade at the Pan-American Academy Charter School in north Philadelphia, all the while pursuing his master’s in reading/writing/literacy with reading specialist certification from the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education.
We caught up with Samuel for our monthly alumni spotlight series to ask him why he chose Penn State, what it’s like to be a teacher during the COVID-19 pandemic, his studying for a master’s degree, and more.
Connect with Samuel on social media:
LinkedIn: Samuel Gonzalez
What was it about Penn State that interested you?
“My aunt actually attended Penn State in the College of Education and graduated in 2008, so I went to her graduation at University Park. At the time I was only 10, and I made a conscious decision to myself that ‘I am going to go to Penn State.’ I grew up in Philly, and the school district I was in really tried to sell us on Temple. But I always knew I wanted to go to Penn State. When the time came to choose a school, I didn’t really want to leave Philly. So, I almost chose a local university. But I heard about Penn State Abington. I visited and really enjoyed it. The finances were there, Penn State gave me an amazing financial package. All the stars kind of aligned and I went to Penn State Abington.”
What made the commonwealth campus experience so special?
“I think it’s all about the relationships you’re going to build. The networks you’re going to develop. You can go to a big campus like University Park or another university, and get a great education. But at Abington, you become so familiarized with everyone. You know them by name. You can walk into the offices of professors whenever they’re free. I don’t think I would have had those same encounters with faculty and staff at a larger campus. That’s just the way I am. That’s not to say everyone’s experiences are the same, but I just really valued those strong relationships. If someone values strong relationships and wants to bridge those gaps between high school and college, I would highly recommend that they check out Abington or any other commonwealth campus.”
You served as the vice president of the Abington Student Government, what was that experience like for you?
“I got used to being uncomfortable. Thinking beyond my own perspectives. It gave me opportunities to both hear and value other perspectives in anything that we were doing. Whether it was at a legislative meeting or a student organization meeting. Recognizing that everyone deserves to have their opinion shared, their story shared. I was also facilitating the growth of fellow student leaders. Sometimes they would come to me for advice and make sure I was organized in my own self and I could provide the support that they needed.”
Can you tell us a little bit about your role as a first-grade teacher? How have your first few months at the Pan-American Academy Charter School gone?
“I’ve really enjoyed the mission of the school. It’s focused on dual language, english and spanish. These students are me. I grew up about 10 minutes from the school. So, it’s really allowed me to live out my personal mission of education, while also making a living through education. I was excited to go into that first-grade group because it was actually my first-grade teacher who inspired me to want to get into education. So, things have really come full circle.”
“It’s been extremely vigorous, but extremely rewarding. Studying at Penn, that takes up all of my afternoons and Pan-Am takes up most of my days. There are some long days. I have to be really strategic in how I speak and what I’m instructing because we’re fully virtual during the COVID pandemic. With my instructional team, we’ve really found some unique ways to make sure we’re making the most of our time.”
How important do you think it is for teachers, and more broadly those working in education, to be bilingual?
“The way education is moving and the way Latinx population is growing here, I think there’s a higher need than ever for bilingual educators. It’s about utilizing your linguistic concepts to enhance the education experiences of their students. That’s really important because we need to bridge the gaps between the languages. You have to become aware of bilingual teaching and use that to aid students in their educational journeys.”
From your perspective, how have your students handled this remote learning process?
“They are doing exceptionally well in an unchartered water kind of time. My students log in on time. They complete most of their work on time. They’re able to navigate the different online programs we use like Google classrooms, FlipRoom, Zoom. With the assistance of their parents, they’re navigating through so well. They truly amaze me. They’re learning. They’re growing. They’re doing exceptionally well.”
If you had a favorite aspect of teaching, what would it be?
“The connections. The connections I get to make with my students are so rewarding. Hearing my students say things like, ‘Mr. Gonzalez I love you!,’ or ‘Mr. Gonzalez I missed you this weekend. Those are the driving forces that leave me feeling reenergized as I start each day. It makes me want to work that much harder to improve the educational experiences of these kids.”
You’re also a part of the National Guard, what made you want to pursue that?
“I originally wanted to serve straight out of high school but my family really pushed me to go to Penn State since it was such an amazing opportunity. It came back around as a coincidence. I walked out of Chipotle one day, and I saluted a couple of soldiers I saw. That personal desire to join was still there. One of them happened to be a recruiter and he gave me his card. We had a conversation and the National Guard really aligned with my schedule. They provided me with a lot of educational benefits and it really fulfilled a personal goal of mine to serve my country. Again, the starts kind of aligned for me. It was a great opportunity for me.”
