Oklahoma's 2020 Teacher of the Year shares message with Northwestern student teachers

January 14, 2021

Oklahoma’s 2020 Teacher of the Year Jena Nelson speaks to 13 students at Northwestern who are preparing to begin their semester of student teaching.

“Public education saved my life.”

Jena Nelson, Oklahoma's 2020 Teacher of the YearJena Nelson, Oklahoma’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, shared that message and others Wednesday while speaking to a classroom of student teachers at Northwestern Oklahoma State University about the importance of a public education and their place within it as teachers.

This 15-year educator with an outgoing and dynamic personality is an eighth grade English composition and academic enhancement teacher at Deer Creek Middle School in Edmond. She also has taught theatre, musical theatre and stagecraft.

Nelson openly speaks about her past childhood trauma and how it has influenced her life – and ultimately has made her a better teacher.

“To say that I didn’t have a great home life would be an understatement,” Nelson said. “I was very much like some of the students we see today in our classroom. I was angry. I lashed out. I was defiant. I very much wanted a place to feel safe and cared for outside of my trauma-filled home, and I found that place at school.

“I have done things that I never imagined, and it’s all because teachers believed me in me. That is why I am in the classroom today. I’m here to give what was given to me – a chance.”

She told the students that they need to find their “why” in being a teacher because someday they will be the why in someone else’s story.

“You will make a difference in a student’s life,” Nelson said. “I appreciate what you do as teachers. You are going to be saving lives every single day.”

Other key lessons in working with students that she shared with the future teachers included some that were told to her through the years or were learned on her own, some of which included:

  • “Energy is contagious. Whatever you put out there, your students will give back to you.”
  • “Every one of my students is a rough draft. And, so am I.”
  • “You can’t save them all, but you can be there for them all.”
  • “Some students are lessens and some are blessens.”

She also told the students that teaching is an art, and although she doesn’t work as a theatre teacher any longer, she still utilizes aspects of her background every day.

“I spend seven hours a day doing a different one hour show for a different audience,” Nelson said.

“(Teaching) is the hardest job on the planet. Have fun with it, or you’ll get burned out.”

She also reminded them that as a teacher they are learning constantly and will make mistakes. She suggested as first-year teachers that the students watch and listen to their colleagues.

“Find the smart ones,” Nelson said. “Find your people. On ‘dress-up days,’ dress up. Have fun. Make your classroom a safe space.”

She also said to remember, “Kids aren’t bad. They may make mistakes, but they aren’t bad.”

She told the students that they were all colleagues now and welcomed them to reach out to her with questions. She hopes to return toward the end of the semester to visit with the students again after they’ve been through their student teaching experience.

To see a video produced about Nelson for the award’s application, visit https://vimeo.com/352128518.

To learn more about Northwestern’s education program, contact Dr. Christie Jenlink, associate dean of education and professor of education, at (580) 327-8450 or cljenlink@nwosu.edu.


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