Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Jenna Dean (TX '22)

March 24, 2023

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Fourth grade teacher Jenna Dean (TX ’22) mentors pre-service teachers to prepare them for job interviews and their first classrooms. To her delight, her district has hired several: “There is such a sense of pride getting to work with the students you mentored and seeing their success each and every day.” She received her Milken Award at Nederland’s Helena Park Elementary on February 9, 2023.

Milken Family Foundation: What’s it like to teach in the same district where you were once a student?

Jenna Dean (TX ’22): One benefit is being able to relate to the students. I grew up in the same community they did and have similar values and respect the same traditions. Growing up in this district to now teaching in it, I see the benefits of the changes that have been made over the years and the progress our district has made as our generations change. I can relate to these changes and be an advocate for them, especially when others, such as parents and coworkers, might not support them.

MFF: What do you like about working with elementary students?

Jenna: There are many things, but my favorite must be their innocence. Elementary students, especially upper elementary, are still at an age where they want to please you and love to celebrate different things with you. You can joke with them, and they can be brutally honest without intentionally trying. Elementary students know how to keep a smile on everyone’s face and make your day better without trying very hard.

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MFF: How did you end up in education?

Jenna: I had a special place in my heart for teaching children from a young age. That love evolved when I had the opportunity to become an assistant in younger students’ dance classes at a local dance studio where I took classes. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was allowed to teach my own dance classes. I knew then that I was meant to be a teacher. To this day, I continue to teach dance classes!

Mrs. Roxanne Vaughn, my kindergarten teacher, also helped to spark my interest in teaching. From first through fourth grade, I would go to her classroom before and after school to help out. I continued helping her regularly throughout middle school. I loved being in the education setting and learning more about teaching. Through my senior year in high school, I worked at my childhood elementary in the front office as the vocational office education student. After graduation I substituted at the school and within Nederland ISD as I pursued my education degree.

MFF: Who are your role models?

Jenna: Well, there was Mrs. Vaughn, who became a good friend of my mother’s and a second mom to me as I helped in her classroom. When I went to high school, she taught me to drive. She was there for me through my parents’ divorce and during college. I did not start on the path to teaching at college, even though my heart was there. Mrs. Vaughn helped me switch my major and got me on the sub list. She would schedule days for me to be in her classroom when she would be out so that I would get firsthand experience. Without her, I would not be in education today.

My other role model is my principal, Mrs. Charlotte Junot. Mrs. Junot mentored me throughout my master’s program, and I continue to look to her now that I’m done. She is always there to listen when needed, support me through all things, and give advice when asked, whether professional or personal. She has supported me in both my professional career and my personal life. Without her, I do not believe I would have been given the opportunities I’ve had.

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MFF: You do a lot of work with pre-service teachers. What do you like about mentoring the next generation of educators?

Jenna: Over the last several years, I have had the opportunity to work with nearby Lamar University in mentoring many pre-service teachers. I love it! Our future teachers need hands-on experience that they cannot receive in the college classroom. I want teachers to see and get the experience of what it will be like when they enter their own classroom. In my personal experience, I’ve found that college can present teaching as picture-perfect and require pre-service teachers to do things that may not be necessary. They don’t get to see real-life tasks — meetings, accommodations, etc. — that they will be expected to handle.

My goal for each pre-service teacher is to fully prepare them for applying and interviewing for jobs. I want my pre-service teachers leaving me feeling prepared for their first year. I have high expectations for each pre-service teacher. My goal is to write them a letter of recommendation and be a reference for them. Our campus has hired two of my pre-service teachers, and I’ve had the privilege of working alongside them in my grade and subject area. There is such a sense of pride getting to work with the students you mentored and seeing their success each and every day.

MFF: How was your first year of teaching?

Jenna: There were ups and downs. I had many frustrating moments with both parents and co-workers. I was seen as very young and inexperienced, and looking younger than my age didn’t help. I began the year feeling defeated because of a lack of support. Eventually, things got better. Two months into the year, I was planning all the lessons for my subject area for the grade level. By the end of the year, I was able to prove myself as a teacher and came out on top with the highest testing scores in my subject area.

I had a similar experience with a parent who underestimated my abilities when teaching her son. He had always struggled in math, and she was afraid he would continue to fall behind with a first-year teacher. By the end of the year, the student had not only passed the grade with flying colors but had grown in math. It was his first year passing the state exam and not being recommended for summer school. The mom made sure to thank me for all my hard work with her son. Proving myself to others, and seeing both my success and my students’, helped me through the hard times and pushed me to be my best.

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MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?

Jenna: I am still overwhelmed, shocked, and in disbelief that I have been recognized for such a prestigious Award. I have always thought I was a good teacher, but never in a million years did I think I would get such recognition for all my hard work! Surprised doesn’t even define the feeling I had at that moment.

A few weeks before the assembly, my principal announced that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath was coming to visit our school, the only building he’d be visiting in our district. There would be walk-throughs and an assembly. Nothing about an award was ever mentioned. At the time, I thought it was odd but didn’t give it too much thought. Then, the day before, we learned that Governor Greg Abbott would also be attending. At that point, I knew something must be going on, but I still wasn’t exactly sure what.

That day, it did feel like something big was going to happen. Commissioner Mike Morath, Governor Abbott, and [Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President] Dr. Jane Foley started talking about honoring a teacher. I remember looking around the room wondering which one of my co-workers it would be. Of course, I thought about how amazing it would be if I were the recipient, but I had every doubt in my mind.

When I heard Governor Abbott say my name, my mouth dropped. I was in complete disbelief and was wondering if I heard wrong. I kept thinking to myself, “Why me? How?” To be recognized for my work and achievements on the national level and by state representatives is more than I could ever imagine and the highest honor I could ever receive as an educator.

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MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?

Jenna: As Governor Abbott was speaking, I noticed many of my students looking and pointing towards me in hopes that my name would be announced. After the announcement, my students were beyond excited. The excitement and joy on their faces was priceless. They started chanting my name and eventually had the whole school doing so. The moment they had a chance they were running to me and giving me big hugs. They still talk about this day and like to play the videos on YouTube.

MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?

Jenna: When thinking about success, I always ask, “Did you grow?” Growth can happen in many forms — academic, professional, social, emotional, etc. My goal for myself is to constantly keep learning and growing. My goal for my students each year is to grow. We conference throughout the year on our goals and discuss how and how much we are growing. We celebrate success, no matter how big or small. When students see they are growing, they feel a sense of pride and want to continue to succeed.

MFF: What do you hope students remember from their time with you?

Jenna: I hope students remember how much I loved them and the relationships we formed during our time together. I strive to grow my students every day and celebrate their success. When they get into their careers, I hope they look back, remember me, and know that they will always be my student and I will always support them.

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