Lindsey Jensen was recently awarded the 2018 Illinois Teacher of the Year. She teaches at Dwight High School in Dwight, Illinois.
Below she shares tips on connecting with students, staying positive as a teacher, having fun as a teacher, classroom management, and what she wants to see change about education.
You currently teach English to junior and seniors at Dwight High School in Dwight, Illinois. Have you always been at Dwight? How long have you been in education?
Twelve years ago, I decided to take a job as a teacher’s aide in a junior high behavioral disorder classroom. Students were placed in this particular classroom when they could not experience success in the “regular” classroom environment, due in part to their inabilities to communicate and socialize appropriately with their classmates. Many of the students were violent and some even battled mental illness; furthermore, a few used expletives that I had never heard before, and I knew when I arrived on my first day in my new Ann Taylor suit—a purchase my parents footed the bill for—that what I had signed up for would be no walk in the park.
Nonetheless, this was the experience that would change not only the course of my career path, but my very existence. I fell in love with teaching in an environment that would send most adults running for the hills. Despite the challenging days and difficult experiences, it was in this special classroom where my unconventional path to a career in education began. For this, I will be forever grateful. In December of 2005, I graduated with high honors from Southern Illinois University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Speech Communication. Immediately following my graduation, I enrolled myself into a Masters program at Oakland City University, where I proceeded to earn a Master of Arts in Teaching. In that time, I engaged in researching the effects of both cooperative and active learning strategies, and I merged my research with some of my knowledge regarding interpersonal communication. After completing my student teaching at Carmi White County High School, it was official: I was going to become an educator.
Since earning my Masters degree, I have worked in a variety of educational settings. I spent a year “in the trenches” as a substitute early in my career, which taught me some invaluable lessons regarding classroom management. I even taught English at Cunningham Children’s home in Urbana, Illinois during the summer. Eventually, I was fortunate enough to become an 11th and 12th grade English teacher at Dwight Township High School, which is a very special place that I have called “home” for the past nine years. I teach Advanced Placement English, Shakespeare, American Literature, Poetry, Drama, and Creative Writing.
It saddens me that to experience a sense of career advancement as a teacher, one often exits the classroom to become an administrator or a curriculum director. While both are highly respected professions, the thought of pursuing a degree only to leave my classroom—not to mention my students—is something that I just cannot fathom. Therefore, when I decided to pursue a Doctorate through The School of Teaching and Learning at ISU—a longtime personal goal—I promised myself that I would do so to become a better teacher, and not to step into some higher-paying role within education. Having finished all of my classes and my composition exams, I am confident that it has undoubtedly made me better. Currently, I am finishing my dissertation by researching YA literacy. I am proud that I have managed to remain true to my love of teaching, all while combining my passion for literacy. I will continue to strive to be the very best teacher I can be for my incredible students at DTHS, as well as my brilliant colleagues.
What stuck out to me in your interview with WGLT was that you talked about the importance of building positive relationships with students (vs. the importance of curriculum). Can you talk a bit about how you do that?
When I divulge to strangers—and I say “strangers” because anyone who knows me knows that I love my job—that I am a high school English teacher, I am typically met with skepticism such as the following: “You teach teenage brats all day? What is wrong with you? How do you deal with their attitudes? I would never subject myself to that kind of abuse!” This, too, offends me because it suggests that I am nothing more than a glorified babysitter who supervises unruly teens for a living when, in fact, I do so much more. Furthermore, it is an absolute joy to watch my students’ goals come to fruition, and as an 11th and 12th grade educator I get to form relationships with students at one of the most exciting times in their young lives. The aforementioned strangers typically conclude the conversation with, “Well, it takes a special kind of person to teach high school kids!” And they are right. It certainly does. At times, teaching involves a kind of selflessness that is unmatched by any other profession that I am aware of.
The truth of the matter is that teachers are in the business of human beings, and teaching requires becoming a part of students’ lives and making connections that no other professional experiences. That’s not to say that teaching is all sunshine and rainbows. Teaching is incredibly arduous, and even heartbreaking, at times. I’m referring specifically to the instances when I care more about a student’s education—or even their well-being—than they do. Nonetheless, I believe that selflessness is required to make every student feel valued.
As for my classroom, I run a tight ship. I set high expectations for each student and I am unapologetic about this fact. Sometimes I push students—particularly my AP English students—to be better writers and communicators than they ever thought they could be; consequently, though they might despise the process, I hope they leave with a certain respect for me and my unwavering commitment to them and their success.
