Christine Girtain, a teacher and director of the Authentic Science Research program at Toms River High School South and High School North, was recently named the 2022-2023 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year.
For Dave Ytreboe, director of personnel at Stafford Township School District and the vice president of the Berkeley Township School District’s Board of Education – who is Girtain’s cousin – the honor did not come as a surprise.
“As soon as I remember being conscious on this planet, I’ve known Christine,” Ytreboe said. During all those years and up through today, she’s always been who he calls “the smartest person in the room.”
“I remember her being a teacher when we were kids,” he said. “She would be organizing our workspace, and when playing in the basement or out in the backyard, she was always that group leader and a natural teacher. I always remember her being patient with me and bringing me along.”
In school, he recalls always “chasing Christine” to become super successful as a student and as an athlete. “Lucky for me, I have had her in my life, and she has been a big part of my success, as I’ve always been striving to follow in those footsteps,” he said.
The two attended college together at The College of New Jersey and when Ytreboe applied for teaching jobs in the mid-1990s, he rejected a competing offer so he could teach social studies at Toms River Regional Schools, in large part because it’s where Girtain taught, he said.
At the time, they were both nontenured, but he could see early on that she commanded respect from her colleagues, he said.
“Christine and I were raised by both sets of our parents sometimes interchangeably,” Ytreboe said. “Our fathers worked long hours and commuted, and we often went back and forth between the two houses for dinner, homework, and just hanging out. Our parents worked hard and throughout our childhood, being productive citizens – and giving back was instilled in us. Christine has taken the giving back to another level and is not just a blessing for the students of Toms River, but now a blessing for the state of New Jersey.”
Girtain said a “village” raised them both, and she credited them for the person she’s become, including her godparents, Aunt Gail and Uncle Norman Ytreboe, Uncle Frank and Aunt Pat Chernesky; her parents, Paul Stenzel and her mom, Judy; her “pop-pop,” Bill Staub and her cousin’s grandmothers, Emma Strongreen and Elsie Delamn. “Every life event, holiday, and birthday as a child was with those nine adults,” she said. An assortment of cousins and other relatives and friends rounded out the cast.
As to how she found out she was Teacher of the Year, Girtain said it came as a surprise. Splitting her time between Toms River North and Toms River South, she was unexpectedly told to report to South on the pretext that they needed to take her picture as the winner of the county Teacher of the Year.
She was suspicious, but then she went home to find a letter telling her she had not won the State Teacher of the Year award, and so she took it face value, she said.
When she found out she had indeed won the honor, she was thrilled.
As to the letter she received that initially caused her some disappointment, she ultimately discovered that the New Jersey Department of Education sent “regret to inform you letters” to all four finalists. “They wanted us to be surprised in case like for me my schedule was being interrupted and we had a hint we might be the winner,” she said. “It was also in case any of the other finalists asked if we received a rejection letter, we would not have to lie, and we could honestly say yes. It was an emotional rollercoaster that turned out great for me in the end.”
Not everyone, however, fully appreciated why Girtain was hoping to win the honor.
“Jana, my best friend from TCNJ was at my house as I was finishing out the County Teacher of the Year application, and she said, ‘What do you hope to get out of the effort and time you are putting in to try to win County Teacher of the Year? Do you want the acknowledgment? Do you win any money or get paid more?’” Girtain said. “And my response was if I get picked, there is a chance I could be State Teacher of the Year, and people will listen to me. I will actually have a voice.”
Finding Their Paths
Asked about growing up with Ytreboe, Girtain said that it was nice having a person that “got her” and knew her so well. “We are super close and have been our whole lives – from reading the same books and watching the same movies back in the day,” she said. “He got me involved in being a class adviser, which I would not have done without him. He was Coach of the Year, which I was super proud of – and I still have a newspaper clipping of him hanging up in the kitchen. I remember how excited he was each time he applied for a new position and got it.”
