VERGENNES — On Tuesday morning before the Vermont Board of Education honored Vergennes Union High School middle school teacher Jennifer Lawson as the 2011 Vermont Teacher of the Year, last year’s teacher of the year, Craig Divis of Bellows Falls, took to the podium in the VUHS auditorium.
“The single greatest factor in student success is a quality teacher,” Divis told the all-school VUHS assembly. “We’ve all had that great teacher who has inspired us, challenged us to be our very best. And as educators we strive to be that teacher.”
After the echoes had died down from the standing ovation Lawson received when her honor was announced, Lawson echoed Divis in explaining how she chose to teach.
“When growing up I played school all the time, and was an avid reader and loved my teachers. And I just had this weird habit of noticing the unique things that they did to make school feel special,” Lawson said in an post-assembly interview. “So I think it was teachers like Miss Speedy and Miss Cillo and Mr. Nagy that kind of stuck with me, that it would be really neat to be like that and inspired me to go into education.”
Now, said VUHS Co-principal Peter Reynolds, who is responsible for overseeing grades 7 through 9 at the school, Lawson, a 38-year-old Shelburne native, has become one of those teachers.
In the classroom, Reynolds said Lawson’s students do not just absorb material, they learn how to learn.
“She gives them the tools to make the discovery. I think kids in her class are always learning. When they’re learning, they’re learning about themselves as well as learning about a particular topic,” Reynolds said, adding, “When kids are in that discovery process, she’s there as a resource. She’s available to answer questions. She’s not the sage on the stage ... She’s really what we call the guide on the side.”
In his nomination of the Waltham resident for the award, Reynolds wrote, “Jenn’s mind is always exploring ways to increase her students’ engagement and learning. Her classroom is classic middle school, respectful of kids this age, replete with books, filled with student work, and flexible with clear expectations. It is a living space where kids of all learning levels feel comfortable.”
Reynolds said Lawson also goes above and beyond outside the classroom: She taught summer school, led a canoeing trip on Lake Champlain for at-risk teens, and just this past weekend took students to an atlatl (native American spear) competition.
Lawson’s award continued a winning streak for VUHS and Addison Northwest Supervisory Union. Vermont Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca on Tuesday noted that ANwSU head Tom O’Brien is the current Vermont Superintendent of the Year. Also, VUHS teachers Matthew Deblois and Kristine Kirkaldy are among the few Vermont educators who have won $100,000 Rowland Fellowships. VUHS is the only school that has won two of those fellowships.
On the stage, Lawson, who this year moved into co-coordinating literacy efforts at VUHS with Walden Project director Matt Schlein and into helping other middle school teachers plan their curricula, deflected credit back to the students who had just saluted her with prolonged applause, cheers and whistles.
“This is amazing. It’s humbling, flattering and nerve-wracking. But it is truly an honor, and it is all because of you guys,” Lawson said. “I love my job, and I love you guys.”
Afterward, Lawson discussed her career. After graduating from the University of Vermont, she taught sixth grade before moving to Connecticut for five years. There, she taught at a charter school while working toward her master’s degree in education at Connecticut College, specializing at the middle school level. Vermont called her back, and she took a job at Vergennes Union Elementary School.
When VUES enrolment dipped, a job opened at the VUHS middle school. She jumped at the opportunity; in part because of her own middle school experience, she wanted to work at that level.
“It’s just a really challenging time ... Kids want their independence, but need guidance. And so it’s just this kind of up-and-down battle for them every day trying to figure out how they feel and what’s going on,” Lawson said. “One of the most important messages I received in my training was that before you could address the academics you need to address the social and emotional aspects of the child’s life.”
Lawson said in the classroom she tries to be genuine.
“I’m constantly asking them to see how I’m doing things rather than what I’m saying, and how can they transfer that process and that approach into their own lives so that they can be independent learners, and ... can face anything and know how to conquer it in academics,” she said.
For Lawson, the selection process consisted of writing essays, a panel interview with former teachers of the year, and a site visit once she became a finalist. Representatives from the education department met with three dozen current and former students and their parents in a room without Lawson and talked about her.
She found the results of that meeting her greatest reward.
“When they finished the people who sat in on that circle said to me later, ‘No matter what happens to you, know that you are incredibly loved in this community.’ And that was the biggest prize of all,” Lawson said. “It means everything to be part of the Vergennes area to me. It’s my home now. And just that those kids did that was amazing.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..