FOSTERING AN UNFETTERED LOVE OF READING
For many children, working through learning disabilities can turn them off to school.
But sometimes, as with Sandy Grade School teacher Jennifer Nash, they create determined learners who grow up with empathy and compassion for students.
As a young student, Nash faced her own struggles in school. But rather than let her disadvantage define her, she worked harder and eventually became a tutor to others during high school. That’s when she decided that one day, she’d like to be a teacher. Little did she know that one day, she’d be nominated as one of Pamplin Media Group’s Amazing Educators for her work with students.
“I feel very honored and surprised. I feel humbled. There are so many amazing teachers in this district,” Nash said. “I actually was a struggling reader as a kid. A lot of it was an attention issue for me. I think that gave me that experience to help put myself in my kids’ shoes today. In high school, I volunteered at a Head Start. I think I recognized pretty early on that I was good at helping others and also that I had that level of patience and understanding to work with people. I’ve also always felt like I have a playful, youthful personality, (so) I just connect with (younger kids) better. And I just love teaching kids to read and fostering that love of reading.”
Nash is originally from Carson City, Nevada, but now resides in Sandy. She earned her bachelor’s degree in education at Western Oregon University, and later obtained a master’s degree in education with a focus on reading and diagnosing reading disabilities from Walden University.
Before coming to teach kindergarten and then first grade in Sandy, Nash taught for 10 years at a private school in Lake Oswego.
“At the time, I was leaving my private school for an increase in income and I was looking for a place to help a different group of students,” Nash said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I can use my skills and reach kids who maybe don’t get the same one-on-one time (and where I can) make a bigger impact.”
Nash’s time at Sandy began around the same time that the school hired its current principal, Dr. Rachael George. Over the past seven years, the school has seen great academic growth. As of 2019, Sandy Grade had rocketed from the bottom 10% to the top 20% of Oregon schools, marking one of the highest growth rates in the state, gaining recognition as a national model school. George says she can’t take all of the credit, because teachers like Nash have been integral in the school’s improvement.
“(Nash) is like a kid whisperer when it comes to getting kids engaged in learning,” George said. “If we hadn’t had her, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we have in the past seven years. She has such a high level of expectations and quality and care that it comes through in her work.”
As for how Nash has found success in the classroom, Nash said that boils down to keeping high expectations while also building strong relationships with students and parents.
“I take (my work) very personally, and if I see them staring off or shifting in their chairs, I (try to get them) motivated and engaged,” Nash said. “I have high expectations and hold all of my students accountable, but I do it in a loving and firm way.”
Nash added that athletics really helped her with excess energy and finding better focus in the classroom as a student, so now she works to ensure her kids aren’t sedentary or focused on one topic for too long. “We do many little games or brain breaks and I give them opportunities to share their work in breakout rooms,” Nash said. “I try to get them up and out of their chairs every 15-20 minutes.”
Nash also makes a point to get to know her students — and their parents — to know how to better work with the children. The pandemic and comprehensive distance learning has only made this more important, as well as more challenging.
“(When distance learning began), I was terrified about recording lessons and having to be on the internet,” Nash said. “I wasn’t just teaching kids; now their parents are part of the classroom.” She admits that teaching is not without its challenges, noting the difficulty of feeling that she’s reaching every student. But, just as she holds high standards for her students, she also holds high standards for herself.
“One of my biggest challenges is trying to balance my life and the demands of the job,” Nash said. “I care so much about my job and the people I work with, I don’t just see it as a job — it’s personal to me. I want to feel like I’ve helped every one of (my students).”
In the end, seeing those early sparks of literacy, then a love of reading and progress along the way is what Nash enjoys the most about teaching, despite the long hours and challenges. “There’s really something special about meeting a student who’s really closed off and struggling, (then) seeing them make progress and realize they can do something,” Nash said. “There’s never really been any other profession I’ve had in mind.”