Spotlight: Jennie Schmaltz (CO '16)November 28, 2016
At the beginning of each school year, Jennie Schmaltz (CO '16) hands out her personal cell number to the families of her students. "Parents need to know I’m there for them like I’m there for their kids," says Schmaltz, a third-grade teacher and literacy expert at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora. Schmaltz received a 2016-17 Colorado Milken Educator Award on October 26, 2016.
Milken Educator Awards: How did you end up in education?
Jennie Schmaltz (CO '16): I definitely stumbled into my calling. As an eight-year-old in landlocked Colorado, I wanted to be a marine biologist. My undying love for the Denver Broncos had me dreaming of being a sports broadcaster by the time I was in college, and I spent two years in the journalism school [at University of Colorado Boulder] before taking a work-study assignment at the Emergency Family Assistance Association. There I saw a real need for people to be able to connect with resources that could truly impact their lives, no matter their socioeconomic status. I switched my major to psychology.
After college I worked at a preschool called Boulder Day Nursery. They really focused on educating the whole child, and I felt I could make a difference as a school social worker. However, shortly after I had my oldest daughter, my mother suggested I look into becoming a teacher. I took her suggestion and went back to school. A short year later I had my teaching license, was employed at Elkhart, and was halfway through my master's degree. It was a crazy ride, but I've never looked back or questioned it. After my first day in the classroom, I knew I was where I was meant to be.
MEA: Why did you decide to teach elementary school?
Jennie: Coming from the preschool setting, middle and high school students terrified me, and to some extent, they still do. I have great respect and admiration for secondary teachers!
I taught first grade for four years. The students were still young and watching their brains grow was fascinating. When my principal asked me (two years in a row) to move to third grade, I was hesitant but ready for the challenge. I should have gone sooner. I love working with third, fourth and fifth graders.
My favorite and most frustrating thing about this age group is how they are formulating their own opinions in a world that is just beginning to open up to them. They no longer understand their world as consisting only of family, teacher, and closest friends. They see a much bigger picture. That can be exhilarating and frightening, and it plays out in a lot of ways in the classroom.
MEA: What was your first job?
Jennie: My first paying job was waiting tables the summer after I turned 16. I worked in a diner-type restaurant in a part of town that didn't look like where my home was, and I was by far the youngest person on staff. I learned very quickly the value of staying positive, being kind, and working very hard without knowing what the reward might be.
I would say that those lessons carry into the classroom very directly, and I use them as daily reminders. As a server, your main priority needs to be responding to the needs of the customers in front of you, and that works for kids, too.
MEA: Who was your most memorable elementary school teacher?
Jennie: I had so many, it's hard to choose just one. I looked up to each of my teachers like they were superheroes. Mrs. Bradley. Mrs. Grillo. Mrs. Thompson. Ms. Hugo. Ms. Pozelnik. Ms. Smith. Truly inspirational in all ways.
MEA: Is anyone in your family an educator?
Jennie: My mother was an elementary school teacher for 19 years after having several different careers. I was in middle school when she began to pursue her career in education, and I saw a light in her I hadn't seen before. Being able to truly serve so many kids and teach them so much spoke to who she was (and is) as a person, and I admired her for doing the job. It was my mother who first thought I could do the same, and I'm so glad she did!
MEA: What were your favorite and least favorite subjects?
Jennie: Social studies has always been my favorite subject, because I love the story of what it means to be human. My least favorite subject would have to be math, because I've never thought of myself as being very good at it. I worked really hard and sought lots of outside help with math in high school, enough to do reasonably well at it. As a teacher, I had to break through that frustration and learn about math. Now I love it and love to teach it.
MEA: Tell us about your first year in the classroom.
Jennie: My first class was absolutely wonderful. The very first day, I had a student come in early. She and I just looked at each other for a moment, considering each other, and I said, "Hi, I’m Miss Hornbeck. What's your name? Are you ready for first grade?" I'll never forget the sort of sideways look she gave me as she answered, "Rosa. I guess so." I said, simply, "Well, I guess I'm ready too. Let's do this."
