Former nurse molding students into next generation of healthcare workers at Grundy Area Vocational Center

Shell has grown the Health Occupations class at GAVC from 67 students to 187 in three years

MORRIS – For 20 years, Jennifer Shell was a nurse.

Three years ago, she decided to go into teaching, and joined Grundy Area Vocational Center as the head of its Health Occupations department.

It has been a good decision all the way around.

When Shell began teaching at GAVC, there were 67 students enrolled in Health Occupations. This year, there are 187.

“When I took the program, it was itty-bitty,” she said. “And now, it’s not. I was a nurse for 20 years, then I went into teaching. I wanted to mold the kids that were going to be coming into the health care community.”

When Shell began, the graduates would get their Certified Nursing Assistant certification. Since then, the curriculum has expanded and, starting next year, seniors will be eligible to obtain nine different certifications when they graduate. She also has instituted an annual pinning ceremony at the end of the school year in which the graduates receive their CNA pin.

“We have new curriculum starting next year,” she said. “We will be offering Medical Assistant training and EKG training. After their junior year, they can have the CNA certification. After senior year, there will be nine different certifications they can have.

“We expanded because there is such a need for good, quality workers. I think it’s important for GAVC to be able to give back to the community that supports it so much. That was really evident during COVID. There were patients in hospitals and nursing homes that couldn’t see their families, and we and our students were the only conduit to the outside world those people had. It was so beautiful to see kids at 16 being that helping hand.”

Shell said she has learned to change her expectations as a teacher.

“It’s amazing how adaptable these kids are,” she said. “They are learning a college course at a fast pace. They are getting hands-on experience with the nursing home residents. They are showering them, feeding them, helping with physical therapy.

“As a nurse, I worked in the NICU and I was able to get instant gratification because a baby would be sick and we could watch them get better. As a teacher, it’s hard to get that instant gratification. It takes time.

“Some of these kids come in timid or shy or scared. To see them after four or five months, when that light comes on that they can do this, it’s so cool to see that transformation from being shy and timid to having that confidence and pride in what they did.”

Word of mouth spread about Shell’s class and the enrollment has risen. She tries to stay on top of the latest techniques and procedures.

“We try to modernize the way we teach, especially in nursing,” she said. “We want to keep the students engaged and we want to use top-notch tech and equipment. I tell the kids that when they feel uncomfortable, that’s when they need to jump. That’s when we learn and grow.

“We want to give the kids the best toolbox we can. I want them to make their mistakes with me, so that when they leave, they can do it on their own.”

Shell has been impressed with the desire her students show, and her own enthusiasm for the profession is infectious.

“The kids that are coming here want to do this,” she said. “It’s not like it’s a requirement like English or a math class. I try to make a game of things to make it more fun. Anyone can give a kid a piece of paper that tells you how to wash your hands, but if we make a game of it, they will remember it better because they had fun with it.

“We want our kids to be productive. That’s why we added the Medical Assistant program. With the rise of urgent care facilities, that’s where people go instead of the emergency room. They use mostly medical assistants there.”

Shell has a vision for her program. And it’s a big one.

“We want GAVC to be the best Health Occupations program in Illinois,” she said. “We want employers to know that if they see GAVC on a resume, they know that candidate is well trained and capable of doing the job.

“I am starting to see kids getting accepted into full nursing programs, and I have gotten some emails telling me that I made a difference. It just fuels my fire to see kids succeed. Once a Bluebird, always a Bluebird.”