Seward: Jennifer Swander

“if I wanted a student to respect me in the classroom and learn from me, he/she needed to internalize one very basic truth: I cared.”

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Jennifer Swander is an English teacher at Seward High School. She is mentor to 2015 Gates Scholarship Winner, Malia Acovak, and attended the Spring 2014 Talk Story, Write Story workshop in Homer.

Fall in love with the process

A simple mantra, but quite true – especially when referencing the process of applying for the Gates Millennium Scholarship.

I had no knowledge of this process, or even of the scholarship opportunity itself, prior to attending a Talk Story, Write Story workshop in Homer in May 2014. Then superintendent of Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Dr. Steve Atwater, believed in the potential of the process enough to sponsor teachers to attend the workshop. I am grateful for this opportunity and for the direction of the workshop presenters — Tad Bartimus, Dean Wariner, and Jeanne Campbell — who candidly shared stories from their past experiences and encouraged us to write about our own.

The workshop modeled the process of how to dig through our own life experiences and capture snippets of ourselves in a story; this truly helped teachers like me. The writing process is not always glamorous; however, it is rewarding. I believe that is one truth Gates Finalist Malia Acovak discovered over the four and a half months we worked together.

I told Malia that she needed to paint a picture of who she was and where she came from, so that scholarship judges could see the essence of Malia and realize she was worth investing in. Sometimes, digging into forgotten pasts can rattle some bones. Recalling adversities is one thing, but processing them in a written narrative is another. At times, I asked Malia to do the tough act in the moment to extract a result that may pay off in the future.

There were other stories, however, that surfaced joyous memories, which were immediate celebrations of past experiences with family and friends – reflecting on how these people deposited something valuable in her life. I believe that through the process of all eight essays, we learned to celebrate everything about our past experiences and current accomplishments.

When we commenced the application and essay writing process in August, I gave Malia a binder with her name on the front, followed by “Future Gates Scholar.” Mentors and students need to see the applicant as a winner from the beginning.   What is the desired final result, and what needs to be done to achieve it? Keeping this in focus helped propel us through challenging times, which most of time, was not having time.

From the beginning, I saw Malia as a winner and someone worth investing in, so spending countless hours revising essays was not a task but an investment in a young woman’s future. I wanted the scholarship committee to see the person whom I knew was worth investing in. I wanted Malia to complete the process because she believed she was worth investing in. Viewing one’s self in that context may be difficult for humble, selfless people like Malia. But that’s the very reason she deserves an opportunity like this.



Why I am a Teacher

“Why are we watching British sitcoms in senior English class?” my friend whispered from her desk across the aisle.

“Because Mrs. V is from England, and she misses her old TV shows.  I don’t know!” I shot back.

After that class, I asked myself the very question my friend had posed.  When I actually thought about it, I realized that Mrs. V (we called her that because no one could pronounce her last name) never had any type of meaningful lesson plan.  For that matter, she never had any meaningful type of relationship with any of her students.  No one I knew of hung out in her classroom after school, or learned anything that was going to help us in college the next year.  Right there and then, I remember saying to myself, “If I ever become a teacher, I will do the opposite of what teachers like Mrs. V do.”  And that was that.

Perhaps, it’s shameful to admit that my original teaching philosophy sprouted from a “what not to do” motivation.  Since my first day as a teacher, I promised I wouldn’t doom kids to drool to death out of boredom in my classroom.  I would make my classroom an enjoyable place to learn valuable skills while inspiring students to launch into their destinies.

With this grand philosophy tightly tucked in my teaching tackle box, I ventured into the classroom in 1994.  Along with my philosophy, I unknowingly harbored a foul fish in that same tackle box: a haughty attitude.  I can do this job better than these 20+ year dinosaurs. Lesson number one: ditch the dangerous attitude.  I have learned, over the past 20 years, that whereas it is essential that I maintain autonomy and implement original ideas as I prepare lessons and navigate classroom management issues, it is equally as valuable to consider the practices and suggestions of colleagues.  Learning from others is truly a part of the educational process.

Another thing I learned about this profession is that stacks of papers to grade most certainly multiply faster than a graphing calculator can process.  Definitely faster than this English teacher can grade them!  No amount of well-meaning warnings can prepare a would-be teacher for the hours of personal time required to complete grading and lesson planning.  Of course, people have tried to tell me that if I just didn’t require so many written assignments, then it wouldn’t take me so long to grade them. “Give more multiple choice tests,” they say.  I thank them politely for their advice, but I resolve that a person cannot improve his/her writing skills if he/she does not actually WRITE.

This standard of writing connects with my philosophy that if you don’t evaluate your progress, you can’t make necessary adjustments to improve the outcome.  In my classroom, I try to teach life skills such as setting and evaluating goals; this applies to writing and individual student performance.  Students keep writing portfolios and analyze each piece of writing by answering questions such as: What did you well on this paper? and What do you need to work on next time?  When students see progress, they can celebrate achievement and experience success in steps.  When they do not see progress, they can learn a valuable life lesson that if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.  I encourage them to make adjustments to obtain desired results the next time.

I figured early in my career that if I wanted a student to respect me in the classroom and learn from me, he/she needed to internalize one very basic truth: I cared.  Don’t get me wrong, caring takes place in my classroom!  However, there’s more to a kid than his/her role as my student.  In Texas, I attended rodeos at the rural schools and hip-hop dance contests in the inner city.  In California, I watched the national surf team on the beach and the badminton team in the gym.  Now, in Seward, Alaska, I support the drama productions and cheer on the Nordic ski team.  Showing kids that I care about who they are and what they do beyond sitting in a desk in my room is a key ingredient to building relationships.