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.
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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.
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?
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.
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.
Noelle: Exactly, exactly. My brain is already swirling. So let's just get this out of the way. Are you Marvel or are you DC, or do you enjoy both?
Sammy: Okay. So, the little kid in me is saying DC; however, the adult in me is saying Marvel. So we actually do both. Even my guided reading groups and my small-group instruction [are] divided. I have the Avengers, and I have the Justice League, Fantastic Four, Incredibles, and Power Rangers. We are all around. But personally, don't tell no one, team Marvel—100%.
Noelle: Okay. All right.
Sammy: I'm glad we established that because that is important.
Noelle: It is important because it does give a little bit into your personality, shows a little bit about the archetypes that you look for. So, you mentioned boot camp.
Noelle: And that you just came from the Army. Are you still active?
Sammy: Yes. So I am in the Army National Guard. So I'm a part of the Pennsylvania State National Guard, which is one of the three components of the Army. We have the reserves, the active duty, and the National Guard.
Noelle: Okay. I'm really trying to wrap my head around it and I'm guaranteeing our listeners, are like, "Okay. Teacher by day. National Guard by weekend."
Noelle: How do you manage it? Because when I was reading through your bio, you're also working on your doctorate. So, my mind is like, "How does he do this? And he's a second-year teacher trying to just continue to manage." And you can tell you're a lifelong learner.
Noelle: I need to learn from your time management. So give me three Sammy tips.
Sammy: Three Sammy tips. I love it. So yes. So, I always knew I wanted to serve in the military, but when I got an offer from Penn State, it was a great offer. So, I was like, "Okay." It was the best economic decision. So, my family said, "You really should take this." So, I did it, but I still wanted to serve in [the] military after I completed my bachelor's. So that's when I joined the Army National Guard. It's one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer. It still allows me to serve as a teacher and also pursue my personal goals. But it still allows me to serve as well as a United States Army soldier. So that was really important to me and also my studies.
So, I went straight from Penn State and graduated with my Bachelor of Science in elementary education and early childhood education. And an ESL certification. Then I went to the University of Pennsylvania, the graduate school of education there, and I obtained my master's in reading/writing/literacy with reading specialist certification. Right from there, I went to St. Joseph University in Philadelphia, where I'm at now, obtaining my doctorate in educational leadership with curriculum supervision and principal certifications. And it was really important to me to really continue my education off the grid because I really foresee myself being a family man starting in my 30s. So why not in my 20s really just go for it, achieve my goals, my personal goals that I have for myself and then enjoy my family later on and have those skill sets already going for me so that if I do decide or when I do decide to go into admin and really leadership in education, I have all the credentials that I need to pursue that.
Now, as far as time management for all of this, I have a rule. If I'm not going to be 100% invested in something, no matter what the offer is, no matter what the opportunity is, I simply do not take it. So I have to always stay true to myself. So, there [have] been offers given to me to join different educational consulting firms or companies or different opportunities to do just different things. And I have denied many things, not that I wasn't interested, but I knew I wasn't going to be a thousand percent invested. And if only one-fourth of me is going to be invested and they're not going to get the full Sammy, I'm just not going to give it my time. And that's only being fair to myself. And also the people on the other end.
Another critical principle of what I practice is everything that I do is planned. So even my free time is planned. So my Saturday nights are my free time. And so I literally force myself out of the house. Even if I'm writing, I force myself out of the house, and I have to go out with friends, and I have to go have just time for myself. And I even have my spiritual time planned. I'm definitely invested in my Christian roots. And so, I even plan out my spiritual time to reflect with my faith. And in addition to that, I'm also making sure that I'm taking time to complete all my assignments. And I'm making sure that on Mondays and Wednesdays, I'm after school to at least 5:30 or 6:00 p.m., and I'm really catching up on grading and other things that I have to do as a teacher and making sure that I'm there for my students. So, everything just has a time, and I don't allow things to really mess with that time. It has to be a very extreme emergency in order to get into that time.
