“And the award goes to …”
A celebratory assembly in a high school gymnasium may look as if it has much less fanfare than a broadcast award show, but that doesn’t make the honors given any less significant.
Sterling’s Dominion High School had its celebratory event of the school year on Sept. 5, exactly two weeks into the school year, and Jennifer Rodgers, a social sciences and global studies teacher, wasn’t surprised.
“Our students are really amazing, so that was not uncommon for us to be coming together to celebrate,” says Rodgers, who took note of the assembly on the school’s schedule without much of an afterthought. “I was like, ‘Oh, maybe it was for the state championship [last year], or maybe there were a bunch of kids who got perfect SAT scores.’ But then it became clear once it started that, because there were a lot of people from the county there, the school had earned some type of recognition.”
It wasn’t the school that was receiving an honor, it was Rodgers herself. After she was named Loudoun County Teacher of the Year in April, she had submitted paperwork to be considered for the Virginia Teacher of the Year award.
Announced by first lady of Virginia Pamela Northam, Jennifer Rodgers was named the Region 4 Teacher of the Year by the Virginia Department of Education, becoming one of eight teachers in consideration for the commonwealth’s Teacher of the Year award.
— LCPS News (@LCPSOfficial) September 10, 2019
When she looks back on it now, she remembers the moments beforehand clearly, because she was focused on one thing: not falling in front of the crowd.
“I had a good couple of minutes where they sort of built up announcing my name that I realized it was me, and I became really worried that I would fall down the bleachers once I had to walk down them,” says Rodgers.
Luckily, she made it down with ease and accepted her second accolade of the year. We spoke with Rodgers about what the experience has been like thus far, and what it means to her to be teaching children about the world in today’s society. Highlights from our conversation are below.
What does it mean to you to have been selected as Region 4 Teacher of the Year, and up for the Teacher of the Year award in Virginia?
I consider myself really fortunate to teach in a community where people embrace these opportunities for students to engage in globally focused learning. You know, nine years ago when we put the idea out there [at the Loudoun International Youth Summit], we said, “Hey, let’s bring kids from around the world and create this great learning opportunity.” It would have never come together if it wasn’t for administrators, other teachers, families and students that also saw the value of that and decided to all work together to make it happen. So for me, I feel like I was just the person with an idea that was put in the right place at the right time to make a lot of beautiful student-learning opportunities come to life.
Can you talk a little more about the Loudoun International Youth Summit?
So I think a big reason that my application stood out for this recognition was this program that our school has worked to put together. With the Loudoun International Youth Summit, every year we bring kids from some of our partner schools around the world together for 10 days, and our students consider global issues. It was really a grassroots effort of my students nine years ago, and when it first started, there was a little bit of naivety, like, can we do this? Let’s bring kids from around the world for 10 days and we’ll all learn new perspectives and we’ll figure out how to change the world. We were a little uncertain if we would be successful. But for me, that first summer that we made happen was so student-driven and the student leaders were just so passionate about it, it was really the highlight of my teaching career.
What made you want to become a teacher?
I think for me, growing up, teaching was an appealing profession. But I think because my teachers were so great, they opened my eyes to so many other opportunities. When I went to college, I chose engineering as my major because I was pretty well-rounded and good at most subjects, and I kind of had big dollar signs in my eyes. I chose it very pragmatically based off what I thought my average income would be. But as the coursework got more difficult, I wasn’t as good at math and science as I was in high school, so I did a 180 and I switched my major to government and politics.
During that time, I worked a lot of my summer jobs at summer camps and stuff like that, so I started thinking about becoming a teacher when I thought more about the broad capacity I could have as a teacher to get young people excited about government and politics. And in an American democracy, having an engaged citizenry is so important.
So I became interested in civics education, and a watershed moment for me when I think my development of my philosophy as an educator came through was Sept. 11, 2001. I was just a couple years out of college and I was working for a civics education nonprofit and I realized how little I knew about the world, and that I was really off-base on some of the assumptions I had made about America’s role in the world. I realized, as an educator, I had an enormous responsibility not only to seek more understanding on other perspectives of the world, but to make sure that was also an integral part of my teaching.
How does your original “philosophy” still play into your teaching today?
I mean, I teach government, so it’d be really remiss if we didn’t use teachable moments. I think it’s important for students to see what happens in school isn’t just, you know, contained to these four walls. It really connects to the outside world, and any opportunity you have to make the learning authentic adds so much value.
What still draws you to teaching?
I have a deep appreciation of the role of public education in our society in general. I really think when you consider a lot of the biggest problems we face as a society, whether it’s income inequality, or any number of other issues, that in the end, if we’re going to make those things right, it’s going to be through a robust system of public education. I think that whenever I get bogged down and in the weeds of new educational initiatives or any other number of things that bog you down as a teacher, I step back and look at the big picture. That helps me refocus and remember that I have a strong belief in the efficacy and the ability of teachers to really make a difference in not only shaping individual young minds, but then, collectively, those young minds shaping society as a whole.
What are the most important lessons you teach, and that you hope your students carry with them after your classes?
The most important type of learning is learning to collaborate and communicate with people from around the world. There’s tremendous value in that for so many different reasons. I think an appreciation for global perspectives, so that students know the world is much bigger than Loudoun County, or much bigger than just the United States. It’s that, to solve problems of the future, they are going to need to be able to communicate and collaborate with people all over the world, and high school is the time to start developing those skills, and to be thinking about how we work with other people, and what perspectives they are bringing to the table, and what are the most efficient ways to communicate with them to solve problems.
Lastly, what do you want readers to know about teaching in Loudoun County?
I think in Loudoun County, we’re really lucky to be a forward-thinking school district that embraces opportunities for students. Part of our mission is to make meaningful contributions to the world, and really that’s more than just words. We, as teachers in the district, work hard to create these opportunities for students to think about their ability to make the world a better place and to help them develop the skills to do that.