I believe that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Translation: I believe that the most valuable weapon to prevent classroom management issues is a solid lesson plan. Outstanding teachers aren’t mind readers, and they can’t anticipate every single problem that might occur in their classrooms; however, they can minimize the potential for such problems by engaging students from bell to bell. Effective educators have to be innovative and unafraid to try new things, and they must search relentlessly to find contemporary methods for making their content meaningful to students. I am a firm believer that students get in trouble when they are not being stimulated, so I make a valiant effort to captivate my audience for the full 43 minutes a day that I have them. And in all honesty, I think I’m pretty good at it. Nevertheless, this has implications regarding the importance of keeping up with trends in technology, as well as being aware of student interests. Ultimately, I believe that if educators form meaningful relationships with their students whilst demonstrating enthusiasm for their content, students have no choice but to be engaged and on task. Basically, I do not anticipate discipline problems because they are rare.
As for discipline, I do not believe in embarrassing or belittling students, especially in front of their peers. Moreover, I believe that one is far more likely to have a meaningful conversation with a teen about class expectations and areas for improvement one-on-one. I believe that too many teachers discipline teens in front of their peers, which undoubtedly results in a public power struggle that teachers often lose. However, I have found that I am far more likely to have an authentic conversation with a student regarding behavior improvement if I do so privately. Having said that, I maintain high expectations for my students and I don’t shy away from having difficult conversations in an effort to redirect students and undesirable behaviors. The word “SLANT” is in bold letters at the front of my classroom, and it is an acronym for my most basic class expectations. They include: Sit up; Listen; pay Attention; Nod when asked a question; and Track the teacher. Following these simple rules is easier for some students than others. Yet, I always assure students at the end of one-on-one behavior conversations that, “Tomorrow is a new day.” I don’t hold grudges, and I continue to want success even for my most challenging scholars.
Unfortunately, one cannot enter into a discussion regarding “student success” without also mentioning “student failure.” Despite our after school program’s motto, “Failure Is Not An Option,” the fact of the matter is that students do have the right to fail. Nonetheless, an effective teacher inspires students to be their best selves, thus eliminating their desire to fail and, consequently, any apathy they harbor regarding academic success. Great teachers eliminate students’ want to fail, and they cultivate classrooms that are full of contagious enthusiasm and energy—one where students want to experience success.
However, students define “success” differently. This was a difficult lesson to learn early on in my teaching career. As a former straight-A student and salutatorian, it took a significant amount of time for me to accept that some students are elated to earn a ‘C’ in a class. Furthermore, who am I to minimize that accomplishment if it is “success” to them? Despite the fact that I would have had a coronary if ever I had earned a ‘C’ in any class, to some students, a ‘C’ is the pinnacle of success. That does not mean that I should not encourage them to strive for even better; nevertheless, it also does not mean that their personal victories are not worthy of celebration. Students are human beings, and they should be treated as such. Undermining an endeavor that they view as an accomplishment is dangerous territory, and I try to take that into consideration to the best of my ability when assessing students.
The WGLT article talks about how involved you are at school. Can you elaborate a bit on that. What extras are you involved with? (I have a theory that all of that extra exposure to kids helps build relationships)
I have supervised countless extracurricular activities in the following roles: Drama Director, Cheerleading Coach, Spring Musical Director, Gamers Club Supervisor, Polar Plunge Team Coordinator, and Student Council Advisor. But what I am most proud of is how I have been able to capitalize on my role as DTHS Student Council Advisor to influence student-involvement in fundraising for Special Olympics.
At this divisive time in our political and social climate, it is important now more than ever that we as educators model the kind of compassion we want to see in the world. My background in special education has made me sensitive to this issue. I have capitalized on my role as DTHS Student Council Advisor to involve DTHS student-leaders, as well as the entire DTHS student population, in Special Olympics fundraising. Every February, I take a bus full of students, colleagues, parents, and community members dressed in ridiculous costumes to Bloomington, IL to plunge into frigid waters for Special Olympics. Two years ago, I was even successful in involving the Dwight Police Department in this effort, and they now join us for the Special Olympics Polar Plunge each year! It has become a true community-wide event, and my students help me to encourage others to donate both their time and money to this worthy cause. The impact that this philanthropic endeavor has had on our school climate has been astounding.
Your colleagues describe you as someone who sets high expectations and has a lot of positive energy. Can you share some ways that teachers can consistently bring positive energy to their classroom?
