Spotlight: Lauren Jensen (NY '15)February 23, 2016
English teacher Lauren Jensen (NY '15) loves her one-on-one afternoon writing conferences, when she listens to her students' stories, learns what makes them tick, and can serve them better in the classroom as a result. She received her Milken Educator Award at Glen Cove High School on November 4, 2015.
Milken Family Foundation: How did you end up in education?
Lauren Jensen: My "aha" moment was actually more directly related to what I did not want to do. I began my undergraduate degree on a pre-med track. It was during the spring semester of my sophomore year when it hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. I was in the middle of a lab, completing a dissection with my lab partner, when I thought to myself: I am not enjoying my education. I was uninspired. I was disinterested. I was unhappy. "If I am this unhappy now," I thought, "what is this going to look like ten years from now?" As a lover of learning from a young age, the prospect of not feeling inspired by my studies was impetus enough to influence me to change majors. While I may have shifted from the medical path, what remained was my desire to impact others. My decision was a no-brainer. I immediately considered two teachers who heavily influenced me during high school, acting as mentors for me as a young adult, and who still serve as my mentors today. I wanted to return the favor. I wanted to influence young adults in the way that my teachers influenced me. Teaching has afforded me that opportunity in more ways than I ever imagined as a 19-year-old disillusioned biology major.
MFF: What was your first job?
Lauren: My first job was babysitting down the street from where I lived. At age 12, I was babysitting four children. If nothing else, I quickly learned the beauty in chaos. It is at those moments when you completely lose control that you realize they are simultaneously the most terrifying and also the most exciting. While those moments could have resulted in a visit to the emergency room (they never did!), they instead resulted in belly-deep laughter and memories that have lasted into my adulthood. I can draw parallels to this early life lesson in my own classroom today. There is beauty in chaos. Those moments we learn the most are often the moments when we let go of control.
MFF: Who was your most memorable teacher?
Lauren: They're the ones who cared about my well-being as an individual and devoted time to fostering a relationship with me beyond the four walls of their classrooms. Melanie Arfman, who was my ninth-grade Global Studies teacher, saw leadership qualities in me before I even had a glimpse of them myself. Things came full circle with her when I returned to my alma mater to teach high school English. She hired me and I am currently teaching in her old classroom. And Dr. Ann Cunningham, a professor in the Education department at Wake Forest University: Beyond teaching me some of the most useful techniques for instructional design that I have ever encountered, she has become a life mentor. Professional or personal, she is on my "top 5" list of people to call when I need advice. Nothing epitomizes the word "teacher" more than an individual who mentors you for the span of your lifetime.
MFF: Tell us about your first class.
Lauren: Exhausting. Rewarding. Surprising. Hilarious. Sentimental. I began teaching high school English just two weeks after I turned 22. I'm fairly certain I was taken advantage of frequently [because I looked so young]. I was stopped in the hall for passes and scolded for making copies in the teachers' lounge, which was off-limits to students. Thirteen years later, I look back and wonder how in the world I accomplished it all: teaching three preps, coaching cross-country and track, training for a marathon, living in a city with which I was completely unfamiliar. But I always return to the same answer: the people. My female athletes who prepared pasta dinners at my apartment on the eve of all our meets; my colleagues who showed me the ropes and instilled in me the confidence to stick to my guns and raise the bar for my students to a level of discomfort while also caring for them in a way that communicated I would never let them fall; those students whose weddings and baby showers I have since attended. I always come back to the people. My students, past and present, have molded me into the teacher I am today.
MFF: A student is thinking about a career in education. What do you say?
Lauren: I'd keep it simple: They are choosing the most rewarding career there is. I'd like to think I demonstrate for my students how satisfying teaching can be. Whether it be in the quick email responses late at night, the laughs we share during class as a group, or in the design of a creative and challenging lesson, one of my greatest accomplishments as a teacher is to provide real-life evidence of the fulfillment teaching provides.
MFF: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Lauren: I have never seen a group of students garner so much pride in their teacher than in the moment of and days following the Milken Educator Award presentation. While I tried to thank them for believing enough in my teaching philosophies and pedagogy to help me grow into the teacher I am today, they just wouldn't have it. I have never experienced the selflessness of so many young people. Perhaps what struck me most was the sheer number of students who contacted me after receiving the Milken Award. From California to New York to Texas, from students who graduated last year to students who graduated 12 years ago and are now raising their own families or leading their own classrooms, I received praise for impacting my students in ways I didn't even know I had. In short, I believe the Award is proof of the power of teaching to change lives (while cliché, it is a cliché for a reason).
MFF: What's your favorite time of the school day?
Lauren: I have time built in after office hours each afternoon during which I schedule writing conferences with my students. These conferences provide an opportunity for me to chat one-on-one with students about their progress as writers, but they also give me uninterrupted time with individual students (without the chaos of group work, five eager hands feverishly shaking to ask a question, or my name being called by a handful of students). It gives me an opportunity to learn how each of my students ticks. What he or she does in his or her free time; what clubs he or she is part of; when his or her next athletic competition is. It is during those moments after school that I learn who my students are as people and the stories they have to tell beyond their being a member of my classroom community. And for that, I can serve them better as their teacher.
MFF: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?
Lauren: This is a tough question to answer definitively.
I believe in the power of "owning" a book, and by owning I mean annotating and marking up the pages with questions and personal reactions, smelling the scent of freshly cut paper, the wear and tear of the binding that makes the book look like it has lived a life. When I am teaching texts, this is often not a possibility because we are limited to class sets of the literature we are reading. One way I would like to spend the money is by providing each student I have the pleasure of teaching with a copy of each text we read so that he or she could make it his or her own.
I am also a firm believer that students must be accountable for their own education. We, as adults, must trust them enough to take ownership of their learning. One way to guide students in taking their education into their own hands is through project-based learning, where students are engaged in inquiry, research, and creation to demonstrate their learning. I would use the money to fund programs that would embed project-based learning programs in schools in an attempt to shift the structure of schools so they provide more authentic learning experiences for students.
MFF: When you retire, what do you want your former students and colleagues to say about you?
Lauren: That I helped them discover the best versions of themselves. More important than any content I teach is the role I play in preparing students to navigate the world around them, and ultimately, preparing them to own their world, take it into their own hands, and overcome any challenge they face with confidence and grace. I would hope that my former students and colleagues would be aware that being in front of a classroom is where I am at "home" and the individuals who surround me in school have helped me grow into my best version of myself as well.
MFF: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Lauren: Nothing. I am where I am supposed to be. Even on the most trying days (and I would be lying if I didn't admit there have been many!), I have never doubted my decision to pursue a career in education. In fact, it isn't a career for me; it is a passion. I feel most alive when I am standing in front of a classroom of students.
MFF: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when…"
Lauren: "...my students feel equipped with the confidence to conquer the world that lies ahead, whether that be tomorrow, next week, or in 10 years."
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