Noelle: I applaud you that you have such a vision for your future and how you want to contribute to the profession and to the country. I can remember being a second-year teacher, third-year teacher. And my first year, Sammy, it's a miracle that we're having this conversation because I just was struggling. And then, all of a sudden, something started clicking. I found my teacher best friend. I had a leader in my school that saw something in me and invested time and support. Then all of a sudden, second year, third year, I had people coming to my door asking me, like, "You've only been doing this for a year, two years. How can you already know what you know?" We should see the greatness and celebrate each other and help each other rise in whatever direction we want.
Noelle: I'd like to know what you notice teacher to teacher and across the generations.
Sammy: Wow. That's a powerful topic. I think that I have seen both ends, and I remember where I student taught. So I actually student taught in the Abington School District right next to Philly. There in Abington, there [are] a lot of strong educators, and where I student taught it was at elementary school Overlook Elementary, right near Willow Grove Mall for anyone that knows. And I knew a teacher. Her name is Mrs. Simone Doctor, such a strong teacher and also Mrs. Elise Melchor. So both of them were my mentor teachers over in Abington School District. And they really wanted to learn from me. And I was like, "Wait, I'm here to learn from you. This is student teaching. I'm learning from you." And they're like, "No."
And now, as I'm in the profession, I realize that's what makes them such incredible teachers. When they've been doing this [for] over 15 years, they have a wealth of knowledge that they're ready to share with me, but they're realizing, and they're saying, "No, but I know I'm going to learn something from you." And I noticed that the best educators truthfully are those lifelong learners. Those people that say, "Hey, I'm tapping on your shoulder. You're just walking into the room. I've been here for 15 years, but I know you're going to bring something fresh and new to this room. And I want to be the first one to hear about it." And I think that when you have such confidence in yourself that you're able to look at new teachers and not say, "Someone else to teach. Now I got to teach you because you're probably lost." And rather you can say, "I know I'm going to have to support you along in your journey. And I'm okay with that. I'm ready to do that. But I also want to learn what's new out there. What can I learn from you?"
So, I think in my experience, I have met very confident educators who have tapped on my shoulder. People have told me things such as, "For a first- or second-year teacher, you're really strong. You really know your classroom management. You really know how to manage students, and you're doing exceptionally well with your science of reading approach and your structured literacy approach and implementing brand new programs, such as Into Reading, that's brand new in your school. You're really doing the thing at such an early age, and that's refreshing to see." But I've also gotten comments such as, "I've been here for however many long years, and so I'm the expert."
And I think we have to honor teachers that have been doing this so long. We truthfully have to honor them because they're really the cornerstone of education. They have been in the field, they know best practices, and they've seen through experience what has worked with students and what has not worked with students and truthfully what students need far beyond what literature has to say. But they also, I think, would be even more powerful entities in education if they began to uplift the new educators coming in. We've all been new. We've all been a new person coming through the door, and we all know how it feels. So, I think coming back to that moment of humility and saying, "Here you are, you're new, but I'm going to uplift you, not minimize you." I think that's when we truthfully will see teacher-to-teacher interactions only become more positive and even more powerful.
Noelle: I don't think you practice this in student teaching, learning how to interview.
Sammy: So I fairly think it depends on their mentor. I had incredible mentors who really were guiding me and giving me some tips, some dos and do not dos. I think honestly, for new teachers, the best advice I can truthfully give is [to] honor your student teaching experience and use that as a lens of professional experience. So when I interviewed, I didn't talk as, "Well, what I'm going to do is," instead I said, "What I did and what I plan to do is," so I used my student teaching experience truthfully as the foundation and truthfully as experience itself. When you talk from a position of knowledge and say, "Research says this, but implementation looks like this." And honestly, you have to play the game. You almost have to bring that educational jargon up. But at the end of the day, I think my authenticity really shines above all of that.
I think when you're just authentic, and you show that you really are there for students and that you're ready to do best practices and you do know best practices, but it's one thing to just reiterate a textbook. It's another thing to truthfully show who you are. Because they can train you in the districts. That's not the problem. They're going to give you professional development. They're going to give you the curricular resources, but are you really going to make a positive impact on those students? Because anyone can get a textbook. Anyone can get the curriculum. But how are you going to flex that curriculum to ensure that you're meeting the educational needs of each one of your learners in your classroom?
