Who's Who at the Zoo: Alumnus Jordan Gaukel

In our series, Careers in Motion, we bring you interviews with alumni who are innovators, thought leaders and experts in their field. And sometimes, like this month, we bring you the results of a chance encounter — at the Calgary Zoo, of all places.

At the Zoo

By Deb Cummings

In July, there we were, oohing and ahhing over the zoo’s latest arrivals — 13 lemurs — when I discovered the interpreter was a two-time UCalgary alumnus and newly minted teacher. There was no financial need for Jordan Gaukel, BSc’07, BEd’09, to be toiling in the summer, yet there he was:

Why are you working at the zoo?

I have been working for the Calgary Zoo since the summer of 1999 when I had just turned 16. I started in food service and then other customer service positions (gift shops, admissions, memberships) until I made the jump into the Education department 11 years ago. With summers off as a teacher, it just made sense to continue working for the zoo — it’s also a great way to keep my primatology knowledge and skills sharp!

Are there any parallels with teaching kids and working with animals?

I have become a master at interpreting behaviour, whether it be human or non-human. Since I primarily work with special needs students who have difficulty communicating or are non-verbal, the ability to read behaviour and interpret it has been an invaluable tool.

Why have I found you here in the Land of Lemurs?

Having studied primatology, I was extremely excited to get to teach about a new collection of primates. I get to dip back into the knowledge I obtained in my first degree to help make visitor experiences more informative and fun.

What’s the most bizarre thing the lemurs have done so far?

I had one of the female ring-tailed lemurs, Celeste, reach up and gently hold my hand for a brief moment. I couldn't stop smiling the rest of the day.

Any advice for people trying to get a teaching position?

Work hard, remain resilient and take advantage of every networking opportunity you can. I was extremely fortunate that I was hired into a special-needs cohort just after graduation, and therefore was never a substitute teacher. I do have a slight regret that I didn’t get to see a wider variety of schools, students and programs that comes with subbing. Being a guest teacher in a school is an excellent way to network and also build your tool box to help you land a more permanent position within the board.

Where will you teach this fall and what grade?

This fall, I will continue as a Learning Leader at Mayland Heights School, working in a Communication, Sensory needs and Social Integration (CSSI) classroom. My class has six students with moderate to severe autism, combined with profound cognitive delays. We work on communication strategies, developing sensory resilience and integrating them into the larger school community whenever possible.

Why should people volunteer?

Finding that thing that you truly care about makes any job or volunteer work never feel like a chore. You go home feeling fulfilled, knowing that you made a difference in some way. It may take a lot of time to find that special thing that engages your passion, but it’s always worth the effort. 

What qualities make a good teacher?

Patience is No. 1, without a doubt. You need to be able to develop relationships with students in order to help them achieve their full potential, and that takes time and genuine investment. It’s also very important to continue to develop your skills as a teacher, and take ideas from colleagues (no matter their experience level or seniority) and try them. The reverse is true, too. New teachers can have innovative or nontraditional ways of thinking about a lesson or problem and should have a strong voice in the larger school community.

Who has been the great influence on your career so far?

My students are amazing. Working with students with incredibly complex needs for the majority of my career has changed everything about me as a person. I watch how hard they work every single day, just to complete a small task, and am constantly in awe of their resilience and determination, despite how difficult every day can be for them. Also, getting to celebrate with them and their families when an obstacle is overcome or a new skill suddenly develops is the greatest part of my job. 

What makes this new area at the zoo so remarkable?

Lemurs are an unusual member of the primate family tree, as well as being amongst the most endangered animals in the world. Having the chance to help visitors connect and learn about them is critical for their survival in the wild. I also get to inform people about the great work being done by the Calgary Zoo, the University of Calgary and our conservation partner in Madagascar, the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership.

For more details on the research that UCalgary's Department of Anthropology and Archaeology is doing in Madagascar, visit here