Teacher of the Week


Christina Japuntich has taught students with the most profound needs as a Secondary Life Skills teacher for the Champaign Unit 4 School District for the last five years.

For the last five years, Christina Japuntich has spent her days teaching Champaign school district students with the most significant and profound disabilities.

That she wound up teaching secondary essential skills is no surprise. Japuntich grew up with a mother who was a homebound tutor, an experience that inspired her to earn a degree from the University of Illinois’ Learning and Behavior Specialist program.

Japuntich teaches in ways that are “amazingly creative and supportive,” according to Susan Martinis, whose daughter, Danielle Blanke, is one of Japuntich’s students.

“Christina has been amazingly supportive as well as a champion — not only of her students, but also their families, who face complex challenges day-in and day-out to accommodate their child’s profound physical and intellectual disabilities,” Martinis said. “Her belief in the human spirit combined with her compassion leaves no student behind. The community that she has built in her classroom is quite simply inspiring and unmatched.”

I find my work important because ... my amazing staff and I care for our students by meeting all of their basic functional needs while helping them learn the most essential life skills they need to interact meaningfully with the world throughout their lives. We work on goals that increase each student’s unique mode of communication, participation in activities of daily living, pre-vocational and domestic skills, listening/academic comprehension, and repertoire of recreational activities. It truly is a privilege to learn each student’s modes of unique communicative behavior and build meaningful relationships with each student.

I became a teacher because ... ever since I could remember, I’ve wanted to be a teacher. I remember being too young for school and going with my mom when she did homebound tutoring. Without any training herself, she taught a high school student with severe disabilities how to read and communicate using an original Dynavox, which is a speech-generating device that is based on movements of the individual’s body. She provided him a way to express himself to the world for everyone to understand in just a short couple of years. It was very inspiring and made me want to be a teacher, too.

My favorite/most unique lesson that I teach is ... group recreational and cooking activities. Each art project, recreational/leisure activity and cooking activity is broken down into very small steps that allow each student to make choices, participate and help. For example, when cooking, we use adaptive switches for students to help dump ingredients and activate the blender. Each student is also able to smell each ingredient, creating a multi-sensory experience. Recreational activities can be modified for everyone to participate, such as using a switch-activated number spinner to play Snakes and Ladders using a Smartboard.

My most fulfilling moments on the job are when ... my students make each other laugh. I embrace each student’s typical teenage sassiness and sense of humor! I love their social perceptiveness when they acknowledge each other’s humorous antics and feed into the fun energy. It is equally fulfilling when my students offer empathy and understanding. There is always potential for chaos, especially when short of any one of our valuable staff members. I appreciate when the students can feel when it is a rough day and they calm down, do what is asked of them and/or offer a hug.

I keep students engaged by ... creating activities that are accessible for each student to meaningfully participate. With the proper adaptive tools and a little creativity, most any activity can become accessible for the students to explore and enjoy.

Something else I’m passionate about is ... discovering and creating new allergy-friendly foods! As someone with multiple food allergies, it is always exciting to find new food at a restaurant or a new pre-packaged food or recipe that I can eat.

My favorite teacher and subject to study in school were ... my mom, Nina Japuntich. She had been a fifth-grade teacher and then went on to be a homebound tutor and advocate for kids in grades K-12. She made the most incredible relationships with each of her students, and her dedication ensured they knew their own value and the value of education.

If I weren’t a teacher, I would be ... a social worker for kids and teens. I’m currently working on earning my master’s in social work. Through my work in the schools, I’ve seen the desperate need for social/emotional support for students and their families. I also have seen how my unique population of students with severe disabilities and their families also could use additional support and advocacy for transitional resources and programs. My goal is to gain the additional advocacy, therapeutic and supportive skills to be able to support kids and teens of all abilities and their families.

— Anthony Zilis