Profile: Watching NJ Teacher of the Year At Work Is Beautiful

Carly Sitrin | January 19, 2018 | Profiles
A hearing teacher, Amy Andersen has taught hundreds of mostly hearing students to be proficient in American Sign Language

Who: Amy Andersen

Age: 45

Hometown: Cape May Court House in Middle Township, Cape May

What she does: Andersen was just named New Jersey Educator of the Year and is currently in the running for the national title. As an American Sign Language teacher at Ocean City High School, Andersen has instructed hundreds of students in deaf language and culture. She teaches ASL as a world language in the same vein as Spanish or French. All students are welcome, and her classes are largely made up of hearing students.

What is Educator of the Year? The Governor’s Educator of the Year program recognizes one exceptional teacher in the state who has succeeded in inspiring students in the classroom and in their local communities. The program, run by the state Department of Education, awards Andersen a 6-month sabbatical (salary and benefits covered by Educational Testing Service) to work at the DOE and tour around the state giving workshops and speeches to other educators and the media. She also gets a new car leased for one year complete with E-ZPass, $500 clothing allowance, and LCD Projector courtesy of the program sponsor, the New Jersey Education Association. She is also one of the four finalists for the 2018 National Teacher of the Year — a first for a New Jersey teacher since 1972. If she wins, the state will continue to pay her salary as she travels the country for an additional year acting as a spokeswoman and advocate for the entire teaching profession.

How she got into signing: Both of Andersen’s parents were educators in Cape May County. Her mother was at the Cape May County school for special services where she learned ASL in order to better communicate with one of the school’s deaf students, a boy named David. At age 7, Andersen accompanied her mom to a sign language class two nights a week where she says she fell in love with signing. What really cemented her love, however, was meeting another deaf student also named Amy when Andersen was in grade school. Andersen says she saw Amy signing and wanted desperately to befriend her. The desire to communicate with someone she admired drove Andersen to pursue sign language with a passion.

A musical education: Throughout grade school and college, Andersen was passionate about music — specifically, the flute. In high school, she was invited to travel to Russia as part of the Trenton Sister Cities Youth Orchestra, and in college at Indiana University (where she was a performance major) she poured all of her time and energy into rehearsals. It was also at Indiana that she took her first formal ASL course with an instructor who was a CODA (child of deaf adults) and instilled in Andersen a respect for deaf culture and the role of hearing individuals in the deaf community. She volunteered at Cape May County special services district on breaks from school and eventually decided to pursue a masters in deaf education. After eight years teaching deaf students in Boston, Andersen and her husband and son decided to move back to Cape May Court House to be closer to Andersen’s family.

Working with the community: As a hearing individual raised by two hearing parents and primarily teaching hearing students, Andersen says one of the most challenging parts of teaching ASL is not the language itself, but the ethics and responsibility that go along with it. She says the most important thing she can teach her students is that their role as an ally to the community is not to be paternalistic or any kind of a “superhero” sweeping in and “saving” deaf people, but rather an advocate and bridge between two very different and valuable cultures. The schools in Boston, where she previously worked, placed an emphasis on bringing in deaf teachers and deaf role models for the students to interact with. She wishes New Jersey schools would replicate this. Andersen says she tries to include the deaf community in everything she does, sending Glide video messages (a quick alternative to texting for those in the deaf community) to deaf friends and community leaders whenever one of her students has a question she can’t answer right away.

Success rate: Andersen was originally hired at Ocean City High School as a special education teacher working with one deaf student. By 2004, Andersen launched a full-fledged ASL program for any interested student, and in one year the ASL program expanded from 42 students to 138. Today, her program has six classes, three levels, and a waiting list to get in. Students in her level three honors class take the same skills exam that teachers of the deaf are required to take. The scores they’re required to get are the same as those seeking to become a professional interpreter or teacher of the deaf. According to state reports, more than 85 percent of Andersen’s students have achieved the New Jersey Seal of Biliteracy and some have gone on to interpret for people like Michelle Obama and Madonna. Andersen says she owes much of her students’ success to the safe and welcoming environment she creates in her classroom. She uses unconventional methods like “diversity jelly beans” (where the flavor of the candy doesn’t match the color) to teach mutual respect and admiration for those who look, speak, or experience the world differently.

Goals for the state: As the New Jersey Educator of the Year, Andersen says her goal is to establish strong ASL programs in as many school districts as possible. She says she is getting positive feedback from students and administrators; the only thing standing in her way is a lack of certified teachers. In her travels around the state, Andersen has been working to compile a directory of the districts with the most deaf students and the most active deaf communities to try and cultivate a strong base of possible educators and create a recruitment strategy. Another piece she’s working on is establishing teacher certification programs in colleges and universities. She is also trying to set up an early-intervention deaf mentorship program for babies and toddlers.