Jeanine Gottko, who taught first and fifth grade at Franklin Elementary School in Westfield before working with both students and teachers in the district as a master technology teacher, is the 2020 recipient of the Rotary Club of Westfield’s Philhower Fellowship in recognition of outstanding teaching at the elementary school level.
Gottko received the news on April 23 during a virtual meeting with Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Programs Paul Pineiro, to which Superintendent Dr. Margaret Dolan paid a surprise virtual visit.
“Jeanine is so deserving of this important recognition,” says Dolan. “Her years as a classroom teacher combined with an impressive knowledge of digital learning tools and technology has been invaluable to our school community, especially during the educational upheaval caused by COVID-19.”
A Westfield native, Gottko joined the Westfield Public School District in 1997 as a first grade teacher at Franklin, moving down the hall two years later to teach fifth grade for 13 years.
“I always hoped I would teach in Westfield because I had received such an outstanding education here and I knew what a wonderful district it was,” says Gottko who received a Bachelor of Science in Education from the University of Delaware in 1997. “I also liked the sense of community and the ability to continue the district’s tradition of excellence for future students.”
In nominating Gottko, a team of teachers at Tamaques Elementary School noted her expertise in instructional technology. “Her knowledge and skills reflect her continued pursuit of professional growth in this rapidly changing field,” the group wrote in a nominating letter. “Our recent abrupt switch to distance learning put Jeanine’s skills in the spotlight, as she is suddenly in charge of teaching everyone in the district, including staff, administrators, and parents, how to use an overwhelming number of different tools. She has instilled in all of us that we are capable of using technology to make distance learning effective.”
Another letter from a fellow educator lauds Gottko for going above and beyond to provide e-learning tools and assistance throughout the school year. “When the district moved to distance learning and the weight of the entire district was suddenly upon her shoulders, she has continued to support us in an astounding way.”
“Ms. Gottko understands the daily life of a teacher and tries to use technology to make our busy lives easier and less stressful,” says another educator who praises Gottko for her ability to share knowledge in a way that is fun for students. “She has a wonderful sense of humor and is always willing to help. I am happy to know she is just an email or a text away.”
Gottko has been a master technology teacher for grades K-8 for the past 7 years, serving as an instructional coach for teachers and administrators, planning and conducting professional development sessions, and visiting classrooms to incorporate technology into student lessons. In 2013, Gottko was named one of the National School Boards Association’s “20 to Watch,” a prestigious recognition of “emerging U.S. education leaders for their ability to inspire fellow educators and their innovative use of technology to contribute to the creation of high-quality learning environments.”
“Jeanine is that unique combination of experienced classroom teacher and educational technology wiz,” says Pineiro. “She is respected and trusted. Her calm and compassionate approach has gone a long way in soothing our school community during this adjustment to distance learning.”
“I have been preparing for this for the last seven years, if not longer,” adds Gottko. “Obviously, I could not have anticipated the need for distance learning but the tools and training I have provided our teachers, along with the methodologies that instructional technology instills, have prepared us to face this current crisis.”
Gottko also has created a Distance Learning webpage for parents, with helpful e-learning resources on Webex, Google Hangouts/Meets, Google Classroom, and other digital instructional tools.
When asked about a professional highlight, Gottko says, as a longtime teacher, she enjoys keeping up with what former students are doing. “Quite a few have become teachers themselves and others are doing extraordinary things despite having lives that weren’t as simple as they planned.”
She credits her parents, former Rotarian and Westfield Town Administrator Ed Gottko and Jean Gottko, a nurse, with encouraging her to volunteer outside the classroom. “My parents always encouraged me to join different committees, to play a role in my community, and to never limit myself.”
Gottko says she is “beyond honored and overwhelmed” to have received the Philhower Award.
“To be in the same group as past winners is so meaningful to me since many of them continue to inspire me,” she says. “To be nominated by my fellow teachers also means so much to me. I know it may sound cliché but I truly do share this award with all of the teachers in the district who are doing an amazing job in such a trying and stressful time. I am so proud and in awe of how they are navigating this new frontier in education while also being a support system for their students and families.”
Gottko will receive the Philhower Award on May 5 as a guest of honor during a virtual Rotary Club meeting. That evening, she will be recognized as well at a virtual meeting of the Board of Education.
The Philhower Fellowship was established in 1993 by the Rotary Club to honor former Westfield Rotarian Charles Philhower and to recognize the importance of teaching in the elementary grades. An educator for more than 50 years, Charles Philhower, who died in 1962, was supervising principal (superintendent) of Westfield schools for three decades as well as co-founder and past president of the Rotary Club of Westfield.