In the fall of 2021, Dr. Jennifer Jaso’s peers and administrators recognized her as Sarasota Middle School’s Teacher of the Year. Of the 43 teachers across Sarasota County nominated by their peers, she was selected as a top-three finalist for Sarasota County Teacher of the Year. In December, at the Ignite Education Teacher of the Year Award Celebration, she was recognized as Sarasota County’s Teacher of the Year.
In May of 2022, of the 74 district teachers of the year across Florida, she was recognized as a top-five finalist for Florida Teacher of the Year, the second year in a row that a teacher from Sarasota County has received such an honor. While she was not selected as the Florida Teacher of the Year at a gala event in Orlando this past July, Dr. Jaso has had the amazing opportunity to meet and collaborate with passionate educators and to advocate for historical literacy and for the important work that teachers across Sarasota County, Florida, and our country do.
Dr. Jaso has taught social studies for 17 years, and she is a tireless advocate for historical literacy and for history teachers. In addition to earning her doctorate in Teaching and Learning, with a concentration in American History, she has founded with fellow educators the Florida Council for Historical Education, a nonprofit dedicated to making history “more accessible to the community, educators, and students through opportunities designed to help people to discover the value and impact of history and history education locally, nationally, and internationally.”
An innovative, compassionate, and dedicated teacher, Dr. Jaso took time from her busy schedule to speak with me in August, two weeks into the new school year. She discussed her journey to teaching, challenges teachers face, being recognized as the district Teacher of the Year and a top-five finalist for Florida Teacher of the Year, inspiration, and advice for new teachers.
How did you become interested in teaching?
Initially, teaching was not on my radar—it was not something I went to school for. My degree from Florida State University is in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, so I focused on history, sociology, and anthropology, all things that interest me.
After Ryan, my husband, and I graduated from FSU, we moved to Sarasota. I took a job I wasn’t passionate about and really didn’t care for, and within a couple of months a job change was in order. I loved working with children, and I loved history, so I took a leap and pursued education.
Once I decided teaching was what I wanted to do, I began my path toward a Florida Teaching Certificate through a Master of Arts in Teaching program at USF.
I started my teaching career in a Montessori classroom and completed my internship at Sarasota Middle School. Once I graduated, I took a job teaching at Booker Middle School. I had the wonderful and rewarding opportunity to teach for five years in a Title I classroom. In those five years, I learned from talented mentors and colleagues. I really grew as an educator and discovered how passionate I was about history education.
Year six, I worked at Sarasota Virtual Academy and learned how to navigate teaching on a virtual platform. Then, my path led me to Sarasota Middle School in year seven. That year, I completed my doctorate degree. I really felt a call to leadership and advocacy for my profession, especially in history education. I wanted to show a correlation between teachers who were prepared and trained to teach historical literacy compared to teachers who were not trained. I found trained teachers were not only comfortable and confident with what they were teaching, but their students had incredible learning gains, significantly more than the untrained teachers. It gave rise to my cause, and I continued to pursue this kind of platform as a leader in my school and my district. In the end, I really put my passion to work.
What drew you to middle school?
Out of 17 years teaching, 13 have been in a middle school classroom. I find kids at this age so impressionable. You can make or break someone’s love of learning, in any grade really, but in middle school where they’re still finding themselves and finding their interests and making choices, teachers can be a big factor in their trajectory for high school and beyond. Developmentally, this age is so important.
Most people say to me, “Wow, thank goodness for you,” or “You’re a saint for working with this age group.” But really, we’re a good fit for each other. You can be goofy—you can really embrace the things that some high school students have moved beyond when it comes to learning and life, and really bond with these kids. I have a wonderful opportunity to cultivate a love of learning.
It’s great. I enjoy the content area. I enjoy getting to have an impact during one of the most difficult stages of their lives. I want to be a support system for their parents and be another piece of their puzzle that helps them become who they are going to be as an adult.
What do you find most challenging about teaching?
There are not enough hours in the day. We can say that for many professions, but for teaching there’s not a lot of flexibility. You’re monitoring students from the moment they walk on campus, and you’re engaged until the last bell rings. You’ve got to be efficient and use your time wisely, but even then, you’re still going to find yourself up early or going to bed late, and often working weekends. It’s just something that I’ve had to do to be successful as a teacher.
