How Alternate Route Alum Justin Gala Persevered to Fulfill His Dream of Being an Educator
Aquatics is where Justin Gala discovered his passion for education.
While not the most traditional way to fall into education, there is a clear connection for the recent Rutgers Graduate School of Education graduate. Working as a lifeguard training instructor, Gala noticed the parallels between his day-to-day job and teaching in a classroom.
“It was the first time I was responsible for a professional course with student learning,” he said. “After seeing the impressions I had made on the students, I knew I had to pursue education.”
But the road to becoming an educator took a few detours, thanks to Justin’s’s ability to recognize and take advantage of any opportunities presented. That first opportunity is what led him to entrepreneurship. As he built relationships with his students, his network grew to the point where people would reach out directly with requests to run certification training programs for small groups..
So, Justin followed the opportunity. In his first year, he led classes. However, he wasn’t prepared to grow as quickly and meet the demands for training more than the required instructor to participant ratio.
“In the second year, it got big,” he said. “And I thought, ‘Oh no, I have to do something.’”
That something came with a little help from the Red Cross. The organization noticed Justin’s talent, encouraged him to open a training school and gave him the tools to do so.
Certifications for Life Inc., LLC was born.
Justin’s hard work earned him notable recognition. Since 2017, Certifications for Life has won annual awards as a top training provider regionally. During the pandemic, his emergency training school became a Top National Red Cross Training Provider across the US and Puerto Rico. His emergency training school is listed as one of the top 200 schools.
But, he still knew that his true calling was as an educator.
Alternate Route’s impact
Justin attended Rutgers University for his undergrad, studying history and psychology. At the time, Rutgers did not have a post-bachelor’s program for teaching, so he was left with two choices: attend a five-year program or go through Rutgers Alternate Route.
The traditional route was recommended; however, Justin isn’t the kind of person who chooses the traditional route. Already having a foundation with his instructor background, Gala felt he had enough background experience to find success with Alternate Route. He was right.
“Some people find it challenging, and others are able to handle it,” Justin said. “For me, it was such a great program.”
One aspect he appreciated was having instructors that were principals in public and charter schools.
“They understood where we were coming from, what we knew, and what we did not know,” Justin said.
Particularly, the Alternate Route instructors knew the importance of collaboration when it comes to furthering education. One instructor Justin took to was Dr. Tammy Bowling-Jenkins, who encouraged collaboration and discussion.
“She was amazing,” he said. “The assignments weren’t like grad school, where you had to put together a research project. She focused more on career readiness. The coursework was discussion, collaboration and providing examples that we were currently working on in our classrooms.”
The seven year journey
It took seven years for Justin to complete his master’s degree at Rutgers Graduate School of Education, and Justin made use of every minute.
After he graduated from Alternate Route, Justin came across an opportunity to get his standard special education certificate. The requirements were intense, with rigorous training and classes that ran 3-4 hours at a time. After becoming certified, Justin took a year off to get organized and decide what he wanted his future to look like. That’s when the next opportunity popped up.
A representative from Rutgers reached out to arrange a way for Justin to complete his master’s degree in special education.
“I went back and forth on it,” he said. “Financially, it made sense. Plus, having information on how to work with different students with all types of needs was a great opportunity for me as an educator.”
He entered the program and completed it on his own terms. He took a year off to complete his reading specialist certification and took on more opportunities as they came along throughout those years.
“It was a very interesting journey. I finished very strong this past May, so that first master’s is done.”
“I want to get one more master’s degree,” Justin said. “I plan on going back to school to earn an administration and supervisory certification. My goal is to see myself in the human resources aspect of education- somewhere in a director level. I’d love to pick the talent and work with teachers, because teachers and administrators make that culture for the students.”
In addition to earning his Master’s Degree and teaching certifications in multiple disciplines, Justin won the NJ Governor Teacher of the year for the 2020-2021 school year. A milestone in which not every teacher earns in their career.
Justin made his education dreams happen all while managing his business part-time, spending hours studying and honing his teaching practice.
In those seven years, Justin has learned a lot about resilience and how not every opportunity is an easy one. He recalled a time when an administrator called him “incompetent” early in his education career.
That one comment affected Justin deeply.
“It took me a solid year to build back that confidence,” he said. I have always been told ‘You're doing great’ in my work. In education, it was a different tune under that one administrator. It’s not that I was incompetent. I needed support and a traditional mentoring program that the state department of education requires. The school I first started in did not have this program. It took me a few years after reflecting that the problem was not me, it was the environment that I was in”
He found what he needed in his colleagues, who rallied around Justin.
“They knew I was new and I needed support, which every new teacher needs. They also knew the administrator was just one bad egg, and tried to not let them deter me from my dream.”
It was a challenge he said he needed to experience because it just pushed him to prove his critics wrong.
“I've had people tell me I couldn't and I wouldn't, and that just drove me to prove a point that I could.”
It also helps that he has his mind made up with his education career.
“When I said ‘I'm going into education,’ this is where I put all my energy and focus,” Justin said. “I really love what I do. I'm not in it to just be mediocre.”
If you’re considering following your dream of teaching, Rutgers Alternate Route can offer you the support and training you need to succeed. Be sure to follow Rutgers Alternate Route on Twitter and sign up for Alternate Route’s monthly newsletter for more information and stories from the field of education.