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Sydney Jensen giving her TED Talk

A Whirlwind Year: Sydney Jensen ’20E delivers TED Talk that goes viral, wins Teacher of the Year award; now nears graduation

Sydney Jensen ‘20E loves her job. She teaches ninth-grade English at Lincoln High School; on-level, introductory stuff. The basicness of the curriculum belies the true complexity of her job, though. Jensen is a community builder, a relationship shaper, an emotional guide, and a steady support for each and every one of her students. Her focus is firmly on her relationships with her students, and helping them grow as effective citizens. She’s built her career on it in spectacular fashion.

“I think I’m the perfect match for ninth-graders,” Jensen says. “I want to serve the kids who I’m going to be the best at serving. I’m in my sixth year teaching ninth-grade English and I don’t have any plans to leave that arena soon.”

Jensen (pictured middle) with some of her students at Lincoln High after receiving the Nebraska Teacher of the Year award.
Jensen (pictured middle) with some of her students at Lincoln High after receiving the Nebraska Teacher of the Year award. Credit: Al Koontz, NSEA                   

It’s always a boon for a university when one of its alumni truly excels in their field after graduation. Jensen might break the mold in this regard. As a Doane graduate student in Educational Leadership, Jensen was named Nebraska Teacher of the Year in 2019. That same year she also gave an inspirational TED Talk that went viral, spreading all over the world. As of March 26, her TED Talk has over 1.7 million views online. As of that same date, she hasn’t even graduated from Doane yet.

“Sydney is an exceptional student,” says Doane Associate Professor of Educational Leadership Bess Scott, who has taught Jensen in a number of courses. “She is a skillful communicator and planner. (She is) respected, inspiring, and has relationships with parents, students, and colleagues.

“We should be proud of someone who has all of these wonderful qualities.”

Jensen with flowers gifted from a student in her classroom at Lincoln HighJensen in her classroom at Lincoln High.

Jensen is a small-town Georgia native. She has the accent to prove it. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of Georgia at Athens, where she majored in English education. 

“I thought I was going to be a pharmacist at first, but I switched to English education,” she says. I found out I liked working with teens so I set the goal of becoming a high school English teacher.”

Her first exposure to Nebraska was when she worked as a camp counselor at YMCA’s Camp Kitaki in Louisville.

“I first heard of Doane in 2011 when I came up here for summer camp,” Jensen says. “Its reputation precedes it. Graduates speak very highly of their experience at Doane. The level of interaction you get is amazing.”

Since she already had her bachelor’s teaching degree, Jensen decided to attempt Doane’s Master of Educational Leadership program. She didn’t want to think of her graduate education as just getting an “admin degree” though.

“I just wanted to become a better teacher,” she says. “I don’t know that I’m an English teacher that analyzes the Canterbury Tales, but I know how to make Shakespeare fun to a student who might not have excelled at English in middle school.

“When a kid who has been in my class tells me that I didn’t enjoy English classes until I was in yours, that’s the highest compliment I can get.”-Sydney Jensen

Much of Jensen’s focus is on trying to make personal connections with all of her students, especially the ones who seem withdrawn or hesitant to reach out or be reached out to.

“I have so much fun with kids who are more apprehensive,” she says. “The skillset I have is needed more by those kids.”

Coming from small-town Georgia, where she was in school with fewer than 100 students in her high school graduating class, Jensen says that coming to work at Lincoln High was a culture shock. The graduating classes are huge, and the student populations are much more diverse than she was used to.

“I went somewhere far away and grew,” she says. 

“I have found my people and my community at Lincoln High, and I can’t imagine being happier or more fulfilled anywhere in the world.”-Sydney Jensen

Community is an important part of the culture at Lincoln High. Jensen credits this to the people who work there and their devotion to developing stronger educational relationships.

“I feel like everyone who works at Lincoln High truly wants to be there,” she says. “Everyone has a story of why they teach at Lincoln High and I love that. Our leadership is great and they have a real focus on community.”

She also feels highly about her students. Most of them are curious, engaged, hard-working, and cosmopolitan. They notice Jensen’s quality, too.

“I teach the best students in the world,” she says.

Winning Nebraska Teacher of the Year in 2019 came as a surprise to Jensen. She was aware she was a finalist for the award, but the district did their best to surprise her with the news.

