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Jensen (pictured middle) with Lincoln High graduates at the school's graduation

An Elite Educator's True Test: 2019 Teacher of the Year Sydney Jensen ’20E navigates the roles of teacher and student during a pandemic

This time last year, Sydney Jensen ‘20E was overwhelmed and humbled by the recognition and attention she had received, creating a whirlwind year for her. Jensen was named Nebraska’s Teacher of the Year and travelled all over the country working and learning with top educators from other states. She also gave a TED Talk about supporting the emotional well-being of teachers, and it went viral in a big way. To date it’s been viewed by more than 2.3 million people.

After Sydney gained national recognition for her powerful remarks, she earned an expanded role with Lincoln Public Schools, serving in a hybrid administrative position, focusing on helping teachers better deal with student trauma and their own second hand trauma from that.

A lot has changed from then to now. Jensen handed her Teacher of the Year mantle to a new, worthy educator, and just as she was settling into her new administrative responsibilities along with teaching her beloved ninth grade English classes at Lincoln High, the pandemic hit and she was forced away from the students she cherishes so much. It’s her job to help teachers learn to deal with student and professional trauma, and suddenly the level of psychological stress was turned up to an extreme high thanks to COVID-19.

“It’s tough,” Jensen says in a Zoom interview. “Especially with all the anxiety and mixed emotions that surround (COVID-19). That’s a heavy load for teachers to carry as we worry about our own safety.”

When Jensen gave her viral TED Talk last year, it was titled “How can we support the emotional well-being of teachers?” The video touched a nerve with educators and parents around the world who have noticed a worrisome increase in the amount of stress and trauma modern students are exposed to at home, at school, and in the wider world. That stress and trauma is often passed on to the educators and administrators who are called to help students learn to deal with and grow through it, and it accounts for a high level of turnover in the teaching profession.

The onset of COVID-19 has only increased psychological stress for students, parents, educators, everyone. Being physically cut off from schools and the meal and after-school programs they provide means that a lot of kids are suffering from hunger and neglect on top of falling behind academically and being socially isolated due to the pandemic. It’s a lot to take in.

“If I were giving that talk now, how different it would be,” Jensen says. “When we transitioned into online learning full-time for the fourth quarter, what was abundantly clear was the discomfort of Zooming with students.”

Planning ahead for the autumn term as a teacher at Lincoln High and what a reopening situation might look like occupy a lot of Jensen’s time. She and other educators, as well as administrators and the public, are reacting in real time to all of the curveballs the COVID-19 pandemic throws, and nothing is for certain. At the time of this writing, plans stand to reopen Lincoln’s public schools to students in-person with a number of precautions in place to try and slow the spread of the virus. At the end of July, LPS’s plan is to have their high schools at 50 percent capacity, alternating who will attend school each day, dependent on the first letter of their last name. Jensen and others aren’t quite sure what to think.

“It’s going to be a hard reset for a lot of people,” she says. “I was talking to some teacher friends in a group chat and we’ve suddenly started having nightmares. Without the ability to social distance in classrooms, there’s no way to (have everyone) be three feet or six feet apart. That’s definitely something we’re worried about, that element of safety.”

Jensen says she has other questions about reopening, too. Like what does lunch look like? Lincoln High School has 2500 kids and they can’t eat with masks on. Where will they eat? In gyms, hallways and classrooms? There’s a lot more questions than answers, she says.

Jensen says that due to planning for potential fall scenarios, teachers are being asked to trim their usual curriculums to the absolute basics, and a lot of educators are worried about loss of quality along with the quantity. Jensen wonders how teachers will be able to make space for the emotional learning aspects of teaching during a pandemic along with the condensed curriculum.

Sydney Jensen at TED headquarters in New York on October 6, 2019. Jensen’s TED talk has over 2.4 million views online.Sydney Jensen at TED headquarters in New York       

“This is a big exercise in giving each other grace,” she says.

Sydney is remembered as a student of exceptional grace by some of her Doane teachers. She graduated in May with a Master’s in Educational Leadership degree from Doane, finishing the final two months in a remote learning environment due to COVID-19. She was always at the head of her class when it came to knowing the material, but she also excelled in the personal skills needed to distinguish oneself. Skills also useful for navigating the churning professional environment of a pandemic.

“She is a skillful communicator and planner,” says Bess Scott, an associate professor of Educational Leadership at Doane who instructed Jensen in several classes. “Sydney is exceptional. Your job title does not make you a leader. Your heart, head, and actions make you a leader. Sydney is a great example of that.”

Undergraduate Education Assistant Professor Emily Griesch also remembers Jensen as an exceptional student, and already as an exceptional educator, well positioned to meet the demands of teaching and helping other teachers during a pandemic.

“Sydney is a great teacher ambassador for Lincoln High, Doane University, and teachers across the state of Nebraska,” Griesch says. “Her work on teacher mental health has revived national attention and brought light to the toll that student trauma can also bring to the teachers who serve them.

"Her future in education makes the entire profession much stronger.”-Dr. Emily Griesch

While Sydney has finished her schooling (for now), Doane decided it wasn’t ready to let her go completely. Sydney has been hired as an adjunct faculty member at Doane for a brand new specialization track in Doane Education’s Curriculum & Instruction program: Social Emotional Learning Specialist.

Social emotional learning is a very new, cutting edge development in teacher education. Doane’s new specialization program will be the only one of its kind in the state and one of a few in the nation. Thanks to Jensen’s focus and past work in this area already, she is poised to be a valuable addition to Doane’s efforts in this new field.

“Social emotional (learning) has been out there for a while, but it hasn’t been all that prevalent in K-12 schools,” says Deb Stuto, assistant professor of practice and director of Doane Education’s curriculum & instruction grad program. “Doane’s C&I program has always tried to be first and lead the way in a lot of these issues that have come up recently in the K-12 system, that’s why we were already looking at this back in December (2019). We wanted to make sure we had a program that would meet those needs.”

Stuto and Jensen both say that a social emotional learning specialization could not be more needed right now. Both students and teachers are under unprecedented levels of personal and social stress. Doane’s new program is designed to give teachers the tools they need to help students and themselves through these traumas and transitions.

“Number one we want (teachers) to understand what trauma does to the brain and how it affects kids’ abilities to learn,” Stuto says. “They’re living through trauma, the brain shuts down until the teacher helps them cope with those issues. We want teachers to understand the whole process; give them tools to give to kids and use to teach kids. We want teachers to understand how to do all this for themselves, too.

“One of the first is mindfulness practices. Until they understand this themselves, they can’t implement it in the classroom. Help them with their own wellbeing.”

And who better to bring on to help launch this new program than a teacher of the year who has already gone viral talking about these very issues? Doane is lucky to have Jensen on hand to help future educators during these hard times.

The future remains uncertain for Jensen, and for the state of American education in general. She and her colleagues in Lincoln Public Schools are doing all they can to respond effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Jensen admits it’s not going perfectly. She feels like teachers are under a lot of public pressure to perform an impossible task right now, and that some sectors are judging them too harshly. But she says she also feels a lot of support from her networks and her community.

“I am always so proud to work at Lincoln High,” Jensen says. “I continue to be proud of the LHS community, including staff, admin, students, and their families. I’ll see LHS parents pop up on my newsfeed in the midst of all this negativity, the LHS parents have been so positive in support of teachers. I hope people in other buildings and districts are feeling that from their communities.”