GARNER — More than a decade ago, Jennifer Wood was a stay-at-home mother who volunteered so often at her sons’ school, Rand Road Elementary, the boss figured she may as well start paying her.
“Finally the principal came to me and said ‘We need a teacher assistant. You’re here all day; why don’t you apply for this job?’” Wood said.
She did, becoming a teacher assistant and eventually a teacher. She seems to be good at it; in her fourth full year of teaching, Wake County named the Smith Elementary School kindergarten teacher one of 13 finalists for Wake County Teacher of the Year.
Like other nominees from the area, (including Laurie Bubenik of Vandora Springs Elementary, who was also named a finalist) Wood expressed surprise at her selection.
“I’m not really a person to beat my own drum, or expect a lot of praise, Anyone who knows me will tell you that,” Wood said. “I feel like I’m undeserving because so many people worked so hard, and I’m such a new teacher.”
But the new teacher has created a classroom atmosphere and a dedication to her students both inside and outside the classroom that has gained the attention of administrators and peers. It was her fellow teachers who elected her as the school’s nominee for the award.
“She’s a natural,” Smith principal Chris Lassiter said. “It’s much more than a career to her, it’s a passion.”
She said the most frequent comments she gets back center on the atmosphere of her classroom. It’s hands-on and student-centered by design, she said, and though “it’s busy, it’s noisy,” it’s also all about learning.
“ I want to treat every child like I'd want my child to be treated. I don't want them to dread going to school. I want them to love going to school,” Wood said.
And her relationship with students goes beyond the classroom. She tries to attend students’ sporting events and birthday parties and to visit them in the hospital if the opportunity arises.
Along with the importance she attaches to building relationships with students are building relationships with their parents. Studies show that parent involvement, Wood noted, tends to facilitate achievement. Though she said she’s heard complaints from other teachers of parents that don’t get involved, she said that’s not been her experience.
“I myself found that if you build that relationship up front, then parents of all backgrounds and economic levels are willing to help,” Wood said.
But in the end, the area she directly controls is the classroom. And with today’s Common Core standards, her studentss have to leave with more ability than they ever have. And that’s fine with her; she thinks the new standards will only help.
“I tell parents not to just get them to read but get them to talk about it,” Wood said. “If the kids are interested they enjoy talking about it. It is challenging, but at the same time it’s good for them. It’s definitely a positive change.”
The professional honor’s timing compliments good news in other aspects of her life as well. Last summer Wood decided to make lifestyle changes. She started eating better, exercising more – really, she said, changing everything including how she thought.
As with her foray into teaching, success took hold quickly after the life change. Since the summer, she said she’s lost 120 pounds.
“It’s a very exciting time for me,” she said of the last year. “I feel great.”
She said her students were at least part of the inspiration, and
“They’re very funny, and very honest,” Wood noted of five- and six-year-olds. “I want to be a good example to my students.”
That kind of life change requires a work ethic, and according to her boss, work ethic sets Wood apart.
“Nobody spends more hours in the building in preperation, in planning and just getting everything done that’s asked of a teacher,” Lassiter said. “She’s a child advocate, she tailors her instriuction to every child in the room and that child’s needs.”
Life-shifting change is nothing new for Wood. The N.C. State graduate earned a degree in speech communications and found herself on a career path toward public relations or marketing. For a few years she applied her training in smoothing tough communications for Rex Hospital working as a collections manager.
But she eventually returned home to raise her two children. After Wiladean Thomas, who was principal at Rand Road Elementary at the time, convinced her to become a teacher assistant, she spent eight years at the school just a mile from her home just south of Garner town limits. Then she took two years of an accelerated federally-funded teaching program. Naturally for her, when she finished at North Carolina Wesleyan College, she stayed close to home and got a job at Smith.
“It was important to me to teach in the area I lived in, to give back to the community that molded me,” said Wood, who attended Aversboro Elementary as a child as well as both East Garner and North Garner middle schools and Garner High.
Though she found her calling later in life than some, she said she always loved children. She said she might have been discouraged in school by the age-old warnings of low pay. She said that needs to stop and that “we need to encourage people to be teachers.”
She said she picked up the value of helping young people from her mother, who still lives in the Garner area as well.
“I grew up in a family where my mom had been in Girl Scouts for 50 years. Girl Scouts, Sunday school teacher, role model,” Wood said. “I think it was just ingrained into me naturally the importance of teaching and helping young people.”
Meanwhile, Woods looks toward the future. She said parents volunteer on a regular basis as well as high school students through a number of programs.
“Any amount of time people can work with a child, that’s more help,” Wood said. “I myself have felt the satisfaction of knowing that I helped a student.”
Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland