Sydney Jensen has an old record player in her classroom, inspiration from her childhood, like her grandparents, who taught science and history in her home state of Georgia.
That inspiration may have had something to do with the noise coming from Room 304 Thursday afternoon — a boisterous game intended to help Jensen’s freshman English students review “The Odyssey” vocabulary before an upcoming quiz.
And it definitely had something to do with the large group of state and local officials who interrupted that game as they crowded into Jensen’s classroom to congratulate her on being named the 2019 Nebraska Teacher of the Year.
“Gosh, this is a lot of people,” said a surprised Jensen, who became the 47th Nebraska Teacher of the Year — and the fifth Lincoln High teacher to receive the award.
Lincoln High math teacher Amber Vlasnik, the 2017 winner, nominated Jensen.
Selected by a panel of Nebraska educators to recognize her contributions to the classroom, Jensen will be honored by the state Board of Education and will participate in the National Teacher of the Year competition.
“You can tell she’s a good teacher,” said Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt. “You could hear her classroom in the hallway.”
Blomstedt said the award will allow her to be a model for teachers across the state.
“It’s so exciting,” said Jensen, who earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and master’s degree from Nebraska’s Doane University. “I’ve put in a lot of really hard work for my students, and to have that recognized is a real honor.”
Jensen grew up in Eatonton, Georgia, a town of about 6,000 southeast of Atlanta. Her grandfather taught history — and she remembers interviewing him about his work once for a school project.
Her grandmother was a science teacher, and she knew the influence teachers could have on their students. So teaching seemed a perfect fit.
“I am a product of public education. I knew I wanted to be a public school teacher,” she said. “I always knew I liked working with kids, and English was what I was good at.”
Jensen landed in Nebraska one summer when her parents presented her with several choices: summer school, a job or going to camp. She chose camp, since she had a relative who taught at the YMCA’s Camp Kitaki who invited her to teach there for the summer.
That’s where she met her husband, she said, and in 2013-14 she landed a teaching job at Dawes Middle School. The next year, she got the job at Lincoln High. She’s also an instructional coach for other teachers.
She organizes her classes so there’s lots of discussion, a way to get to know her students and develop relationships with them.
“I like to consider myself a ‘warm demander,’” she said, someone who sets high expectations but accepts kids for who they are and helps them prepare for the rest of high school.
She appreciates the collaborative atmosphere among the staff at Lincoln High, she said, and the time administrators have carved out for them to work together.
When she was in high school, she had an English teacher who played vinyl records for his students while they wrote. She borrowed the tradition, brought it to her classroom with her favorite vinyl records: Otis Redding, Little Richard and Sam Cooke.
When her students read Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees” — a coming-of-age novel set in South Carolina in 1964 with lots of references to pop culture — she puts on Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” And it generates all kinds of discussion.
“It’s nice to feel I’m teaching them a little more than English,” she said.