What are some of your hobbies, in normal circumstances? What are the types of things you enjoy away from work or grad school?
“I love going to the gym. That’s a must for me. I enjoy working out and taking care of my body. I have a great group of friends that I love hanging out with when circumstances allow us to. We love to go out to eat, go roller skating, go-karting. I’m a huge adventurer. I love trying new things. A new hobby I want to get into is Polo. I want to learn how to ride horses and play Polo, so that’s a goal of mine for the near future.”
Welcome back to Teachers in America, where we celebrate teachers and their lasting impact on students' learning journeys and lives. In this episode, we meet Samuel (Sammy) Gonzalez, a second grade teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary School, part of the Pennsbury School District in Yardly, Pennsylvania. Follow his teaching journey on Instagram, LinkedIn, or find him on TikTok @stellarsamuel. A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity. You can follow Teachers in America wherever you listen to podcasts. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or iHeartRadio. Please consider rating, reviewing, and sharing Teachers in America with your network. We value our listeners' support and feedback. Email us at email@example.com. The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH. Sammy Gonzalez Inline Graphic 10 220311 165111 Sammy strives to embody the three R's: responsible, respectful, and reliable. Noelle Morris: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, where we celebrate teachers and recognize their triumphs, challenges, sacrifices, and dedication to students. We see you. We want our listeners to feel not only inspired by the practice, but to also have a renewed sense of community. I am the Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris. Each episode, I meet a new teacher friend and learn about the latest lessons and innovations from the classroom. Today, my conversation is with Sammy Gonzalez, a second-grade teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary School, part of the Pennsbury School District in Yardly, Pennsylvania. Sammy began teaching during the pandemic so he’s been at this for just two years. He earned a Bachelor’s degree from The Pennsylvania State University and a Masters from the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education. He now attends Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, working towards his Doctorate in Educational Leadership. His areas of research and interest include culturally responsive pedagogies, digital literacies, and multicultural reading choices for students in literacy instruction. In addition to teaching his second graders and earning a Doctorate, Sammy is also in the Pennsylvania State National Guard. I met Sammy through a teacher Facebook group, and he grabbed my attention with his advice and student results. After talking to him during this podcast, I am now more personally connected to Sammy’s advice on time management and staying true to the commitments he makes. Now, let’s get to the episode. Welcome, Sammy, to Teachers in America. I'm so excited to have you here. I met you in a Facebook group, so I have a little bit of insight. And one of the things that I definitely want you to talk to our listeners about is your teacher journey. How did you become a teacher? How did you decide your grade level? Give us all of it. Sammy Gonzalez: Gotcha. Well, thank you, Noelle. Definitely a privilege and honor to be included here. So thank you for this space to be able to share. My teacher journey, so that really starts back in my first-grade classroom. From the years 2004–2005, I was in my first-grade class. My teacher was Tracy Gotchawk in Taylor Elementary in the Philadelphia School District. And Ms. Gotchawk really made such a huge impact on me. I was going through a lot of turmoil in my household, and there was just a lot going on in life. And I would go into school and truly feel that safe haven, truly feel that personal, deep connection with my teacher. I'm not even sure if she knew what culturally responsive, culturally sustaining pedagogies were at the time, but it's really what she was doing. She was creating that truly social and emotional learning, personal connection with her students, and I just felt connected to Ms. Gotchawk. And it was through those connections that I was able to really understand that I enjoyed learning, but I enjoyed learning more from someone that I really enjoyed learning from. So that's a lot to unpack, right? When we are actually working with teachers that we truly have a personal connection, we're going to learn more. It wasn't until I went to Penn State and started learning how to become a teacher that I learned about Bowlby's theory of attachment. And I started learning about the fact that when we are attached to someone, we do learn more from them. So that's why we should really promote student rapport and really creating positive, motivating, and purposeful connections with our students. So, I think again, to circle back to the question, my personal teaching journey started in my first-grade classroom. From then on, I used to play teacher in my house. I used to have my mom sit down. I would be like, "Okay, Mom, I'm going to do my homework, but I'm going to do my homework and teach you how we do the math problems," or "I'll read the stories to you and then answer the comprehension questions myself." And so my mom would sit there. She's such a good sport; shout out to Mom. And she would sit there for 30 minutes and let me teach her. And that really allowed me to see, "I want to be in front of people, teaching them." So, I think