Summer Serendipity

Life-Changing Summer Camp Job Led Teacher of the Year to Nebraska

When it comes to life-changing experiences, Lincoln teacher Sydney Jensen can cite her time at summer camp as a splendid example.

A summer camp job drew Jensen to Nebraska.

Her work as a camp counselor was great training, she said, truly preparing her for classroom leadership.

That summer job also led to love, marriage and a permanent move from her home state in the Deep South to Nebraska.

“I grew up in Georgia, went to the University of Georgia, and in the summer, I would come to Nebraska to work at camp,” she said. “That was just sort of serendipitous.”

It was especially serendipitous for Lincoln High School, where Jensen changes lives every day as she teaches freshman English and works as an instructional coach. To the benefit of all involved, Jensen has been named Nebraska’s 2019 Teacher of the Year.
Her title is also a boost for Lincoln High’s reputation of excellence. She is the fifth LHS educator in 23 years to be so honored. 

Jensen’s term as Teacher of the Year was convened with a luncheon at NSEA Headquarters on Nov. 1. Co-finalist Scott Wilson, a history teacher at Omaha Central High School, was recognized with an Award of Excellence. Both are NSEA members.

A Positive Culture

For Jensen it was “always in the back of my brain that I wanted to be a teacher, and English is the thing that I’m good at.”

One summer during her college years, her parents gave her a choice of furthering her college coursework or taking a job. An uncle who worked at Camp Kitaki in southeast Nebraska urged her to apply.

“I absolutely loved it. I think that working at a summer camp is really great teacher training in a lot of ways, especially when it comes to relationship building and classroom management,” said Jensen.

Summer camp counselors, she said, get a week to construct a positive cabin culture. Sometimes it works, sometimes it falters.

“But you get to restart the very next Sunday with a brand-new class, or cabin and kids. So, it’s easy to figure out what works and what doesn’t,” she said.

“Outside of student teaching, working at camp was probably the biggest thing that prepared me for being in the classroom,” she said.

Her student teaching experience was superb, she said, thanks to Morgan County, GA, teacher Dana Buxton.

“There are things that she taught me and modeled for me that I still use,” she said. “I think that all of these things sort of created this pathway into becoming an English teacher. It’s exactly what I want to be doing.”

Confidential Capacity

Jensen was surprised at her nomination, and equally surprised to be selected as a finalist, at age 28. Her Lincoln High colleague and 2017 Teacher of the Year, Amber Vlasnik, recognized Jensen’s skills and submitted the nomination.

District officials, too, have noticed Jensen’s talents. She’s in her sixth year teaching, but administrators asked her two years ago to leave the classroom to become an instructional coach.

“I just couldn’t see myself leaving the classroom completely, so I felt lucky that the district gave the OK for me to teach part-time and coach part-time,” she said. Today, she teaches three periods of English and coaches other educators the rest of the day. In that role, she works with new and veteran teachers, giving support in a confidential capacity outside the appraisal process.

“It stays between us, and I think that tears away some of the vulnerability people can feel,” she said. “Asking for help can sometimes be scary, but when it’s pretty low risk coming to an instructional coach, I think people are more willing to do it.”

‘Open-Door’ Pact

Because much of the work is done in isolation, teaching can be a lonely career, she said. In that setting, educators may be afraid to vocalize problems for fear that others may see them as ineffective. Asking for help is “one of the strongest things a person can do” and helps educators build relationships with one another.

“Building relationships with teachers in the building and asking for help is something that is important to changing the culture of teaching and making it a more attractive career for people who are coming out of high school and college.”

She cited as an example a first-year teacher at LHS who was trying to enhance her skills at the same time Jensen was trying to fine-tune her work. They arranged a shared “open-door, ask-me-any-question-you-want” pact.

“It made both of us a lot stronger,” said Jensen. “I think that can help a lot of other new teachers who are feeling that same sort of isolation or lack of support.”

Warm Demander

Jensen characterizes her teaching style as that of a “warm demander.”

She explained a warm demander as someone who is approachable, kind and communicates care for students in their classroom, while also demanding that students meet certain academic and behavior expectations. Without reservation, Jensen expects that every student can succeed.

“I think that if you asked my students, they know that I care for them and really have their interests at heart, that I make sure that I’m trying to give my very best as a teacher for them every single day,” she said.

“But they would also say ‘you’ve got to make sure that you’re on it when you’re in her class because there are no exceptions.’

“I’m not willing to let anyone fall through the cracks or fall behind. So, while I think I come across as being very kind and caring and warm, I also demand that students give their very best in class every single day. To not do so would make me complicit in any sort of failure that they might meet down the road, and I just can’t live with that,” she said.

Loud and Raucous

When Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt, members of the State Board of Education, school administrators and others met outside Jensen’s classroom door to deliver the news of her selection, they heard the raucous, high-energy sound of student voices debating and exchanging ideas.

Jensen confirms that her classes are full of energy.

“I think it’s important that teachers play to their strengths and plan lessons that they’re going to be excited to teach, whether that means structuring the lesson in a way that’s going to be engaging for both the teacher and the student, or it’s choosing text that inspires passion in the teacher,” she said.

A training a few years ago on collaborative conversations and cooperative learning caused Jensen to restructure her classroom seating. The changes made it easier for students to converse – and made the room a bit noisier.

“The more students are talking about their learning the better their capacity is to ask a question and advocate for themselves as learners,” she said. “They know more what they don’t know when they’re having to talk about it with a neighbor or within a small group. So, it’s been kind of cool just to see how much stronger the relationships among students are with this sort of system just because they’re getting more of a chance to talk to and learn from one another.”

Such conversations let Jensen cross what she calls the “biggest bridge in building positive relationships” – getting kids to feel heard and noticed.

“It does lead to more noise though. We are pretty loud in here most of the time, so I hesitate to say, ‘talk to your neighbor, but not too loud’ because really just I want them to be talking,” she said. “I don’t want to put up barriers that are going to keep kids from engaging with each other.”

Building Relationships

Jensen takes genuine interest in the lives of her students. A first-day-of-school survey of her students is used to take roll call the rest of that first week.

“Saying things like ‘Ameer, who plays football and is hoping to make varsity this year’ and ‘Hunter, who likes to go fishing instead of hunting’ – showing them that I’ve read those things and I’m engaging with them, I think is the biggest way to communicate care and respect for your students.”

Jensen also attends when invited to softball games, one act plays and other student activities.

“I like to sit with their families when I go. That’s an opportunity to build those relationships with them outside of parent-teacher conferences or phone calls home, to learn about them not necessarily as an English student, but as a human being and a person,” she said.

All Worth It

Jensen was at Lincoln High when Vlasnik was honored, so knew her experience was amazing. Jensen felt she had to honor the application process and then found it to be worthwhile.

“It was really powerful for me to be able to put into words all of my beliefs about education, about teaching and the things I’m passionate about,” she said.

She hit the “submit” button and thought to herself “Well, that was nice. No matter what happens, it was all worth it in my book.”

She was soon an interviewee for Teacher of the Year, then a finalist, and today is Nebraska’s Teacher of the Year. That title may be current for a short time, but it will be a life-changing event.

“It’s easy to ask ‘Why was I chosen? Am I really deserving of such a great honor and experience?’ I’m trying to see it as ‘I’m only 28 and I have a lot of years left to be able to share all the things that I’ve learned through this experience with other teachers,’” she said.

One thing she knows will not change: her profession.

“I don’t really see myself ever leaving the classroom. I think it’s kind of just what fills my bucket.”