- Van Allen Elementary School
Carmen Gwenigale, Inspiring Global Citizenship in Iowa
Growing up, Carmen Gwenigale did not see herself as a teacher, but those who knew her definitely saw it coming. She had such a passion for school and reading that when school was out during the summer, she would gather the neighborhood kids together and pretend to be a teacher.
“I was like, ‘okay we’re doing school and I’m the teacher,’” said Carmen. “I’d have lessons, and [the kids would] go home with homework and they’d come back with homework…”
This is when Carmen’s passion for education was born.
Carmen has been with our District since 2002, serving in multiple roles including teaching Spanish at West and Liberty high schools, serving as the World Languages Curriculum Coordinator, and participating in the Grow Our Own program as an Leadership Fellow. Currently, she is the Director of Curriculum, Assessment & Instruction.
Carmen grew up in Liberia, but due to civil wars in the country, her family was split up and moved to areas across the world when she was only 13 years old. Carmen moved to Puerto Rico with her mother, her brothers moved to Iowa and Minnesota, and her father stayed with her adoptive brother and worked as a surgeon to help the sick and wounded in Liberia.
“It was a lot of emotional struggle and stress,” said Carmen. “But we had the love of family and support of family to be there for us, no matter what.”
It was no surprise to many when Carmen announced she was going to be a teacher. Her parents had hoped that she would go into the medical field, but after a few years of majoring in biology and taking education classes on the side, she made the decision to follow her true passion—education.
“It felt right. Like this is what I am guided toward.”
Her first experience in the midwest was when she attended the University of Northern Iowa for a semester through a student exchange program. This was also her first experience dealing with the cold and snow, and she wasn’t a fan.
“I vowed that I would never ever live in Iowa again for the rest of my life.”
That vow didn’t exactly pan out. After teaching English in Puerto Rico for three and a half years, Carmen decided to move back to Iowa to start her master’s degree at the University of Iowa. She also landed her first job teaching Spanish at West High School.
“Teaching Spanish for me isn’t just teaching a second language,” said Carmen. “It is also teaching part of my culture…Teaching [students] how to be global citizens, how to be culturally responsive, how to be connected with themselves as people and others.”
During her first few years of teaching, she also had to navigate being one of the only teachers of color in her school.
“I kept a lot in and didn’t share much with a lot of people because I didn’t know who I could share with, [or] who I could connect with.”
She soon realized students of color were also dealing with similar issues. Finding a community turned into her creating her own.
“We were building that sense of community and safe spaces for students,” said Carmen. “That became more of my purpose, really trying to be a voice for our students… and trying to get students to step into those spaces to be part of the solution.”
Her passion for teaching, her students, and curriculum pushed her to become a Leadership Fellow as part of our Grow Our Own program, eventually moving into her current role as Director of Curriculum, Assessment & Instruction.
“I knew I could make an impact in my classroom, and I knew I could make an impact in my building, now how can I make an impact from a District space?”
Moving forward, Carmen is hoping to focus on global citizenship, career readiness, and culturally responsive teaching in the classroom, to name a few.
“We’re teaching the student, but we’re meeting all of their needs at the same time too,” said Carmen. “So we’re teaching from a space of love and understanding and awareness.”