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Five Questions … With Jane Lindsay, 2013–2014 Montgomery County Teacher of the Year

May 27, 2014

Jane LindsayJane Lindsay is the youngest of six children, so maybe she just grew up knowing how to get recognized. She also had an incredible example to model her life after—her mother, Dorothy.

Growing up in Dumont, N.J., her father passed away when she was young, and her mother graduated from college the year before Lindsay did. Last month, Lindsay was recognized by her colleagues as the Montgomery County Teacher of the Year, an honor she never imagined she would receive. Her mom, now 88 years old, made the trip down from New Jersey for the celebration, beaming all the way.

“Dr. Starr spoke about hope, and how it wasn’t just crossing your fingers and hoping for a good outcome,” Lindsay said. “It’s about hard work and persistent effort. I wish I had said that I want to introduce you to the best living example of hope that I know—my mom.”

“We have a strong sense of self and how to be upfront with people,” Lindsay says. “That’s just something that works in my classroom. If I’m happy with you, I’ll let you know it in many different ways. If you’re foolish, I will laugh with your foolishness. And if you’re out of line, I will tell you that.”

She is an eighth grade teacher and the English resource teacher at Poole, and says she thrives at the school, where her colleagues are intelligent, supportive and assertive, and the atmosphere is challenging and motivating.

Did you always want to be a teacher?

I grew up with a very strong tradition of being in helping professions. People have gone about that in various ways. My sister started out as a social worker. I have a brother who works with alternative power. Another brother is a safety engineer, another is an artist and I have one brother who passed away. I’m the youngest. The consistent message was that I was absolutely going to college and I was going to do good in the world. When I went to college, it was going to be education or pre-law.

I took a lot of English classes and was captivated by a lot of the literature we read and discussed. At the end of four years, my mom, who is an incredibly pragmatic person, said ‘Why don’t you get a job teaching?’ That was profoundly excellent advice because I loved it. I loved teaching third grade [at Strawberry Knoll Elementary School, which was her first job]. I loved the kids. I had the real true gift of being on a staff that hired quite a few new teachers and paired us up with mentor teachers. I loved the collaborative spirit of that school.

Being a part of something from the ground up was so invigorating and exciting. I was happily, joyfully stuck. That was it.

What was your reaction when you found out they were nominating you for the Teacher of the Year award?

The nomination was done and handed in before I knew about it. The principal completely ambushed me. She brought me in for a meeting and told me; I was really floored. I work with brilliant, dynamic people and to have them take the time to do something for me, on top of planning the lessons they do every day. … that speaks to the school community here. I was truly moved by that.

How do you motivate kids to learn, especially those who are struggling?

I have bought into the relationship-building component of PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports), hook, line and sinker. I think when you meet a person where they are and try to move forward from that position, it’s a real winning attitude. You’re getting people to buy in and working from a position of what they do know, rather than beating a child down with what they don’t know. I am also not afraid to poke fun at myself, or to laugh with students about things that are going on. There’s a lot of ridiculousness that goes on with being 14. If you can step back and get them to laugh at something objectively—to see the humor in a situation they’re struggling with—I think that’s important.

I think it also helps that I have three kids of my own, who are 18, 15 and 14. That gives me real insight into what’s current, relevant, fun and captivating. I try to use things that interest the kids as opposed to selecting literature and poems that we think should captivate the kids.

When hashtagging everything was big, I would say: “hashtag Animal Farm homework.” They would groan. It’s just a way to be relevant, silly and memorable.

There is so much raw emotion in middle schoolers. They are so excited about various things. I have a student who’s crazy about soccer. I have a girl in eighth grade who’s over the top about gender inequity. Another student is just as passionate about classic rock. It’s not that they’re disinterested in school; it’s that they’re disinterested in the process of school. They want to learn what they’re interested in knowing; you have to channel that energy toward something you can manage.

I’m very honest when I talk to kids with a bad attitude. I’ll say, “I’m really sorry that you’re distracted. How can I help you find something that’s more distracting than whatever’s on your mind?” When kids feel you’re listening to them sincerely and trying to make an effort, a whole lot of kids will get behind what you want them to do. Along the way, you try to spark an interest here, push someone a little farther there. There is just so much energy and enthusiasm.

What’s the biggest challenge in your work?

The most challenging part is to continue to try, I think. For me, we are looking the end of the year in the face and there are a few kids for whom I have not found the consistent key to unlock their minds. There are a lot of tricks in a teacher’s bag. By the fourth quarter, when all your tricks have been tried, and you’ve read articles and tried new tricks, and asked colleagues and borrowed their tricks, that’s really difficult. It can be hard to look yourself in the mirror at the end of the night.

I work with a staff that is inspiring. There are not teachers here who don’t every day do what’s best for kids. When you work among people who are always giving it their all and not just phoning it in, you rise to the bar that those around you set.

I don’t think anything good can come from teaching in isolation. All the parts and pieces that have been prepared for a lesson are made stronger if I can bounce an idea off a colleague. With our English department, our [students’] scores are phenomenal because of the teaching that we do. Every teacher is a very strong teacher who cares about maintaining themselves as professionals—reading current research, trying new strategies, looking at data to see where the weak spots are, and celebrating all the high points.

What do you do outside of work?

My husband Don and I spend a lot of time with our kids. Liam is in the midst of his senior year. He’s on the swim team, the baseball team, and he just earned Eagle Scout. Harper dances competitively and is one of the captains of the pom team at her high school. Brenna is our fabulous enigma; she does a little sports, a little science and is a whole lot of fun. I bounce things off of her; Brenna is my harshest critic. She’s a reader and a writer and gives me good insights on how students would approach an assignment. I’m so excited to see what they will do in the future with the gifts they’ve been given.

My husband is a cartographer; he’s home in the morning and gets the kids off to school. If something happens during the day, he’s the go-to guy. It’s so cliché to say, but he is my best friend. He is the best dad for my kids.