By Alexandra Raskin
This year’s recipient of the New Jersey State Teacher of the Year award and 2018 National Teacher of the Year finalist Amy Andersen spoke to a large crowd of students, most of whom were some type of education major, about the fulfillment of working in the deaf education field in the Education Building Room 115 on Feb. 20.
Throughout the talk, hosted by the Student New Jersey Education Association, Andersen spoke about the value of diversity, the joy of teaching and the importance of guaranteeing every child “the right to their voice.”
Andersen is currently an American Sign Language teacher at Ocean City High School in Cape May County. She was introduced to ASL at age 7 when her mother, a teacher at a special services school, started taking classes to connect with a deaf student.
“I loved it,” Andersen said. “I immediately connected to signing.”
A blossoming career as a flutist diverted Andersen’s attention from ASL, and she pursued her orchestral dreams at Indiana University. However, for Andersen, “ASL was still back there, hanging on.”
During her junior year of college, Andersen took an ASL class and reconnected with the deaf community for the first time since elementary school. There, she volunteered in a kindergarten classroom despite her promising future in the music field.
“Something was pulling me towards teaching,” Andersen said.
After completing her bachelor’s degree in flute performance, Andersen went on to McDaniel College and graduated with a master’s degree in deaf education.
“The real passion in my life was being with children,” Andersen said. “It was a feeling that really couldn’t compare with anything else.”
Andersen went on to teach the deaf for eight years in Boston before moving back to New Jersey in 2004. At this time, Ocean City High School was beginning its ASL program, and Andersen immediately became involved.
Under Andersen’s guiding hand, the program grew exponentially, from 42 students enrolled in its first year to more than 140, with more on a waiting list. The program allowed students’ passion for signing to flourish, and for over a decade, Andersen’s students learned to love a culture that they may not have been exposed to without her classes.
Her students’ triumphs exemplify her success as an educator. One student became an interpreter for Madonna, and another interprets for Michelle Obama. About 85 percent of students have achieved the seal of biliteracy.
Andersen told her audience a story about a deaf child named Cole. The lack of resources for deaf children in New Jersey forced Cole to live life with relatively little language — that is, until Andersen became involved.
Andersen fought for Cole relentlessly. Through her efforts, Cole became the first toddler in New Jersey to have a paraprofessional with him during daycare, five hours per day, five days per week.
“His language just exploded,” Andersen said.
Even the other toddlers in Cole’s class began to sign. Andersen calls moments like these some of the most impactful of her career.
“Teaching is one of the greatest honors of my life,” Andersen said. “I love the moments of uncontrollable laughter with students. I love the joy and confidence.”
While her initial goal was to empower deaf children, Andersen has also inspired the hearing to become involved in and passionate about the deaf community. Her involvement has allowed hearing children to learn a new form of communication, and bettered the lives of many hearing and non-hearing individuals.
“I can remember many mornings driving to school and just feeling gloomy, and then driving home and overflowing, because just one student felt that spark of inspiration,” Andersen said. “I found a passion, I found what I love to do every single day –– If at the end of the day you’ve ignited that spark in just one child, then you have succeeded.”