Getting through high school can be difficult for some kids, but going through life without a high school diploma is much harder,” says Jennifer McCall, recipient of the Northern Virginia Magazine 2023 Teacher of the Year Award. For McCall, teaching is about helping students learn to solve problems. “Quitting is not an option,” she says. “My goal, and pride, is to watch my students walk across the stage and graduate.”
As a math teacher at North Stafford High School, McCall has dedicated most of her 11-year teaching career to helping at-risk students pass Virginia’s Algebra 1 Standards of Learning exam, a particular barrier to graduation for students receiving special education or English Language Learner services. “A diploma opens doors,” McCall says. “Pushing past that obstacle provides the strength to handle whatever comes next in life.”
North Stafford High School Principal Dashan Turner notes that McCall’s efforts have resulted in high SOL pass rates in every student subgroup. “It’s a rare occasion that a teacher possesses every skill necessary to assist our most high-risk students,” says Turner. “In Ms. McCall, we have a teacher who simultaneously is certified in special education, English as a Second Language, and mathematics, while also being bilingual in Spanish and trained to make everything interesting with a degree in theatrical arts. That’s hard to beat in education.”
Assistant Principal Catherine White praises McCall for helping underachieving students succeed, often for the first time in their math careers. “All administrators are seeking teachers who want to work with challenging students,” says White. “Jenni recognizes that math is scary to some kids, so she breaks down those fears with the assistance of her drama background, special education training, and ability to speak Spanish. Few teachers can reach as many students as quickly and effectively as she can.”
A Multifaceted Leader
At 17, McCall already knew she wanted to be an educator, having been inspired by a special education teacher in her high school. “I visited her classroom, and it was fascinating to watch kids who didn’t like math go through the process of finally figuring it out. I was good at math, so I decided I could teach it to kids who struggle.”
McCall enrolled at Brigham Young University in Utah, intending to major in math. “Sometimes a 19-year-old isn’t ready to make lifelong career choices, though,” she laughs. After an elective class in theater arts captured her heart, McCall changed majors and graduated from BYU with a degree in theater arts education and a minor in English as a Second Language.
Before graduating, she took a break to go on a lengthy church mission to Kentucky. For about a year and a half, McCall worked in a total Spanish immersion environment while helping families in her assigned community. “I learned to speak Spanish on the job, but at night, when my brain would race and keep me awake, I would read books and conjugate verbs in Spanish to put myself to sleep,” she says.
For a few years, McCall worked as a manager at Covey Center for the Arts, a theater venue in Utah. “It was fun, but I was working 80 hours a week and started wondering if this was all there was in life,” she says. One day, McCall drove members of The Beach Boys from the venue to the airport. “I got to have this amazing conversation with musical icons from my youth, and on my way home, I thought, ‘That’s it. I’ve done everything I’m going to accomplish at this theater,’ and I knew it was time to go back to school.” McCall got her master’s in special education in 2012 and is licensed to teach grades six through eight math, K–12 special education, pre-K–12 theater arts, and pre-K–12 English as a second language.
Experience + Education = Results
McCall joined North Stafford in 2012 and currently teaches Algebra 1 for all students, including general education, honors, special education, and English Language Learners. Laura Slye, another math teacher at North Stafford, has worked with McCall for 10 years. “I am near the end of my career, but watching Jenni interact with her students assures me that the future of the profession is in good hands,” says Slye. “Jenni is our absolute greatest asset for students who struggle. She can be tough when kids need direction, but she is also their cheerleader and celebrates every success.”
Many of McCall’s interventions took place through the former countywide program Project Graduation, designed for seniors who had yet to pass a math SOL exam. “When I first meet kids who struggle, they often feel like failures, having been beaten up by these tests,” says McCall. “My first goal is to take the pressure off and change their mindset. The best feeling is seeing their faces when they succeed, knowing they are finally free of this test.”
“At times we would have struggled to meet accreditation without Jenni,” says Slye, recalling how McCall made the difference for one student who had failed to make the 400 mark on his last attempt at the Algebra 1 SOL before spring graduation. McCall convinced the student to work with her over the summer, and on his final allowed attempt, he exceeded the required score to graduate. “Jenni ran the results down to the counseling secretary, who printed out his diploma right there. The boy’s mother arrived, Jenni played ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ on her phone, and he was able to march down the empty halls, waving his diploma with a huge smile on his face. It was just wonderful.”
A Balanced Equation
“I guess I come with added bonuses, like a teacher with ninja skills,” jokes McCall. Before teaching her lessons in English, McCall uses Spanish to assure her ELL students that she will come back to help them individually if they have questions. “Hearing that quells some of their fears, and by the end of the year, most of them are asking me to explain in English,” she says.
McCall also credits her success to her theater background. “As a stage manager, my job was to take the director’s vision and work with everyone — technicians, designers, actors, musicians, costume crews, and set builders — to organize all the chaos into a show. Musicians think one way, and actors think another way, so I had to communicate in a language each of them could understand.” McCall likens that experience to working with her students. “Every student thinks differently, so I try to explain math in a way that works according to individual needs.”
Luckily for students at North Stafford High School, McCall intends to keep nudging students across the graduation stage for years to come. “I belong in the classroom; it’s where I thrive,” she says. “Teaching is a good profession, and there are many great educators. I’m honored for the recognition.”
Feature image of Jennifer McCall at North Stafford High School by Michael Butcher