Paying it Forward, One Child at a Time
Story by Mike Spatola
Peppermint Patty asks Charlie Brown, “I wonder what teachers make?” Charlie Brown answers, “A difference, Peppermint Patty, they make a difference!”
Life-changing teachers make a difference. They ignite the fire that fuels a student’s thirst for knowledge, curiosity and wisdom. They are firm, sincere, kind, compassionate, thoughtful, creative and generous. They love what they do, and their passion nurtures, facilitates and inspires a zest for learning. They guide students and help them carve a path for moral, happy and productive lives. Jessica Whilden is the epitome of a life-changing teacher who makes a difference. Thus, it is fitting that she is honored with the 2019 F. Robertson Hershey Distinguished Faculty Award.
Jessica’s journey as a true Durham Academy “lifer” has been a pleasure and inspiration to watch. Jessica entered DA as a kindergarten student and was taught by Sheppy Vann, a Durham Academy legend. Sheppy describes Jessica as a “wonderful student.” She was “kind, thoughtful, creative and fun to be around.” The two forged a lasting relationship. It was this relationship and her kindergarten experiences that helped formulate Jessica’s love and empathy for this age group. According to Sheppy, “Jessica was not eager to leave her mom each morning, and she would arrive at school with signs of tears she shed saying goodbye.” Notwithstanding, “true to the Jessica we know today, she wiped those tears away, steeled herself and sailed right into whatever the challenge was.” Her experiences with a mentor who cared and knowing the travails of a preschool student have provided the impetus for Jessica to demonstrate sensitivity to the personal and academic needs of her students. They know she cares. She makes them feel safe and comfortable. As a result, she establishes relationships with her students that can be described as unique bonds.
Jessica was a member of the DA Class of 2000, and several of her classmates recognized her destiny. She possessed the temperament and skills to be an excellent teacher. One of her classmates recently shared that “she was amazing with children and wonderfully organized.” That same classmate, whose child has had Jessica as a teacher, also remarked, “all her binders and folders were neatly labeled the same way the bins and shelves are in her classroom now.” Organization and structure have been staples in her teaching, but not at the expense of inspiring enthusiasm in the classroom and encouraging academic aspiration. Several parents have complimented Jessica’s ability
to create a positive learning atmosphere and make the classroom experience enjoyable. Universally, students who have had her say that Mrs. Whilden made them feel known, appreciated, comfortable and confident.
Her journey continued when she became a teaching assistant in Leigh Ballou’s classroom in 2006. As a DA graduate, “giving back” inspired Jessica to apply for an opening when a kindergarten lead teacher position developed. Hired, she thrived and carved a niche worthy of praise. Her record and reputation as a master teacher speak for themselves. Durham Academy has never looked back, because DA hired a gem!
This year’s Hershey Award recipient is a gifted teacher and exemplary role model. Sidney Hook, an American pragmatic philosopher and contributor to the philosophy of education, claimed that “everyone who remembers his own education remembers teachers, not methods and techniques. The teacher is the heart of the educational system.” In partial defiance of Hook, Jessica is fondly and rightfully known for both. She is an adept teacher and one who is well aware of “best practices.” Jessica stretches herself professionally. When it comes to methods and techniques, she is definitely on top of her game. She is unafraid to try new approaches so each child has the best opportunity to succeed. For example, to enhance the unit she teaches on Kenya, she took a summer trip to Africa with fellow educators. This also provided her a unique opportunity to connect with peer teachers from all over the world. She knows each child individually and advocates for every single student in her class. A colleague, whose two children had Jessica as a teacher, says, “Units of instruction are fun, relevant and age-appropriate; she made learning come to life, such as the Mexican fiesta, the play about the runaway tortilla, the tea party, … .” Her daughters thrived in her class, and both said they wanted to be kindergarten teachers after their positive experiences. Jessica is a transformative figure in the lives of her students.
Jessica encourages the efforts of colleagues, supports the initiatives of DA, contributes to the greater school community and is a superb purveyor of information. She serves on many school committees and task forces. An example of her service is the Strategic Plan group and the “Connecting” Task Force, which examined ways to foster and promote meaningful connections among faculty, staff and students. She is a staunch advocate for the Preschool and does an admirable job representing the Preschool division’s interests. Jessica knows and respects the pulse of her colleagues. In turn, they respect her for her fresh ideas, youthful energy and insightful perspectives. She is regarded as an effective collaborator, and a thoughtful, committed and forward-thinking educator by her colleagues. As a “lifer,” Jessica is determined to remain a very active and enthusiastic participant in alumni activities. She has served as a Preschool rep for the Durham Academy Fund. In addition, she has donated items to the auction and she has served on the Alumni Board. She is a wonderful ambassador for a school she genuinely loves.
The educational experience is a collaborative and shared endeavor more than ever. The relationship between teacher and parents is pivotal to a successful experience for the children. Parents view Jessica as an “approachable authority for parents” and an excellent communicator. Common refrains you hear about her include: stays in touch with parents; goes the extra mile to accommodate the families with whom she works; not only on the ball, but thoughtful and dedicated to making sure parents are informed and comfortable; she takes charge.
Jessica is an example of a teacher who aspires to make a difference. Her devotion to her students is undeniable. Her commitment to the wider Durham Academy community she serves is irrefutable. Jessica is truly a deserving recipient of this recognition and award. As one colleague put it, “She is a treasure at DA, one of the ‘life-changers’ we hear about.” She makes a difference.