Fresh out of college, Lindsey Jensen faced an unforgiving job market in 2006. To make ends meet, the speech communication graduate accepted a position as a teacher’s aide in a behavioral disorder classroom. The move was supposed to serve as a stopgap until she landed a full-time gig at a public relations firm.
As fate would have it, the decision unlocked Jensen’s true passion. She’s now in her 10th year as a high school English teacher and is on track to finish up a doctorate in teaching and learning from Illinois State University in 2019.
“In my time as an aide, I couldn’t wait to go to work to see the kids and find out what challenges we would be tackling together,” she said. “Every day was different, and every day I left the school feeling as though I was making a difference. By the end of the year, I knew it was what I wanted to do.”
After a year as an aide, the Southern Illinois native earned her master’s degree in secondary education at Oakland City College in Indiana. She was hired by Dwight Township High School in 2008, where she teaches advanced placement English, Shakespeare, American literature, drama, and composition.
On October 28, 2017, Jensen was named the 2018 Illinois Teacher of the Year at the Those Who Excel ceremony in Normal. The annual event is sponsored by the Illinois State Board of Education and recognizes the state’s top educators.
“Lindsey has always been a rock star as far as curriculum and what she presents to the kids,” said fellow Redbird Jackie Froelich ’88, who served as Jensen’s mentor teacher when she started at Dwight.
“But I think what sets her apart from all other teachers is that she finds a way to reach every single child who has worked with her.”
Jensen officially took over as state teacher of the year on January 1. So far, she has participated in workshops with other state winners, and in state and national speaking engagements. In April she took a trip to the White House.
In February, she met the other state winners for the first time at a four-day workshop at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California.
“The people and programming made that time the most meaningful professional development of my life, so far,” she said.
Taking the plunge
Jensen’s nomination for the state’s top teaching award was sent in by her town’s police chief. In 2016, the duo collaborated to raise a large sum for the Special Olympics Illinois through the Polar Plunge and a music festival in Dwight. Jensen, a musician herself, performed and recruited 15 others to donate their talents.
“I am not shy, so and I try to capitalize on my connections with the music community to raise money for things that I care about,” she said. From cancer research to educational initiatives, Jensen is always eager to lend her golden pipes to a good cause.
The educator also plays the piano and ukulele, and she has obliged past students’ requests to sing in their weddings. She similarly infuses her passion for music into her classroom.
“Holding my students’ attention is a necessary element, but getting high schoolers jazzed up about drama isn’t always an easy task,” she said. “But I am willing to sacrifice my humility by singing and acting.”
Jensen has served as the school’s theater director and organizes and performs in the annual talent show. She also spearheads after-hours get-togethers for faculty and staff, like bowling night.
Froelich, who now serves as Dwight’s guidance counselor, said her former mentee’s impact on the school’s culture is immeasurable.
“She has such a respect for her colleagues, and these activities are in the spirit of trying to get everybody together and develop relationships,” Froehlich said.
When Jensen participates in professional development outside of the school, she always presents the best practices back to Dwight.
“As much as she shows enthusiasm in her classroom, she demonstrates that same enthusiasm with faculty. She continually tries to raise the bar for all of us,” Froelich said. “I am so excited for everybody in the state to meet Lindsey because she has such a passion for education, for highlighting teachers, and for highlighting students.”
Before earning teacher of the year honors, Jensen’s most humbling moment was being asked to serve on the executive board and as the chief negotiator for the Dwight Education Association teachers union.
“I don’t feel like I would’ve been equipped to take on those roles outside the classroom if it weren’t for my coursework at Illinois State with Robyn Seglem, Lydia Kyei-Blankson, Ellis
Hurd, and Erin Mikulec,” she said.
“They helped me to develop that lens of looking at education politically and socially. That work is what has truly developed me as a teacher leader.”
Her decision to pursue a doctorate was not motivated by an intention to “move up” or “move on.”
“I was very conscientious when I started the program that I was not going to leave teaching to take a higher-paying career in education, I was going to do this to become the best teacher that I can be,” she said. “Administrative roles are important, but teacher attrition is something that concerns me too much to leave this role.”
Jensen’s research is examining the gendered portrayal of technology in new dystopian young adult fiction like The Maze Runner.
“Like all reflective doctoral students, she struggled to determine her topic. But in the end, we narrowed it down by combining her passions of literature and educational equality,” said Associate Professor Robyn Seglem, her dissertation chair.
Jensen said the goal of the research is to demonstrate how girls are empowered or disempowered by the messages they are reading daily. She also wants to know what the similarities or differences are for boys.
“These popular forms of literature are shaping their views, and potentially discouraging females from entering STEM professions,” Jensen said.
In a fast-filling calendar, Jensen is slated to speak at multiple state and national conferences throughout the year. One of her goals is to share her love for teaching with as many people as possible.
“We are in the business of human beings. Teaching requires becoming part of kids’ lives in a way no other profession that I know of experiences. It is one of the most rewarding jobs, and it is also incredibly heartbreaking at times. But we need great teachers who remain committed to teaching as a profession, and more importantly, committed to kids.”