In college, Jena Nelson studied theatre at Northwestern State University and began working in the profession after graduation. Teaching was nowhere in her plans, but one day that changed.
“I was actually working as a director and agent at the time, and I was asked to teach an acting class to some inner-city kids. I was hooked,” said Nelson. “I loved watching these kids come alive and find joy in creating art. I started teaching full-time, and I have never looked back. “
Fourteen years later, she has shown her skills as an educator. Nelson was named Oklahoma’s 2020 Teacher of the Year Tuesday. Nelson was chosen from a field of 12 finalists and over the next year will speak around the state and serve as Oklahoma’s ambassador of teaching in addition to her duties as an eighth grade English composition and academic enhancement teacher at Deer Creek Middle School in Edmond, Oklahoma.
“Jena’s passion for teaching and her dedication to her students show in everything she does,” said Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister. “She uses her past experiences to go beyond the curriculum and create nurturing relationships with the children in her classroom, and that shows in the tremendous difference she’s made in the lives of her students.”
Nelson said she was honored to be a finalist and didn’t expect to win the award.
“I was absolutely shocked. I am truly thrilled to represent my profession, peers, and students on a statewide level,” she said.
In working with students, Nelson said her teaching philosophy is simple.
“Inspire them, teach them and get out of their way,” she said. “I believe that in this day and age that kids need someone to look up to. In the era of YouTube stars, and flash in the pan celebrities, kids need true professional role models that can say, ‘I have made mistakes, but I believe in every single one of you.’ I tell my students from day one that it is OK to make mistakes in class because I am going to make them too.
“They are granted a fresh start every day so that they can show the same leadership to other students. Too often we give up on the kids that are not easy to love, like or teach. I find that I gravitate towards those kids first, and I work to establish a positive relationship with each of them so that they know that this is a safe environment for them to thrive in.”
Nelson uses her theatrical background in the classroom using props, catchphrases, pool noodles, kinetic learning, songs and choreography to teach writing and “engage a generation that thrives on being entertained.”
“I use my high energy personality with skills honed through my background in theatre every day to engage the kids and celebrate those little victories and encourage those who want to quit to not give up,” said Nelson. “For me, every hour is a different show.”
According to Nelson, the support and guidance she received at NSU led to her success. In her previous position as a drama teacher at Edmond High School, she encouraged several students to come to Northwestern State where they gained roles in several productions and earned degrees.
“You cannot help but be inspired and challenged by the high-quality professors at NSU,” said Nelson. “I have sent many students over the years to many universities across the country. However, the ones that I send to NSU have been the most prepared students for the workforce, and for life. NSU thrives on creating well-rounded students with the emphasis on work ethic and community. I am proud to be a Demon for life.”