This summer, the Juneau School District said goodbye to Jennifer Thompson, a 25-year veteran primary teacher and founding member of the Juneau STEM Coalition. As we wish Thompson luck on her next great adventure (teaching in Brazil), we want to take time to celebrate her contribution to our schools and our community and to reflect on her practices as an educator. Thompson was a passionate advocate for STEM teaching, working inside and outside of her classroom to make sure all kids receive the highest quality learning experiences possible. We hope that putting words to Thompson’s strengths and contributions helps us also recognize the strengths of the other educators all around us. How can we show the teachers in our lives that we appreciate them and support them in their visions for our children?
Thompson respected kids and their natural curiosity about the world. Her classroom was often loud, sometimes messy, and always full of great questions. “Why do you think that happens?” “How does that feel?” “What do you think will happen?” Every day, students were challenged to explore, think and create. Thompson always made time for STEM learning, even when very prescriptive requirements for reading and math made that difficult. Hers was the kind of classroom that made you want to sit down and join in with the kids.
Thompson herself was always willing to sit down and talk about teaching. She was a leader within the teacher community, serving as a mentor for new teachers in her building and communicating teacher needs to the district — including the need for an updated science curriculum (adopted this year) and support for the elementary science kit center. Even as she prepared to leave Juneau, Thompson kept pushing for STEM opportunities, applying for and receiving a BP STEM Innovation Grant to run an afterschool club targeting underserved students.
Thompson was willing to say yes and find solutions when she was presented with challenges. She had a huge passion for improving her school, her community, and her state. She jumped in to support local organizations she cared about and to support policies and politicians who she thought would advance the causes she cared about. She spent a year in Washington, D.C. as an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator establishing connections to a national network of STEM resources and leaders to bring back to Juneau.
As part of the STEM Coalition, Thompson was always quick to help out — with organizing, writing, calling, brainstorming and energizing the rest of us. She was supportive and respectful of others’ ideas and opinionated and clear about her own. She spoke her mind and encouraged better and deeper thinking in our meetings and projects.
Thompson reached out to and found lots of support from the STEM community. She had frequent visitors in her classroom — Tlingit elders, scientists, retired teachers and working parents. She developed a long list of former parents and community members who kept coming back again and again, not only to her classroom, but also to the whole school for Family Science and STEM Nights.
We are very grateful to live in a place with so many hardworking, creative, and passionate teachers. As the school year begins, we’re reminded of the importance of identifying, celebrating, and supporting them all. Thompson’s story is just one of many in the Juneau schools. We, personally, have been inspired by Thompson — to work harder, dream bigger, think more deeply, and venture farther. Who is inspiring you and your children? How are you inspiring the people around you? Please help us build up our community of educators; say thank you and say yes.
• Rebecca Soza and Brenda Taylor are co-chairs of the Juneau STEM Coalition.