I grew up just knowing I wanted to go and become a teacher. Sammy Gonzalez Image Inline In addition to being a teacher, Sammy is currently serving in the Pennsylvania State National Guard. Noelle: Aw, you just made me remember my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Cribs, and the connection I had with her. We're talking about 1977. But I loved Mrs. Cribs. She lived right across the street from me. So my mother would let me walk over there. I could climb her trees, jump off of her porch. She would make me these wonderful pear pies. When you make that connection at that young age, it's like your first connection with somebody other than your family or your immediate family. I believe this is your second year teaching. Am I correct? Sammy: Absolutely. Noelle: So, can you let us know a little bit about how you took this love of being a teacher, this attachment you had with your first-grade teacher, and compare it with how you came into your first classroom? Sammy: Absolutely. So, my first classroom was in a charter school in Philadelphia, and I was actually only about 10 minutes away from this school that I attended as a child. And in that particular setting, my students were in a dual-language program. And so, what that pretty much looked like was I was the part of the day that they were learning in English. And then the other 50% of the day, they were learning in Spanish. So, I had two homerooms. So, we used to share—the English team and me and then the Spanish team. And I think it really took me to say, "Okay, here I am." I went through a pretty rigorous program at Penn State to become certified, to teach Pre-K to four in Pennsylvania. And I also got my ESL certification and serving students that were linguistically diverse was really important to me. And so that's why even in my bachelor's program, before becoming a teacher, I really wanted to get that certification. And I think that the first day I realized, "Uh-oh. Here I am. So now it's really time to start putting into work and start really practicing what I've been learning." And I've remembered Mrs. Godshalk probably each day because I was teaching first grade. And so it was like, "Wow, I'm actually doing what I always thought I wanted to do." Was it difficult? Absolutely. My first year of teaching was [the] 2020–2021 school year during the middle of the COVID pandemic. And it was such an unprecedented time. It still is because we're only in 2022. And when I think about the fact that my only concrete teaching experience has been during the pandemic, it is quite striking to think, "How is it going to be outside of the pandemic," versus other teachers who are vets are thinking, "When are we going to get out of this? I can go back to what I've been doing." But for me, this is the norm. And I think that other teachers that are brand new to the profession, and this is our norm. We don't know anything else. Sammy Gonzalez Quote Card 1 Noelle: Let's unpack that a little bit more. Tell me one thing that you had anticipated about having your first-year experience and then the reality of starting your career in the middle of the school year in a pandemic. Sammy: Yeah. So, I think last year in particular, where we were doing a lot of virtual learning and then pretty much the second part of the year is when we saw more hybrid learning formats being implemented across the country and across the globe, I knew I wanted to get into education because of the interactions I would have with students. That was my number one priority because of the interactions I had with Ms. Gotchawk, among other educators. I can't discredit all of my teachers because all of them have impacted me in some way. It's just Ms. Gotchawk that concrete reminder, always, that I knew I wanted to be a teacher. And I think that it was pretty difficult because I couldn't make as strong connections with my students, but it also challenged me to say, "Okay, you can't physically be with them, but how are you going to create meaningful connections with your students, even on a virtual platform?" And I think that because of that challenge, I'm now able to make connections with students even more seamlessly because I started at a higher caliber where the connections had to be virtual. So you really had to be authentic because you didn't have much time with them, person to person, but it was just over a screen. So now, being in a setting where I am in person, to me, it's been a little easier because the bar was set so high. Noelle: So, did you have all the good feelings the first time you were setting up your classroom and coming up with your theme or how you were going to organize it? Because even when I think back, that is my favorite time of the school year that I still miss setting up my own classroom. So, what was the first thing you bought, and how did you think about organizing your classroom? Sammy: Absolutely. I love that. At that charter school, I really wasn't able to set up a classroom because we knew we were going to be virtual mostly all year. So, they told us to not prioritize setting up your physical classroom but rather your Google classroom. That's a story. But I think I would talk about this year. So, this year, the 2021–2022 school year, was the first year I got to set up my classroom. I went to Lakeshore, and I bought a bunch of supplies for a superhero theme. So, my class is legit all superheroes, and the kids love it. I love it. It's all blue and red. And I color code most things like blue and red. So it's a whole thing. And I just felt superheroes really reflected the positive mindset I wanted to cement in my students by the end of the year: that no matter what challenge comes your way, just like your favorite