To reiterate, great teachers eliminate students’ desires to fail, and they cultivate classrooms that are full of contagious enthusiasm and energy—one where students want to experience success. (Also, refer to question #2 because I discussed a lot of this in my response to question two). J
Who or what inspired you to become a teacher?
From an early age, I’ve always believed that education equals empowerment. My mother, who grew up extremely poor, managed to attain a college education—the first in her family—and she became very successful, and eventually became the COO of The American Cancer Society in the state of Illinois. In addition to teaching me about the importance of philanthropic work—and despite the fact that I grew up far more privileged than she did—she always instilled in me an appreciation for philanthropy, as well as my quality education. I didn’t know that I wanted to be a teacher until later in life—and in so many ways, teaching chose me far more than I chose it—but I consider my role as an educator to be extremely important, and I take my role very seriously.
What challenges have you faced along the way to where you are at now? Have you ever felt “fed up” with any aspect of education? (it’s ok if you’d rather not share)
I have always been incredibly offended by the age-old expression, “Those who can’t do, teach.” It suggests that anyone is capable of becoming an effective educator, and encourages that teaching should be regarded as a fallback career for those who cannot hack it in the real world. It undermines important criteria that are the cornerstones of education—things such as pedagogy, standards, methodology, and content expertise. It connotes that teaching is a prison sentence of sorts, one that is the fate of those who cannot do something—anything—else.
Education is empowerment, and I am honored to serve in a career that allows me to empower and shape young minds. There is nothing more liberating than acquiring an education; as a result, I take my responsibilities as an educator quite seriously. Schools are a place where children experience that America is the land of opportunity, and I am fortunate enough to be a part of broadening their horizons. Therefore, flippant comments about teaching such as the aforementioned expression—not to mention highly inaccurate perceptions which undermine the importance of content expertise and pedagogy—have no place in conversation when I engage in discussions regarding teaching as a profession. Furthermore, entities that seek to vilify teachers and/or undermine just how much we do to inspire kids each and every single day have no place in my line of thought. Because the truth is, my colleagues and I work harder than anyone else I know.
My career in education has taught me that teaching is so much more than anything that I could possibly summarize in a brief response. Furthermore, when I consider my teaching philosophy, I recognize that a quality teacher is so much more than someone who simply cannot hack it in the real world. I believe that a quality teacher is energetic and passionate about their content area every single day. They are experts in their field who, ironically, incessantly strive to learn more. They approach the start of each school year with an unparalleled zest and appreciation for education, one that rivals even that of the novice teachers in their buildings. They never stop learning because they are determined—obsessed even—with becoming the very best they can be for their students. They teach because there’s nothing else that would ever fulfill them. They value the education of other people’s children, people who might not value education themselves. They feel a distinct responsibility to cultivate an appreciation for learning in each of their impressionable students. Consequently, students look forward to attending their classes because they know that they will learn something new, and perhaps even have a little fun in the process. This is what I strive for each day.
What are some challenges you currently are facing as a teacher?
Besides the aforementioned public perception about the teaching profession, I struggle with feeling heard. Teachers are experts in education, but often times we aren’t invited to “have a seat at the table”, so to speak. Currently, I’m working on raising my voice as an advocate for public education, and I encourage other teachers to do so. Now more than ever, we HAVE to raise our voices for kids and for public education!
What are you looking forward to as a teacher the rest of this year and going forward in your career?
From an advocacy standpoint, as the 2018 Illinois Teacher of the Year, I take great responsibility in advocating for both teachers and students throughout our great state. In all actuality, the platform is something that excites me. I can think of no greater honor than to represent my colleagues and my students in the fight involving the current attack—not to mention the lack of funding—on public education. From a political standpoint, I take issue when the state significantly cuts funding from public schools, especially in high-poverty areas, inadvertently reinforcing the division between the “Haves” and the “Have-Nots.” I do not believe in generational poverty, and I believe it is our responsibility as educators to fight the elimination of funding from the very place where children learn to feel empowered. Schools are where children experience that America is the land of opportunity, and any budget that cuts funding from the schools that need it most is deplorable. I am committed to doing whatever I must to ensure that all students receive the education they deserve, which should be the basis for accountability in education. I will not shy away from advocacy, and I have not done so in the past. I am prepared to stand in the front lines to fight for education, because I believe education equals empowerment. It will be the greatest honor of my life to do so.
I believe you are now doing workshops for other schools sharing some of what you have learned, is there somewhere online readers can get in touch with you?
My school is in the process of putting a “speaking request” form on our school web page. I’ll send you the link to that page as soon as it is up and running. For now, the best way to get in touch with me is through my email:email@example.com