Asked about the details behind being named Coach of the Year, Ytreboe explained, “I was named Coach of the Year for Girls Track in 2002 by the Asbury Park Press. I was fortunate enough to coach a team that won the Group IV State Championship, so I was also named the Girls Cross Country Coach of the Year in 2007, by the Newark Star Ledger (State), Asbury Park Press (Monmouth, Ocean County) and Ocean County Observer (Ocean County). I was the Girls Cross Country Coach of the Year for New Jersey in 2008 for the National Federation of High School Coaches. Once I was promoted to assistant principal, I retired from coaching in 2008. I jokingly say that I went out like Bill Parcells after he won Super Bowl 25.”
Of her work at Toms River’s Authentic Research program, Girtain said one of the best things about it is it gives students agency. “They are in control of picking the direction that their learning goes,” she said. “They come in with a topic of what they want to do, and I guide them with scaffolding, directing where they can go with the topic. But they can change direction based on what they read, doing that kind of design thinking.”
When Girtain spoke with School Board Notes, she noted that earlier that day, one of her classes was observed by her supervisor.
She laughed that her supervisor joked that sometimes during an observation, students are watching a video but, in her classes, students are on a Zoom call with peers from Central America or working with students in Israel. “I enjoy building those kinds of global relationships,” she said.
“What Christine is doing is preparing students to be 21st-century global learners,” Ytreboe said. Some of the big topics she’s passionate about include sustainability and feeding a growing world population, he noted. “These are passion projects,” he said – and students discover through her classes how to leverage research to solve and work through real problems.
Science in Action
As a teacher, Girtain is a master of bringing science, technology, engineering and math to life for her students. But her focus on leveraging these tools on a daily basis impacts lives outside the classroom as well – including in the life of her cousin.
“My twin sister, Dawn, and I are adopted, so as I was aging, Christine was concerned about my health,” Ytreboe said. “She said, ‘You know, you are fit and doing all these activities, but you should really look at your genetic makeup and explore that path.’ She politely talked to me about it, and I showed some mild interest in it – and she was persistent and said, ‘You are older, and you should know it for yourself and your kids.’”
So, he ended up getting a genetic test done and processed by Ancestry.com. When he received the results, he found a second cousin and eventually he found his birth mother and father in 2015, he said. “I was able to connect with both birth parents, aunts, uncles and cousins as well as some siblings,” Ytreboe said. “It has been a wonderful experience, and I owe it all to Christine and her pushing me to pursue taking the DNA test.”
As Teacher of the Year, Girtain will be a great ambassador for the STEM fields as well as a stellar role model for girls and young women, Ytreboe said. As an administrator and board member, he thinks it’s important to encourage more students – especially young women – to get involved in STEM subjects “so we can get more Christine Girtains and develop them,” he said.
One of the areas Girtain hopes to shine a spotlight on as Teacher of the Year is the teacher shortage. One way to ease it, she thinks, is to spark interest in the profession early on in a student’s career.
“Instead of a student just taking an intro to law class or an intro to engineering class, they should be able to take an intro to teaching class,” she said. “My vision would be to see those types of classes put into schools when a student has to earn credits to graduate. That education class could be one of them, so they can determine before heading to a more advanced course that ‘Yes, I like this.’” She also thinks that it would behoove the state to allow a prospective teacher who has failed a Praxis test by one or two points to enter the field.
“We need to expose more people to this profession,” Ytreboe said. “Toms River had a program for many years that was a peer-based mediation type of class where you got to go into elementary school and teach lessons. Exposure to that is what got me interested in teaching. It was having a relationship with younger students that look up to you as a role model and I thought, ‘Gee, this seems like fun.’ And once we get these teachers coming in, obviously we have to support them.”
‘Addicted to Learning’
Girtain’s love for education began at a young age, with fabulous teachers in Toms River Regional Schools inspiring her love for learning. Her brother, Paul, is a history teacher at Toms River North, where her mother was a secretary – and Ytreboe’s mother, her Aunt Gail, was a secretary there, too. “And I have two uncles in their second job after they retired who became school bus drivers, Frank Chernesky, a former Toms River police officer and the first school police officer at Toms River High School South, and Fred Delman, a former New York City bus driver,” she said. Delman married another school bus driver, her Aunt Lorraine, she said.
