Belief in every student’s potential is key to good teaching

2018 teacher of the year delivers keynote address to second Pathways Education Symposium at SVCC

Lindsey Jensen, Illinois Teacher of the Year for 2018, was the keynote speaker Friday, April 21, 2023, for the Pathways Education Symposium at Sauk Valley Community College.

Being dedicated to the potential of every student must be foundational for all teachers, explained Lindsey Jensen during the keynote address for the Pathways Education Symposium held Friday at Sauk Valley Community College.

“If you don’t believe in every single person who walks into your classroom, you’re not going to make it in this profession,” she said.

Jensen is the Illinois coordinator for Educators Rising, an arm of Phi Delta Kappa International, that promotes avenues for young people interested in becoming educators. She is also the early career development director for the Illinois Education Association.

Jensen was the 2018 Illinois Teacher of the Year as a senior English instructor at Dwight High School. She has nearly 20 years of classroom experience and a doctorate in teaching and learning.

“I’m standing here talking to all of you about my love of this profession,” Jensen said. “And it is a deep, deep love.”

Her audience was 90 high school students and 30 education professionals and from a dozen participating districts within Regional Office of Education 47, which serves Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties.

“I’m standing here talking to all of you about my love of this profession. And it is a deep, deep love.”

—  Lindsey Jensen, 2018 Illinois teacher of the year and keynote speaker for the Pathways Education Symposium

This was the second annual symposium jointly organized by the regional office in partnership with SVCC. The Pathways program is designed to promote vocational opportunities that graduating seniors can gain as certification for their high school diploma. Pathways falls under the direction of the Illinois State Board of Education’s section for career and technical education and innovation.

“We’re hoping we can inspire them,” said Chanda McDonnell, Pathways navigator.

Beyond the field of education, ROE 47 plans to expand its Pathways offerings by adding programs in health and science, agriculture and manufacturing, based on input from business and community leaders, said Stacey Dinges, also a Pathways navigator.

But ROE 47 has from the outset focused on promoting teaching as a career given the shortage of instructors in grades K-12. The Kelly Education Report anticipates the nation’s teacher shortfall to be 520,200 by 2025. The state board of education reported 5,301 positions went unfulfilled across Illinois in the current school year.

Students who participate in the program can gain classroom experience – effectively shadowing and assisting a teacher – for six weeks during their senior year.

A portion of the symposium was also dedicated to recognizing those senior class students who earned their diploma endorsements in education.

McDonnell said the practical experience for students is invaluable. She tells the story of one participant in the endorsement process who was placed in a third-grade classroom, who learned quickly it was a bad match for her. She shifted to being a band classroom, and loved it. Now she’s headed to college knowing exactly what type of teaching job she should pursue, making the shift now instead of later, when it would be costlier.

“This is what it’s all about,” McDonnell said.

Not everyone attending the symposium are graduating seniors. Many are like sophomore Elise Richards of Morrison High School, who is there to explore career options and meet college reps.

“Not sure what I’m going to do yet,” Richards said. “What’s good for me to get into? I want to learn about different paths I could consider.”

Representatives from Illinois State University, Northern Illinois University, Chicago State University, Rockford University, Western Illinois University and SVCC were on hand to showcase their education degree programs.

Janis Jones of SVCC said colleges are getting serious about recruiting teachers. In many instances they’ve streamlined the admissions process and started “putting in supports” so college students can be successful. There is more outreach to nontraditional students. She cited as an example Illinois State University’s efforts to get early childhood licensure for paraprofessionals through online courses.

During the seminar, students got to attend 25-minute breakout sessions with teachers who specialize in special education, elementary education, counseling, early childhood instruction, middle school and high school subjects, coaching and athletics and the burgeoning field of classroom technology.

During a breakout session on elementary education, teacher Chelsea Stuart of Morrison stressed the need for flexibility in the approach to instruction, be it from year-to-year, class-to-class or student-to-student.

At the same session, Narcisco Puentes, a retired teacher from Sterling, provided some reassurance, noting that support for new teachers has improved.

“In 1977, I was thrown into a class of 35 third graders” and had to find his own way, he said. “There’s plenty of support now” in the form of interventionists, aides and other learning tools.

In the main gym, students could participate in mock interviews with school administrators to get a taste of job hunting. They also got to hear from superintendents Ron McCord of Rock Falls, Sheri Smith of Forrestville Valley and Heidi Lensing of Prophetstown-Lyndon-Tampico about the career track from teaching to administration.

Jensen, in her keynote address, wasn’t shy about the challenges of a teaching career. As she explained it, one of the most difficult came just days after being named teacher of year – a day she shut herself away in her classroom, crawled under her desk and broke down in tears.

Jensen also described her rocky start at an alternative school. Yet, she said it eventually made her a more compassionate teacher, when she came to realize that those students were acting out because, for them, school was their safe place, their sanctuary from a world of troubles. It’s influenced her approach ever since.

Jensen then drew distinctions between types of students, focusing on what motivates them, such as the student who always has their hand up or the ones who are afraid to fail.

But she told the story about a student named Josh from her senior English course who wore failure as a badge of honor, and how she found a way to connect with him. They struck a deal: if he passed her course then she would agree to let him bring his pet python to school so she could overcome her own paralyzing fear of snakes.

As it turned out, Josh’s motivation came less from the challenge and more from his peers, who pushed him to achieve because everyone wanted to see her handle a snake.

At that point in her story, a slide showing a picture of Jensen handling Josh’s python was projected on the back wall.

Such a moment of achievement and personal growth, both for Josh and herself, wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t seized an opportunity to be vulnerable, yet also inquisitive and curious about a student, she said.

“Failure was my gateway to success,” she said. “I didn’t choose teaching; teaching chose me.”

Troy Taylor

Troy E. Taylor

Was named editor for and the Gazette and Telegraph in 2021. An Illinois native, he has been a reporter or editor in daily newspapers since 1989.