Lasting love for language

Social studies teacher uses linguistic skills to connect

Rebecca Kucera, Staff Writer

“I remember thinking to myself that this was what I was meant to do in life – work with refugees, and that it would be my life’s mission. It is the one truly indelible passion in my life, and something that has never wavered in me. The work is rewarding, but it is much more than that. It is a duty, from my perspective, for those of us with more to help those with structural disadvantages,” social studies teacher Jackson Gzehoviak said.

Mr. Gzehoviak knows multiple languages and learning new ones has become an integral part of his career.

He can speak, read, and write in Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Polish, and English. He has also dabbled in Swahili, Somali, and Karen. Gzehoviak started learning Spanish in middle school, Arabic as a sophomore in high school, and began Russian and Polish in college as a freshman. 

His family is Polish, and they lost the ability to speak Polish over the last two generations. It became an important goal for him to reclaim that part of his heritage.

“It was really wonderful to see my grandma, though she was experiencing memory loss in the last years of her life, smile and understand the language of her childhood,” Gzehoviak said.

From a young age, Gzehoviak has always been interested in the world around him and who lives in it.

“In high school, language quickly became an important way for more to communicate with the refugees and immigrants I worked with, and it was this motivation that continued on throughout college and beyond,” Gzehoviak said.

Gzehoviak went to MN when he was in high school and has left an impression behind with his past teachers.

“Mr. Gzehoviak is one of the best students I’ve ever had the privilege to teach. Even as a  freshman, he knew who he was, what he believed in, and where he was going. He didn’t apologize for his ideas, but always, with kindness and tact, shared his thoughts freely, even with those who disagreed with him,” English teacher Rhonda Betzold said.

Throughout his career, Gzehoviak has been teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) for several years. He has taught primarily refugee students, but other immigrant groups as well. For Gzehoviak, it allows him to see how valuable the transfer of skills between languages can be.

“. . . what you need, more than anything, to accomplish learning a language, is confidence and the courage to make mistakes. What I want my students to learn is the same confidence and freedom to make mistakes, which is ultimately the biggest determinant of how fast someone will learn a language,” Gzehoviak said.

Gzehoviak is also the Education Director for the international NGO working in the Palestinian refugee camps of South Lebanon. As the Education Director, he works with others to create, plan, and revise lessons that help students grow their English in a variety of targeted ways that help them grow toward success on the national English exam. 

“The friendships, solidarity, and community-building I have been able to be a part of over the last seven years through my involvement with LEAP has been the opportunity of a lifetime. I treasure this very sacred opportunity to work with and learn from such wonderful people. I am humbled to call them my friends and family,” Gzehoviak said.

Now as a teacher, he uses his knowledge and interest in languages and cultures to create bonds with his students. 

“Mr. Gzehoviak is excellent at creating personal connections with students. He learns students interests and backgrounds and uses that information to form quality relationships,” director of Forensics Sabrina Denney Bull said.

Gzehoviak doesn’t only build relationships with his students but also with the languages that he speaks. 

“It is my firm belief that a sound understanding of language is one of the most important ways that we as people can show caring, empathy, and understanding of other people in our community,” Gzehoviak said. “Language is such a gift and deserves celebration.”