“Someone at Lincoln High nominated me for the Nebraska Teacher of the Year, the Department of Education sent me an email telling me I was a finalist,” Jensen says. “They busted into my classroom one Thursday afternoon with news cameras and Matt Blomstedt (Nebraska Commissioner of Education and a Doane instructor) said I was teacher of the year! It was so fun that no one knew any of this was going on. It’s been so much fun sharing it with my kids.”

Jensen (pictured middle) with Lincoln High graduates at the school's graduation ceremony at Pinnacle Bank Arena
Jensen (pictured middle) with Lincoln High graduates at the school's graduation ceremony at Pinnacle Bank Arena in May 2019.

As a winner of the state’s teacher of the year award, Jensen was able to serve on the finalist selection committee for 2020. She also got to travel to Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley where she met every other state’s teacher of the year for professional learning as a group, networking, and media training. This group of exceptional educators also traveled to Washington D.C. for a meeting with the Department of Education; Huntsville, Ala. for space camp; and conferences in Denver, Colo. and Princeton, N.J. They capped off their whirlwind tour in New Orleans at the College Football Championship game.

“Walking away with 50-plus friends has been so awesome,” Jensen says. “It’s bittersweet that we’ve wrapped up our years as Teachers of the Year, but it’s also nice to put the suitcases away.”

Jensen’s national fame doesn’t stop at winning Teacher of the Year, either. TED (of TED Talks renown) released a TED Talk Jensen gave at a TED event last year, the result of some connections she made during the Teacher of the Year tour. Her talk is titled “How can we support the emotional well-being of teachers?” It deals empathetically with the changing norms of modern teaching, the increasing amounts of trauma students are exposed to, and the emotional and mental strain these changes pile on teachers, often with no official acknowledgment or support. It’s a serious talk about a serious issue in education right now, and it resonated with a lot of people.

The opportunity to give a TED Talk came about from a class at Google’s HQ. It was a class on storytelling. Her instructor gave everyone 10 minutes to jot down a story from their classrooms that they’d be willing to share out loud. Jensen was called on to tell her story at the session. She didn’t know there were representatives from TED in the audience, at Google’s HQ to discuss apps.

“One of the people who was there (with TED) was also a UGA grad,” Jensen says. “Afterward he came up to me and said I should turn my story into a proposal for TED. He sent me a follow up email telling me I should really do this.”

Jensen submitted her TED proposal and was quickly informed she had been selected to go through TED’s coaching process. She worked with coaches via video chat and went to New York City to give her TED Talk on Oct. 6, 2019. It was released a month later. It went viral instantly.

“I’ve been at the smallest airport in Champaign, Illinois, and when I was chatting with a woman I told her I gave a TED Talk, and someone turned around and said they’d seen it!” Jensen recalls. “It’s cool to see what a small world it is.”

The reach and relevance of Jensen’s TED Talk is bittersweet for her, though. Her talk isn’t full of optimism or concrete ways forward. Rather it signals the recognition of a serious problem that has long been festering in contemporary education. It lets educators in similar positions know that their problems are not their own, that people understand and hear their concerns. That there were so many teachers out there feeling the same anxieties as Jensen is a source of sadness for her.

“To hear from people who have resonated with it is almost more devastating than anything,” she says. “We’re reaching a breaking point with teacher retention declining and declining enrollment in teacher prep programs. So many schools are having teacher shortages and I don’t know that the problem is going to solve itself without any changes.”

Public feedback for Jensen’s TED Talk has been overwhelmingly positive, however. 

“Sometimes it feels like teachers aren’t valued,” Jensen says. 

“As the landscape of education changes with technology and a shift in the workforce, I hope people see the value in teachers as not just people who give content to students, but people who help shape a community.”-Sydney Jensen

Jensen’s Doane instructors recognize and value the power she has as an ambassador for educators everywhere.

“Sydney is a great teacher ambassador for Lincoln High, Doane University and teachers across the state,” says Assistant Professor of Education Emily Griesch. “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.”

The accolades don’t matter to Jensen. Becoming Teacher of the Year and having a TED Talk go viral weren’t ends for her, but ways for her to be a better educator for her students and her community. It’s shaping that community and building those relationships with her students that command her full devotion. She still has to graduate from Doane in May, too.

“We are in such an amazing position, to be a part of so many amazing kids’ lives,” she says. “I want to see teaching as a career that is attractive and enticing and worthy of future generations.”

*Additional note* Jensen is scheduled to be a guest speaker and will host a session during the College of Education's Celebration of Learning: Education Reunion scheduled for this summer. More information can be found here.