superhero, you can rise to the occasion, and you have to activate that inner superhero within you to really try your best, no matter what the circumstances are. And that's something I always go back to, if they're having a hard day, if they're missing their families, especially in September. We typically have those students that have that anxiety of being back in school and being away from their families from the summer. And even during tests, meeting the occasion and really showing everything that you know. I have this saying with the kids, "If you know it, show it," and it's cool because here's a little tagline because Into Reading has the Know It, Show It books. So that's pretty cool. But I always say, "If you know it, just show it." And so that's a part of being that superhero with the kids. So I think that's how I got excited about setting up my classroom. Also, something super important to me was making sure that I was providing space in my classroom for multiple things. Classroom libraries are really important to me. I wanted to make sure I had a wide range of resources in my classroom library, from flexible seating to multicultural texts, anti-racist texts, and chapter books so that my students can strive to start reading those chapter books as well, especially being in a second-grade class now. But there were a lot of things in my priority list. Now I only had about four days because I had come from boot camp for the Army, so I literally had four days to set up my classroom, and it hasn't even gotten to where I want it to be even until now. I'm still changing things around and stuff. But I think that's the beauty of teaching. You're always going to want to tweak something.
When Samuel Gonzalez was named Head Orientation Leader and elected vice president of the Student Government Association (SGA) at Penn State Abington, he didn’t realize how those experiences would help him in his budding teaching career.
“A lot of the skills I use in the classroom, I learned from my leadership positions at Abington,” Gonzalez, who is student teaching 24 second graders this semester, said. “It empowered me, and now I am empowering my students every single day in the classroom.”
“I managed the student orientation program at Abington, and it was all about planning. I’m using the same skills when I write 18- to 20-page lesson plans every week for my class,” he said. “Just like with student orientation at Abington, every moment with my second-graders needs to be intentional.”
From the SGA, he learned how to communicate with others, especially those with divergent perspectives.
“All people don’t think like you. And 24 little minds don’t all have the same understanding just like college students all have different mindsets,” he said. “Being vice president in the SGA allowed me to figure out how to deal with different mindsets, and now I can relate better to my students.”
Gonzalez will graduate in May with a degree in elementary and early childhood education, which prepares teachers to bring the different cultures, life experiences, and community influences of the students into the classroom. Gonzalez implements this mission every day with his students at Overlook Elementary in the Abington School District.
“Students need to see themselves in the curriculum. I use real world examples in math and reading so they can formulate their opinions and voice them in the classroom community,” he said. “Students will find that their lives are connected to their education and relevant in our classroom. They will be able to take this skill with them to junior high, senior high, and college.”
“It comes down to having high expectations for my students. If they don’t learn it from me, they may not learn it from a caring place,” he continued.
"Coming from North Philadelphia and making it to Penn State, that was the dream. ... The skills I acquired at Penn State Abington, I will use in my career and the rest of my life.”
-- Samuel Gonzalez, senior at Penn State Abington
Ann Martinelli, associate teaching professor of education at Abington, is one of Gonzalez’s mentors.
“Sammy is a driven student who is goal oriented. He is passionate about educational practices and is willing to go above and beyond to make a difference in the lives of all children,” she said. “Sammy is not afraid of learning and applying new teaching strategies. He seeks ways to improve his craft. He is a leader in education and will make a lasting impact wherever his journey takes him.”
Gonzalez’s plan for his journey is to teach for a decade or so and then become a principal.
“I want to use my voice at the principal level to create a school that provides teachers with the best environment to provide the best educational experience to the students,” he said.
As Gonzalez prepares to graduate from Abington, he looks back and realizes that he learned more than he expected.
“I feel very prepared. Coming from North Philadelphia and making it to Penn State, that was the dream. The opportunities that opened up to me just from the experiences I have had are amazing,” he said. “The skills I acquired at Penn State Abington, I will use in my career and the rest of my life.”
About Penn State Abington
Penn State Abington provides an affordable, accessible, and high-impact education resulting in the success of a diverse student body. It is committed to student success through innovative approaches to 21st-century public higher education within a world-class research university. With about 3,700 students, Penn State Abington is a residential campus that offers baccalaureate degrees in 21 majors, undergraduate research, the Schreyer honors program, NCAA Division III athletics, and more.
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