Award-winning teacher mixes technology and tradition

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 26, 2011

By Susan Shinn
For The Salisbury Post
Queen Esther watches over Joy Jenkins’ classroom. The monarch is a colorful, larger-than-life painted cutout that Jenkins labored weeks to complete.
Surrounded by coordinating curtains in shades of lavender, purple and gold highlighted by black lattice columns, the queen creates an impressive scene with a functional reason behind it.
Jenkins is a 21st Century Classroom Teacher, yet her subject matter is ancient. The curtains diffuse the light so that students may more easily work on their computers.
You later realize that Queen Esther has a silver iPod in her hand and buds in her ears — and you could swear she’s smiling.
Jenkins is the 2009-10 teacher of the year for Rowan-Salisbury Schools, and the 2010-11 regional teacher of the year. Yet she’s in her first year as the Bible history teacher at West Rowan Middle School.
A dichotomy, to be sure.
Yet Jenkins feels she is right where she should be.
• • •
Teacher of the year duties, Jenkins admits, are pretty intense. She’s spoken at myriad events. She’s participated in the selection process for the teacher of the year and regional principal of the year.
In 2008, she was part of the first group of 21st Century Classroom Teachers chosen. Her door is open to administrators from all over the country who come to see what she’s done with technology.
She’s now using the technology to illuminate students about the life of Queen Esther, in 10 chapters of the Bible. It’s an exploratory class, so she gets a new group of students every nine weeks.
“It really has to be a fluid, purposeful process with every second in class geared toward goals,” Jenkins says.
It doesn’t help that the students in this quarter recently missed a week of class.
Her students have nine days to complete five chapters, create a green-screen project on one of the characters, blog about their characters’ experiences and publish their iWeb pages.
“I don’t want to cut out anything,” Jenkins says with determination.
“I want all that done.”
Well, you figure, if God created the Earth in six days, Jenkins can probably finish up this class in nine.
• • •
Jenkins is a second-career teacher.
“I’m about, like, 12th career,” admits Jenkins, who turns 50 this year.
She worked in retail. She worked for Olan Mills. She sold insurance.
She worked in public relations.
And she modeled.
Six feet tall in her stocking feet, she still carries herself like she’s on the runway.
She was working a Michael Kors show one day when she had an epiphany.
She had to step over homeless people to get backstage. Inside, a model was crying because she’d broken a nail.
“I thought, I can never do this again,” Jenkins says. “I want to help people.”
She quit her modeling agency and went all over Manhattan, looking for work. In job interviews, she was told, “You look too much like a model.”
She cut off her blonde hair, dyed it dark, and was hired at an investment banking firm.
She got a master’s degree in education on the fly at Marymount College, a satellite of Iona College at that time, 10 blocks from her home.
She came back to her home state of North Carolina intending to student teach for a year, then return to New York, then move on to Washington State.
She never left North Carolina.
• • •
Jenkins taught for two years at North Elementary and four years at Cleveland Elementary. She’s also been a private school teacher.
She found middle-schoolers much different than elementary school students.
“They’re taller and they don’t smile nearly as much,” Jenkins says.
Not at first.
Jenkins characterizes herself as “outrageously silly” at times.
She has morning duty, and cranks up the energy for that 45 minutes, greeting students as they arrive at the car circle.
“Whooo hoooo!”
“Have an awesome day!”
“Good morning!”
“All right! Bring it in! Bring it in!”
Students are responding now. Parents are smiling and waving, too.
“I’ve gotten calls by parents who say it’s great to be greeted by someone who’s obviously happy to be where they are,” says Principal Nancy Barkemeyer. “To begin a day with someone who is enthusiastic about welcoming kids is a great feeling.”
“That’s what I do,” Jenkins says. “It’s who I am.”
• • •
Jenkins, who taught math at Cleveland, had to overcome a fear of math.
“My fear of math affected my adult choices,” she says.
When Jenkins interviewed for the teacher of the year honors, she was always asked, “Tell us about teachers who inspired you.”
But, she says, “I’m here because I had teachers who didn’t inspire me.”
She had strep throat a lot as a kid, and she missed school, and she never learned to invert and multiply. She was well above grade level in reading, but was mystified by math.
She was told by one teacher, “Girls don’t need to know how to do math.”
Finally, she got it — and embraced it, and was determined not to let other students be intimidated by it.
• • •
“The thing that really sets her apart is that she’s passionate about her students,” says Superintendent Judy Grissom. “It’s not just a job for her. She’s extremely creative. She’s embraced technology, more so than most teachers. She’s always willing to help other teachers and share ideas.”
Jenkins and her husband, Scott, the Salisbury Post’s news editor, have been married for 12 years.
They don’t have children of their own, and she admits that may be one reason she’s such a dedicated teacher.
“When it comes to their rights and opportunities,” Jenkins says, “I want to bless my students as I would want my own child to be blessed.”
The technology is all well and good, but it’s also hard for Jenkins to get away from it. She says that her MacBook is addictive, and she often falls asleep with it.
• • •
At Cleveland Elementary, each student created a digital textbook of math concepts.
Jenkins made podcasts and movies and blogs and anything else she could think of to keep her students engaged and learning.
She was a presenter for an Apple Showcase in March 2010 at a state technology conference. Two weeks later, she participated in a WIMBA video conference for Georgia College and University.
Meanwhile, she was busy fulfilling duties as Rowan-Salisbury teacher of the year and requirements for the N.C. teacher of the year competition.
She was being swept up, she says, in a “tsunami.” It was too much.
She knew something needed to change.
She thought that being named state teacher of the year would be the answer. She’d get a one-year, well deserved break from the classroom.
That’s not what happened.
• • •
After the competition, Jenkins was back in her classroom at Cleveland Elementary School one day, when Faith Devenney, the Bible History teacher, was lamenting the fact that they hadn’t filled the open position at West Rowan Middle School.
“She was baffled they hadn’t found the right person,” Jenkins remembers. “When she said that, my heart bloomed. I’m that person, I thought. It’s me!”
Suddenly, Devenney turned around.
“Would you do it?” she asked Jenkins.
“I jumped up from my chair and yelled, ‘It’s me!’ ”
• • •
Jenkins’ position is funded through the West Rowan Bible Teaching Association.
“Through community fundraising events they have funded Bible history programs in the West area for more than 60 years,” Jenkins says.
And now she’s in that classroom.
Growing up, Jenkins traveled extensively with her parents the Rev. Tom and Betty Whidden, and the Middle East was her favorite place.
“I can give them a perspective,” Jenkins says of her current students. “My past has highlighted what I’m doing. Everything in my life has prepared me for this point in my life.”
As class ends, Jenkins tells each student goodbye.
“Thank you for your hard work today.”
“Have an awesome day.”
“What do I want you to do today? Shine brightly, because other people need it.”
You look over Jenkins’ shoulder, and you could swear Queen Esther is smiling.
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.