Herald Head of the Class 2021: Jennifer Monsour, South Side Middle School, ELA


Why did you become a teacher?

I have been drawn to teaching since I was a little girl.  I loved Little House on the Prairie and dreamed of being Laura Ingalls Wilder in a one-room schoolhouse.  It has always made me feel good to help someone understand something they did not know before.  Teaching is a way to impact students’ understanding of the world and their place in it.  I consider that a great responsibility and even greater honor.  

Tell us about a teacher that inspired you as a student.

My high school drama teacher, Russ Siller is one of the most influential people in my life, not only as a teacher but as an example of the person I endeavor to be on a daily basis.  Mr. Siller appreciated his students as they were.  He accepted our traits, good and bad, without judgment.  He embodied inclusivity always.  We were all valuable in his eyes.  He lost his brother, a firefighter, on Sept. 11 and went on, with his brothers and sisters, to create the Tunnel to Towers Foundation which had raised millions of dollars in the years since it’s inception.  Mr. Siller, his family and their example are what I aspire to be every day.  I want to share all he inspired me to be with my students.   

What did you experience or learn about teaching—yourself, your students, the process, etc.—during the pandemic that you think you will carry forward?

I became even more focused on the struggles that students have that we, as teachers, sometimes know nothing about.  The added layer of technological problems to the everyday challenges of life sometimes compounded issues that kids previously could use the school for as an escape.  Stuck home with no means of outside help magnified some of the things kids face that I would not have been advised of otherwise.  Going forward, I will try to be more cognizant of what is happening outside of my classroom as well as what is happing inside my classroom.  

What’s the most memorable thing a student has said to you?

I was teaching on Sept. 11, 2001, and had a student whose father was in the Towers.  As the class waited over the next two days to see if his dad had survived, I had many conversations with the class about how we could help the student as we lived through the experience together.  It was a devasting time.  Another student shared his feelings and told me, “I realized that this wasn’t just happening to Michael, it was happening to all of us.  We are all in this together.”  His insight and maturity at the situation and his compassion for his classmate struck me to the core.  

What has been your toughest challenge as a teacher so far?

Technology is definitely the most challenging aspect of teaching now.  

What has been your proudest moment as a teacher so far?

I am proudest when a student comes to understand that they are important in this world.  One specific moment, though, I am proud of was receiving our school’s “Golden Rule Award”,  I am so lucky to work in a place where the things that I feel are integral to my teaching are so valued and celebrated.  

What surprised you the most when you first started teaching?

I had to learn how to create an environment where students understood the expectations of class (behaviorally and educationally) and still felt secure enough to be themselves.  I was surprised at how difficult this could sometimes be to achieve.   

How do you keep students engaged and interested?

I try to help them see themselves in all we do.  C. S. Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone”.  This infuses all I do. I want them to know that they are connected to each other, to their community, to the world.  When kids can see themselves reflected in the work, it becomes more important to them and they are more fully engaged.  

What is an aspect of being a teacher that you think most people outside the profession don’t know or fully understand?

People don’t realize that every day, each student comes into school with their own unique struggle.  I don’t know what challenges they faced the night before or that morning.  Whatever it is they are coping with, I need to adjust my practices to best serve them in that moment.  Each student deserves to be heard and know that they matter.  The objective of every lesson must start with them.  Balancing that every day can be very challenging.

What advice do you have for aspiring teachers?

Infuse all you do with what makes you unique, what you are good at.  The more you are confident and enjoy what you are doing, the better it will be and the more the kids will get out of it.  

What is the most important thing you hope a student takes away from your class?

I want my students to know that they are valuable and worthy just for being who they are.  They don’t need to be anything other than themselves to matter in this world. They each have their own special gifts to share.    I appreciate them all.