This fall, Jennifer Lawson MAT’03, a middle school literacy coordinator and language arts/social studies teacher in the tiny city of Vergennes, Vt., was recognized as one of the most accomplished educators in the country when she was named that state’s 2011 Teacher of the Year.
Yet Vermont’s top teacher still remembers what it was like to be a struggling middle school student — a young girl who loved to read but who still stumbled over her schoolwork, a bright kid who didn’t always get it right the first time.
“I can recall it like it was yesterday, how amazing and awful it was, all in one fell swoop,” says Lawson, 38, who grew up nearby in Shelburne, just south of Burlington. “That’s the reason I love teaching this age group. I also think it’s been a real resource to me as a literacy coordinator: to be able to think like a kid, and then deliver instructions on the kinds of things that kids struggle with.”
“To say that Jenn Lawson gives her students personal attention doesn’t begin to do her justice,” says Jill Remick of the Vermont Department of Education, which oversaw the Teacher of the Year selection process. “She’s one of the most talented teachers in the state and she’s working with kids who need it the most. Not everyone would make that choice, but she has. And her kids are thriving.”
Peter Reynolds, co-principal of Vergennes Union High School and Middle School, says Lawson “is always exploring ways to increase her students’ engagement and learning.” Case in point: She helped introduce the national Expeditionary Learning program to Vergennes and has organized a series of ambitious “learning expeditions,” including projects in which students determined the school’s carbon footprint; researched the feasibility of using local foods in the school cafeteria; and made a presentation to a local zoning board about the pros and cons of allowing a fast-food franchise to open in town.
She’s even taught her seventh- and eighth-graders how to throw spears using a long, flat rod called an atlatl as part of a unit on primitive skills. But the atlatls, she explains, “are actually connected to the students’ lives, because a lot of them are hunters or farmers and they’re used to being outside, doing physical activities.” After an especially long school day, she and her students will grab the atlatls and spend the last few minutes of class hurling spears in long, graceful arcs across the soccer field.
Lawson began her career at a startup charter middle school in New London. As a freshly minted elementary education major from the University of Vermont, she was eager for teaching experience, particularly in a multicultural setting. ISAAC, the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication, offered her experience by the bucket load. “I loved it,” she says. “There were just six teachers, and we did everything.”
She enrolled at Connecticut College to get her middle school certification, and pursued her master's degree while teaching full time. The College, she says, let her “feed two birds with one worm” with a number of independent study projects closely tailored to her work at ISAAC. “As a new teacher living in unfamiliar area away from my home community,” she says, “Connecticut College helped me to establish some connections and introduced me to resources that I found invaluable in my personal and professional life.”
After five years, Lawson returned to Vermont to be closer to family and began teaching at Vergennes. Wherever her classroom, the work remains the same: helping her students find the tools — the intellectual atlatls — that will allow them to soar higher and farther, above whatever challenges they face.
“It can be good to feel a little struggle or pain while you’re learning, because your mind is working,” Lawson says. “Those are the moments I think we remember from our education: when we struggled with something, but figured it out and walked through it.”
— Beth Brosnan