Jennifer Wolfe, an Oceanside High School social studies teacher, said she cried tears of joy when she received the call in mid-July that the New York State Education Department chose her as the state’s 2021 Teacher of the Year. “I just felt overwhelmed by the acknowledgement that my life’s work is important,” she said.
On Sept. 14, Wolfe, 51, and her colleagues gathered in the OHS library to watch the state Board of Regents announce her achievement during a virtual meeting, at which she made a speech about teaching amid the pandemic. She said the days leading up to and following the announcement were a whirlwind and an honor — her dedication to building teacher leadership is now being recognized statewide.
Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Harrington nominated Wolfe for the award in the beginning of the year.
“Her level of commitment to this profession is unparalleled,” she said in a video posted by New York State United Teachers celebrating the honor. “She has really helped grow the profession. She has helped young teachers understand that teaching is hard work.”
Wolfe, who came to OHS in 1997, is a champion of dynamic learning for both students and teachers — with an emphasis on teachers’ professional development. She created Oceanside School District’s Tenure Attainment Plan Steps program, which launched in 2014 and is required for all new teachers in the district as part of their 20 hours of professional development.
TAPS pairs new teachers with a mentor, who is a teacher leader, during their first year at Oceanside. They then spend the next three years analyzing and improving their teaching methods. In the fourth year, they develop and submit a digital tenure portfolio, which Wolfe said is “not a scrapbook — it’s reflecting on why you do this in this setting at this time and how it impacts students.”
“It’s so important because the first years of teaching are very tough,” she said, “and kids can’t wait for them to get good by year five.”
She noted that the program provides “excellent teachers a way to give back, to be recognized and use their expertise to create great teachers — year one, day one.”
Wolfe also helps Oceanside teachers to earn their National Board certification, which she received in 2002. New teachers “are able to look at her as a role model,” Harrington said. “I’m very proud that she is able to wear that hat because it will help so many teachers for years to come and ultimately will impact so many students.”
From a young age growing up in Quaker Street, N.Y., a small town about 25 miles west of Albany, Wolfe’s parents taught her that education provides opportunity. Then, Wolfe became smitten with teaching while substituting at a middle school in Schenectady, N.Y., which served at-risk youth. “Just being with their energy, I thought to myself, ‘This is exactly where I’m supposed to be,’” she recalled.
Wolfe also found her soft spot for children when she worked for four years, from 1991 to 1995, as a childcare worker at Northeast Parent and Child Treatment Center in Schenectady, a residential facility for abused and neglected youth.
Her teaching journey officially began at Franklin D. Roosevelt High School in Hyde Park, N.Y., where she started fresh out of graduate school at Union College — now Clarkson University — in 1996. At the time, teachers there were in a struggle for a fair contract. “It was a really tough environment for a new teacher,” she said.
A year later, Dr. Kevin Sheehan, Oceanside’s social studies director at the time, invited her to visit Oceanside schools and offered her the job that she has held for 23 years. Though she was nervous about moving to Long Island at first, she was “lured by excellent teachers and a great environment that valued teachers and the work they did,” she said.
Mitch Bickman, the current social studies director, said in the NYSUT video that Wolfe “is someone who’s not afraid to have both the difficult conversations, but the conversations that will connect learning to students lives.”
And students agree — three were featured in the video commending Wolfe for the support that she lends them in the classroom. “She treats us like our opinions and ideas are just as valid as hers might be,” Leah Fridman said.
Building relationships with students is what Wolfe values most, she said. It’s also what has made returning to school this year, amid the coronavirus pandemic and new health and safety protocols, so challenging for her, so much that she has teared up whenever reading her speech addressing the new norms of teaching and learning.
In her speech to the Board of Regents, which she repeated at the Sept. 16 meeting of the Oceanside Board of Education, she first thanked Dr. Harrington, her colleagues at Oceanside and her family — husband, Joshua Hickey, and daughters, Phoenix and Athena Hickey, with whom she lives in Long Beach.
She then acknowledged the obstacles that teachers have faced, volunteering on committees all summer to see that the reopening of schools goes smoothly this year, and admitted feeling overwhelmed, yet proud. “Traditional public school teachers have never had to teach virtually before this spring,” she said, “or teach both in person and virtually at the same time.
“Or worry about the extra 10 pounds that the camera adds,” she joked.
But her overall message got to the heart of what earned her the award to begin with — she emphasized that empowering teachers to become leaders in their classrooms, school buildings and communities is more important than ever. She said she hopes school districts “will reach out to teachers in the state and in their buildings to co-design teacher leadership positions that are formal, funded and hold real influence.
“In my view, teachers and schools are heroes, too, in the time of Covid,” she said. “Many of the teachers I speak with headed into the year with much anxiety and fear. We are worried about our own health, the health of our families and our students. But we show up because our students need us.”
She explained that teachers are in the classroom every day navigating today’s most pressing issues and working closely with parents and students. The support that teachers provide students also helps support the families, who are struggling now more than ever, and ultimately, entire communities. “My colleagues and I, like nurses and doctors, first responders and sanitation workers, will do our part to help our communities get back on their feet again,” she said.
Wolfe will spend the 2020-21 school year advocating on a larger scale for teacher leadership in the state. The honor also came with a $1,500 award.
“It’s not a job not to be taken lightly,” she said. “You’re helping to build lives. What’s not to love about that?”