2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year Speaks on the Calling of Education

Jean Russell emphasized that ultimately teachers do not come first in the classroom

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

When Jean Russell found out she was the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, one of the first trips she made was to Space Camp.

It’s a tradition for teachers of the year from every state to go to the camp. Russell was happy to be there, but hesitated with some of the camp activities—specifically, zip lining.

When she finally got the courage to go on the zip line, she stood there waiting for the camp counselors to push her off the platform. But they explained she’d have to let go herself if she wanted to go down the zip line.

“That’s what this experience as Indiana Teacher of the Year has been like,” Russell explained “There comes a point where you’re waiting for somebody to push you when you have to let go.”

During her time as Indiana Teacher of the Year, Russell has been traveling the state speaking to her platform: recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana. She’s also focused on professional development, education majors and policy, specifically through work as a ISTEP Alternative Assessment Panel member. Russell has also spoken at the School of Education as part of her role as an Armstrong Teacher Educator Award winner. As part of her commitment to reaching out to education majors, she spoke to INSPIRE LLC students about the importance of reflection.

“Is it working, is it not? Could it be working better? What could I tweak, what could I change? It’s constant. And every time you think you have it figured out, you get a new kid. You’re never going to figure it all out. That’s not the goal of teaching. The goal is moving kids forward,” she said.

Russell spoke of a compass of principals such as relationships and reaching out to others that guided her as a teacher. Anything outside that compass wasn’t something she did with her students.

“And my compass doesn’t have to look like yours,” she reminded the audience.

Her one piece of advice for new teachers? “Love them first, always, always. That is what will make a kiddo do any hair-brained scheme that you want them to do or it can make a student not trust you enough to even learn from you. It’s a deal breaker.”

Russell told the students to remember that, as teachers, ultimately they do not come first in the classroom.

“It’s not about you. You wake up every day thinking about what your students need. And every once in a while you fall into the trap of thinking what do you need. And things don’t go well and you wonder why,” she said. “It’s all about helping others. Education is a life of service. Which means that sometimes you have to go on the zip line.”