How are you going to make sure that you are flexing that curriculum to meet all of your students that are students of color or students that are linguistically diverse or students that may have individualized educational plans or students that have even other needs that aren't necessarily identified? How are you going to ensure that each student in your class is seen, heard, and represented in your educational practices each day? That's what I feel like districts are looking for, especially in the current climate in our country, in terms of our world. That, to me, is really what educating is in the 21st century.
Noelle: Oh, I'm applauding, but I'm not applauding loud because I don't know what that will do across the mic, but I'm applauding. I know you're using Into Reading, which is a core reading program. I'd like to know more about what you've seen, how you're using it, and what advice you would have for new teachers who, regardless of how many years they've been teaching, might be starting a new program.
Sammy: Absolutely. First off. I think that the number one thing for me as a reading specialist and honestly as a Latino male in education is representation in text. And so, Into Reading has that embedded into each lesson, into each module. I teach it in second grade, but I've also taken a look at first grade, third grade, fourth grade, and fifth grade. And I've seen that each grade truthfully has those multicultural texts embedded into the program. And so that representation is huge. However, this is something that I've always said, it's one thing to represent, right? That's knocking at the door, but we have to enter the room. So how are we flexing that representation of those multicultural texts in our curriculum for our students to ensure that we're saying, "Hey friends, take a look at the characters. What do you notice about the characters? Are they similar? Are they different? Let's compare and contrast them."
So, I'm using a reading skill, compare and contrast, but I'm also bringing their attention to what are the differences in those characters. Oftentimes some people think that students are not noticing the differences in those characters, but they do. They notice diversities. Things I look for in curriculums, of course, align with structured literacy. And thinking about the science of reading, Into Reading has that phonics and phonemic awareness approach. Into Reading has the aspects that you need for comprehension and fluency. We have the decodable readers that are matching the phonic skill for each week. We have all of the skills that we need for vocabulary. We have the power words for each one of the anchor texts. We have the high-frequency words each week that change. And so that's sparking that vocabulary piece. So, the five pillars of reading truthfully are being stimulated, and it's a wealth of resources to ensure that you have everything you need to differentiate for each one of your students and meet them where they are.
So all of those aspects of the science of reading and best practices in reading that we are noticing are hot trends in education on top of that social and emotional learning piece with that culturally sustaining pedagogical piece and that universal design for learning, giving students free choice in what they can do and flexing curriculums to meet students where they are, but also making sure the bottom line is meeting all students where they need to be. Everything is there for you. And so those are some things that I look for in any curriculum. And I'm so happy that I've found that with Into Reading, and I'm actually able to use that because there's nothing better than walking out [of] the school at the end of the day and saying, "The program that I'm using I feel is really meeting all of my students and is benefiting my students in a powerful way."
Noelle: So one of the questions I ask every one of our guests, you're walking down the hall, you are ready to have your best day. What song is playing?
Sammy: That's a good one. I think the song that would be playing for me would be Bruno Mars, "Count on Me." It's like, (singing) and it's just like, I feel like my kids can really count on me. I feel like my colleagues can count on me. My goal is to always be an asset, to always be responsible, respectful, and reliable. Those are my three Rs that I try to live by. And so when people can truthfully count on me, I feel like I'm actually meeting my mission, meeting my personal goals.
Noelle: Sammy, this has been such a great conversation.
Sammy: It has been.
Noelle: I know that there will definitely be more to come because I have just really enjoyed this. I know our listeners have picked up a lot, and you know where to find me. So if there's anything I can ever do for you, please let me know. But thank you. Thank you for choosing this profession. Thank you so much, Sammy.
Sammy: Thank you so much. Yes. Thank you to all of my mentors and my mom and truthfully, everyone in my journey. And thank you so much for this space to share. Sorry to your listeners for the singing.
Noelle: No, I often sing, I often break out into lyrics.
Sammy: There you go.
Noelle: I'm constantly adding to my playlist. To me breaking out in song, it's all part of bringing your swagger.
Sammy: There you go. And really truthfully, like you're saying, that's just part of being a teacher. You have to pull all types of resources and truthfully just be yourself to connect. And so I think that's what you're doing here. And this is a wonderful space for teachers. So thank you for doing this and doing this with such pride and joy. You can really tell over the podcast. So thank you for this space.
Noelle: Thanks, Sammy.
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Dr. Sue Chapman
Professional Learning Consultant, Heinemann