Standing outside of Winfield Elementary School Monday to have her portrait taken was the first time Jena Ehmann had been at the school since it closed to students and staff in March.
It was a bittersweet moment for the reading specialist, who was named the 2020 Teacher of the Year for Carroll County last week.
“The school building really comes alive when when the students are there. I mean, that’s what it’s for," she said. “And so even [Monday], to go over and just there’s nobody playing on the playground...”
Her office is right next to that playground and it’s not unusual to hear the sounds of recess or a stray ball hitting the window.
“Some people might say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s gotta be irritating.’ But no, it’s the part you want to hear,” Ehmann said. “You want to hear them laughing and having fun and talking to each other. To go over [now], it’s just so it’s so different without them. It doesn’t feel like it’s complete.”
In her recommendation letter for Ehmann, Principal Katie Purper said students are at the forefront of all of Ehmann’s decisions.
“Ms. Ehmann has led our school-wide focus on including students in goal setting and building the skills required to develop perseverance. Ms. Ehmann is always willing to take the lead when it comes to encouraging students to work hard and do their best,” she wrote.
Ehmann, a 12-year veteran teacher with Carroll County Public Schools was selected as the school system’s teacher of the year from among eight finalists in the annual contest co-sponsored by the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce. The Board of Education announced it at a meeting May 13.
“I feel very fortunate that in my career, all of these small like moments really did add up to, to this big picture,” Ehmann said of her education and career. “I don’t think there is a better job, or a better fit for me in education than where I am right now.”
As a reading specialist, her job has three main parts: working with students through interventions, supporting teachers as a resource and collaborator, and working with professional development and writing curriculum for the whole county.
She enjoys the variety and getting to see many sides of education through her work.
“I love the idea that elementary school, especially — being the first time you go to school — the whole world is open to you. You can be anything you want to be by learning all of these things that we teach as early as elementary school,” she said.
In Ehmann’s family, teaching is the family business and learning is cherished. Her grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, and both sisters are teachers. Her mother taught for more than 30 years in Carroll County.
“She loved it. She would come home and tell the best stories,” Ehmann said, “I loved in the summertime when it was time for her to set up her classroom. That’s all I wanted to do was go help. And I didn’t care if I was putting up bulletin boards or if she asked me to sort papers, I was enamored with the entire process.”
“Before I even left elementary school, I had decided that in some way I was going to be in a school, and I was pretty sure that I was going to be a teacher," she said.
She has always loved reading and writing. Part of her motivation to share that with students is her grandfather, who grew up in an Italian immigrant family, speaking only Italian as a child. School was difficult when he started. But he went on to teach others writing in English with the Civilian Conservation Corps
Ehmann thought, “Gosh, that’s what I want to do. I want to help students the same way.”
She also shared the recognition with the educators she works with.
“We all work together to help one another to to really think outside the box and [build] that breadth and depth of learning," she said.
Ehmann and her colleagues organize Winfield Reads, an annual event in it’s third year. From winter break on, everyone in the school community, from teachers to the principal to every member of staff is offered a copy of a book to read together. Each week, they ask questions about the book over morning announcements, and classes get penguins on their door for answering.
This year’s book was “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.” Even before it was announced, there were hints throughout the school year. A staff member entered a penguin pumpkin in a school-wide carving contest. And a team of teachers dressed as Mr. Popper and the penguins for a book-character dress up day.
“We will teach kids to read. That’s our job,” she said. “But if we can teach just one to really love it. That’s the magic right there.”
The final piece of Winfield Reads, scheduled for March 12, was a family night celebration. They were expecting about 300 guests that evening before the school had to cancel at the last hour because of new restrictions against large gatherings. The next day was the last day of in-person classes for CCPS.
When it came time to tell students what had happened, Ehmann looked back to Mr. Popper. In the book, he has to make a decision between continuing the performing penguin act and sending them to live in the wild.
“And so I read that portion of the text on the morning announcements. And I said to the students, just like Mr. Popper had to make this big decision about what was right, we had to do the same thing last night," she said. "And so we’ve decided that we’re going to wait until it’s safe so we can come together and celebrate.”