Girtain added that her first-grade teacher, Kathy Eagan, was president of the Toms River Education Association and now is a member of the board of education. Two of Girtain’s former students also served on the board of education – Ben Giovine, who now works for Congressman Andy Kim, and Alex Mizenko, who has spoken at the United Nations twice as a result of work he did as one of Girtain’s students. “He predicted a storm like Superstorm Sandy and wrote about how New York City would flood if New Jersey was hit,” Girtain explained. “As Sandy approached us in 2012, he called me and said, ‘This is the storm I warned people about at the United Nations.’” She added, “At the time of his UN talks, a delegate from Madagascar had me send Alex’s PowerPoint to him to use in his country since it is a low-elevation nation.”
Her dedication to her craft never fails to impress Ytreboe.
“Christine puts everything into teaching,” he said. “There is kind of an adage for teaching that the longer someone is in it, the less they do – and sometimes people reference that when talking about tenure. But she is the exact opposite. I feel like the more she is in education, the more she is doing and the better she is getting at it. She is so all in as to what the students need, what the building needs and what the classrooms need. She is zigzagging all across the country based on her profession. She’s also a great mom – she has two great kids and puts family first.”
In addition to serving as a great role model for her students and children, she’s also a great role model for his own two daughters, Ytreboe said.
“She shows them that teaching is not what people think,” he said. “You can gain so many opportunities in a school district that is supportive of the sciences, which is what Toms River Regional School District is.”
Girtain has a daughter attending The College of New Jersey majoring in mechanical engineering and a son attending the Toms River district. “He is a freshman and will be able to take my research class next year, and I am 90% sure he is going to be taking that of his own choice,” she said.
As to moving into administration or doing something outside the classroom, that isn’t something Girtain has thought much about. “I love the kids,” she said. “I don’t drink, and I don’t smoke. Education is probably my drug. I’m addicted to learning and making new opportunities for students.”
Ytreboe believes in that same mission, noting that he often gets asked why he serves on a board of education when he’s involved in education as an administrator.
“I want to make sure the right people are on that wall protecting that institution and making informed decisions that will benefit all stakeholders in the community,” he said.
As to what boards can do to better support teachers, both Girtain and Ytreboe cited meaningful professional development.
“I didn’t learn about the New Jersey Science Teachers Association or the National Association of Biology Teachers until I went to graduate school,” Girtain said. “I should have known about them as an incoming teacher. We need to make sure all new teachers are supported and encourage them to go to and present at these conferences.”
“Both Dave and I are farmers of education,” Girtain said. “We are growing that next generation who are going to run the world in the future. We have to take care and grow them with love and make sure they are getting all the things they need.”
Girtain also noted that she would not be able to do all she does without the support of her husband, Andy, who grew up in Toms River and is the co-owner of Girtain Sign Co., a fourth-generation company. “He keeps me grounded when my mind starts racing with the excitement of everything. He makes me a better person and often helps me to see events and people from a different perspective, which helps me relate to them more … I can’t imagine being on this journey of life without him.”
Ytreboe has no doubt that Girtain’s influence will continue long after she stops teaching. “Christine has a love of science and has the capabilities of being a successful CEO or world-renowned doctor or scientist with her intelligence, dedication, and natural curiosity,” he said. “What makes her so special is that she took these immense talents and chose to share it with the students growing up in her hometown. She is a teacher that is shaping future scientists that will help society solve some of the macro-problems that need to be solved in the twenty-first century due to globalization.” He added, “Toms River North has already produced a Nobel Peace Prize winner named Maria Ressa, but I know Maria will be joined one day by one of Christine’s students.”
Learn more about Girtain and her love of teaching by watching the recent episode of Education Matters, in which she chats with Ray Pinney, director of county activities and member engagement at the New Jersey School Boards Association.