OKLAHOMA CITY — As Jena Nelson was named Oklahoma’s 2020-21Teacher of the Year she announced it was a time for celebration, and not just celebrating her but celebrating all Oklahoma educators who represent their schools and districts as Teacher of the Year.
Nelson teaches 7th and 8th grade English composition and academic enhancement at Deer Creek Middle School in Deer Creek Public Schools. She has been an educator for 14 years and has held her current position for two years.
Part of her time as an educator was spent teaching drama at Edmond North High School.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister announced the winner today during a ceremony at the Oklahoma State Fair. Nelson was chosen from 12 finalists.
“Jena’s passion for teaching and her dedication to her students shows in everything she does,” Hofmeister said. “She uses her past experiences to go beyond the curriculum and create nurturing relationships with the children in her classroom, and that shows in the tremendous difference she’s made in the lives of her students.”
“It is a great day when we can celebrate education in Oklahoma,” Nelson said.
Turning to the 11 other finalists on the stage, Nelson added, “By representing your district you’re truly everything that is right with education.”
Nelson told the audience her home life was far from perfect.
“To say that I didn’t have a great home life would be an understatement,” Nelson said. “I was very much like some of the students we see today in our classroom. I was angry. I lashed out. I was defiant. I very much wanted a place to feel safe and cared for outside of my trauma-filled home, and I could find that place in school.”
Nelson said it was her drama teacher — the 1996 Teacher of the Year Stephen Smallwood of Broken Bow — who helped her turn her life around.
“He saved my life,” Nelson said.
Addressing Smallwood she added, “Without you I would have been another statistic instead of a Teacher of the Year. That is why I am in the classroom today. I’m here to give what was given to me — a chance.”
Nelson told the audience, “We need a revolution of morale among educators as we help rebuild Oklahoma’s economy with educated students and as we put our focus toward career readiness.”
Nelson added that each teacher on the stage was a story of hope.
“We need to see more stories of hope as our lives influence our students’ lives,” she said.
She went on to say her administration is the best and her principal, Kristy VanDorn, is Oklahoma’s Middle School Principal of the Year.
“Jena’s enthusiasm is contagious,” VanDorn said. “Her unorthodox method of teaching reaches her students and she is an advocate for them to do their best.”
Deer Creek’s Superintendent Ranet Tippens said, “What an honor, it is a great privilege to celebrate Jena as the 2020-21 Teacher of the Year.
Tippens referred to Nelson as a “Rocket of energy” and went on to say Jena was truly called to teach.
“She was inspired by teachers who saw great potential,” Tippens said.
Tippens said in addition to knowing content and pedagogy, Nelson also has heart and passion.
“She is willing to take on challenges and experiences that have made her stronger,” Tippens added.
To Jena, Tippens said, “You deserved a champion, and now you are a champion to others. Soon you will become a champion for all the children of Oklahoma.”
As the 2020 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, Nelson will remain in the classroom, so she can continue to inspire her students, colleagues and community every day. Some of her other duties under the title will include speaking engagements and serving as Oklahoma’s ambassador of teaching.
Other finalists for Teacher of the Year were: Cara Bowerman, Edmond North High School; Debbie Carlisle, Clinton High School; Kirbey Dietzel, Jenks East Intermediate School; Terri Guthridge, Grove High School; Lesa Hefner, Duncan High School; Elizabeth Hoggatt, Norman High School; Patricia Lightfoot, Weatherford Middle School; Michelle Rahn, Will Rogers Junior High; Kari Rhoden, Oologah Lower Elementary; Cassandra Stauder, Dewey High School; and Katie Thompson, Shawnee Early Childhood Center.