This past winter, you were recognized as the Sarasota County Teacher of the Year, and in the spring, you learned you were a top-five finalist in the Florida Teacher of the Year. Can you discuss your experiences and how or if they have changed your teaching and approach in the classroom?
It didn’t change my approach to teaching, but it allowed me to take my voice beyond the classroom into our community, then to Tallahassee, and to the entire state when I had the opportunity to meet the other 73 district teachers of the year in Orlando.
The recognition part, I admit, was a little uncomfortable because the spotlight is not something that I was seeking. I really was just so proud and honored to advocate for history teachers, to represent my students, represent their parents, represent my school and my colleagues on that kind of platform and to really be a voice for all of them.
The biggest piece for me was that I saw most of my colleagues really come forward and say thank you for being a voice for history teachers, and for our students and our passion. And I even got emails from people in New Jersey saying, you’re a history teacher and you made the top-five finalist for the state of Florida. We’re rooting for you.
Though I didn’t win for the state of Florida, as a top-five finalist, I had an opportunity to meet and bond with four other amazing, amazing educators in our state. We’re still working together to celebrate and elevate teachers. I would have loved to have been Teacher of the Year for Florida, but I have received a couple of opportunities recently to share my platform around our state, and I am excited to do those things. As a district leader and a top-five finalist, I am still going to get to extend my reach beyond my classroom. It’s been very exciting, and I’m looking forward to those opportunities. I am so, so proud to represent this district and all those teachers who even reached out to me from afar who were encouraged by my work in education.
What inspires you, in teaching and in life?
One major inspiration since I’ve entered the profession are my colleagues. They bring a wealth of knowledge at any level. The things they do in the classroom are amazing… their talent and professionalism. It keeps me going; it reminds me I can do more. I can be a better educator, I can provide more for my students, and this work we’re doing is so valuable. What we do matters.
I am who I am today because of colleagues. They have shared some opportunities with me that led me to the experiences with the Teaching American History grant, where I got to visit and study in some amazing places. They inspired me to apply to a doctorate program. They gave me the confidence to pursue a research assistant opportunity at the University of Virginia with the Washington Papers, where I met more and more people who continued to inspire me. They supported me when I presented at conferences, where I share my research and share my knowledge of history education. Eventually, my colleagues and I joined together to develop a non-profit to help support teachers in our state. It was colleagues who led me down those paths. I wouldn’t be who I am without them.
Another inspiration is my family. I continue to do what I do because they believe in me. There’s a lot of time that’s taken from them, so I can do my job. And not just do it well, but really fight for a cause that I believe in. Their patience and their encouragement—immeasurable. I could not do this without them. I know that sounds a bit cliché, but it’s 100% accurate. We believe in working hard and being kind in my house, and I was taught that growing up. And we support each other in that mission and set examples for our children. I do my best to make them proud and show my children what is possible as a result.
And you know, with the recent passing of David McCullough, I found I was very emotional. For years, I would carry one of his books with me when I traveled, really hoping I would run into him in an airport, at a conference, or a historic site, hoping I could ask him to sign it. His passing resonated with me more than I thought it would. His influence on history teachers, really anyone who picked up his books, was powerful. He gave a voice to people who were not just those typical names, dates, and dead people we read about in history textbooks, but the people who made America and people who made an impact in other places all over the world. While he was an incredible writer, he was also a historian and a wonderful human being who was and still is incredibly inspiring. If I can help students understand the importance of all voices and help them to look beyond the surface of our typically told historical narrative, they will learn to appreciate the past and how it can affect our future.
With a new school year starting and many new teachers in the district, what advice do you have for those educators just starting out on their journey?
To those who are pursuing the profession, if your heart or your gut is leading you to teaching, stick with it! It is the most valuable and rewarding experience. You change lives and prepare the future.
My husband always says, the legacy we’re leaving as teachers is one of the most important: we are preparing the future, we are keeping kids safe, we are teaching them how to live and be engaged in society. The financial reward may not be as large as other careers, but you are changing the world. We don’t need to be martyrs, but if we hold on to that, and keep that message in our hearts and keep that as our purpose every day, we will change the world.
We work with students for 7.5 hours of the day. Sometimes that’s more than they see their parents. We have a wonderful opportunity to make a difference, whether you’re teaching history, social skills, math, literature, or art. We all have an opportunity to leave our mark on this Earth.
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