Rosa is in high school now and still comes to visit me. I had her little sister in my class last year. In my community we often get the chance to stay very connected to our past students because their siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. go to our school, too.
The hardest thing about my first year of teaching was trying to figure out how to do it all, how to balance it, and how to reconcile what I was learning in my master's classes with the current district initiatives. But what took me most by surprise was how natural it all felt.
MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on the students at your school?
Jennie: I think it was really important for them to see that hard work can pay off. I am connected to most of the students in some way, and half of them (third through fifth grades) interact with me nearly every day. Their teachers and I are always stressing the importance of hard work, but I think that can be a really abstract concept sometimes, especially as it's used so frequently in the microcosm of our school. Having so many "outsiders" come in and celebrate someone from our little community was very exciting for them.
MEA: What do you hope your students remember about you and their time in your class?
Jennie: I hope they understand and feel how truly cared for they are. I want my classroom to be a place where they feel safe, understood, and respected. I want them to understand and remember how much they grew in their time with me, not just as students, but as people.
MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your class?
Jennie: The parents in my community are some of the bravest, hardest working people I know. It can be challenging to engage with them during the course of normal school hours, because they're working! Most of the parents in my school have more than one job, so it's important for me to reach out in every way possible.
At the beginning of each year I give them my cell phone number and use this as a main form of daily communication. It can be intimidating to some teachers to do that, but parents need to know I'm there for them like I'm there for their kids. Many of the parents in my community didn't attend school all the way or had bad experiences with the education system, so it's up to me to show them that cycle is breaking. I've never had a parent be disrespectful or misuse my personal phone number, and I think it's important to let them know that I trust them as my partner in helping their child through this year of life. My parents and I are very open and honest with each other, and it helps their children tremendously.
MEA: What's your favorite time of the school day?
Jennie: First thing in the morning, while the kids are having breakfast. I love seeing them come in, hearing what they have to tell me, and the real sense of family we have. I also love our inquiry time. My eight-year-olds say the most incredible things as they are grappling with science, social studies, and literacy. They have real-world understandings and never fail to impress me.
MEA: What's the biggest challenge you face in your classroom?
Jennie: Like any teacher, it's juggling it all. There isn't a time of day that is more important than any other, so when the timing is off or something disruptive comes up, it can be hard to decide what has to go.
MEA: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?
Jennie: I would help extend my principal's dream to turn our school into a true center of the community. I would make sure there was permanency in some of our current initiatives: computers available to the parents, family literacy and parenting classes, exercise classes, nutrition classes, mental health services, financial seminars, citizenship classes….You name it, we've tried it. These things can be hard to fund. I would make sure they were funded always.
MEA: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Jennie: That's so interesting to think about, because I am doing what I am meant to be doing. Most likely I would be a journalist or a clinical psychologist. Or I'd move to the coast and work with marine life.
MEA: What can our nation do to encourage young, capable people to consider teaching as a career? How can we motivate new teachers to stay in the profession?
Jennie: In this country, we simply do not respect education as a valuable profession. In so many ways, directly or not, teaching is considered a job you do when you can't do anything else, when clearly it should be the opposite. When you couple an inherent disrespect with comparably low pay, it's no wonder it's hard to retain talented people. Our society desperately needs to shift beliefs when it comes to education.
On a smaller scale, state governments and districts need to do a better job supporting new teachers with funding, professional learning, and mentoring. Taking on such huge responsibility as a 22-year-old, or as a 40-year-old in his or her second career, is daunting. We need to be focusing more resources on the retention of true talent.
MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when…"
Jennie: "…my students are safely engaging in discourse about real issues, having accessed the research and materials on their own, and are preparing to write and present arguments that are authentic to their lives."
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