Spilling The Tea With Jessica Dueñas

Hey y’all! Our first Spilling the Tea piece did so well that we decided to bring it back for even more. (If you didn’t get the chance to check out our first session with Allison Slone, go read it now!)

Our next guest is Jessica Dueñas, Kentucky’s current Teacher of the Year. She’s here with us to spill the tea on her passion for equity and tell us more about the great work she’s been doing as the 2019 Kentucky TOY. Enjoy!

Garris: Hey Jessica! Great to have you with us. You were recently named the 2019 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, which is a huge honor! Can you tell us a little bit about what that award means for you? Any ideas on how you will use your sabbatical leave?

Jessica: I actually opted out of taking the sabbatical leave. I personally am too invested in my students to just leave them in the middle of the year; it wouldn’t have been a decision that is best for them. Also, as a founding staff member of the W.E.B. DuBois Academy, I felt it would have also been unfair to my colleagues to leave a void abruptly in our inaugural year.

So instead of of the sabbatical, the Kentucky Department of Education gave me a $25,000 grant for my use. Some of it will go to my Teacher of the Year travel responsibilities, and the rest will go to my classroom. I’m currently in the early stages of trying to plan a trip to Washington, D.C. trip for my students. Many of them have barely left Louisville or Kentucky, so I imagine for some of them to see the capital, they might be inspired to become President!

Garris: Whoa, that’s awesome! Congratulations again on all your achievements. I’m also glad that you mentioned student-centered decisions. One of the big conversations in education right now is equity for all kids. Here in Kentucky, we’re seeing our Department of Education taking some big initiatives to respond to a study called “The Opportunity Myth,” which made waves by claiming that students across the country aren’t getting access to high-quality learning experiences that they need to be successful down the road. Can you talk a little bit about your own fight for equity for all of your students?

Jessica: Anyone who knows me knows I live and breathe fighting for equity. When I was in Oldham County Middle School, I led professional development session at the district level and in my building about creating equity and teaching students based on their needs and not teaching everyone the same way. Now that I’m in Jefferson County Public Schools, even though the majority of my students are African-American males, my classroom is tailored to meet their needs. Some of them type, some of them handwrite, some sit at desks, others on the carpet, some stand. With regard to extracurricular activities, some of their parents don’t have cars, so throughout our basketball season, I would fill my car with students and take them to games, because otherwise they never would have seen a single one. I also write about my classroom and was published this school year in the JCPS Equity Magazine as well as the Courier-Journal for Black History Month. In my fight for KEA President, I want to fight for equitable funding across the state to all kinds of counties so all teachers have access to the resources they need for their students.

Garris: In an interview you did with KET, you talked about the importance of setting high expectations. Why do those expectations matter for students?

High expectations matter for students, especially mine because my boys as special education students sometimes believe that they themselves are stupid and when I set a high expectation and scaffold meeting there, it debunks that myth of themselves for them. Then I can say, “See! You did it and that’s more than what some of the general education students are doing!” I can’t speak confidence into them, they have to see it for themselves, so the high expectations are important to increase growth because they challenge my students to improve because they start to believe they can do it.

Garris: Very impressive. One last question before we go. As Kentucky Teacher of the Year, you’ve gotten to know a lot of the Bluegrass State’s finest educators. What are some things they all have in common? What’s the recipe for becoming a great teacher?

Jessica: The greatest thing we as strong educators have in common in Kentucky is a love of our students and a strong voice. I think we as practitioners know exactly what is best for our students and the profession, so when we speak, we need to be listened to. We sacrifice time and often our own money, or work multiple jobs, just to make sure we can have the best resources for our students.

With regards to a “recipe,” I’m not sure there is one. I think what’s helped me become a strong teacher has always been the love I have for my students, having empathy but not letting it become pity, and continuing to learn as an educator myself. I don’t teach the same way I did when I started teaching eleven years ago, and in another eleven years I don’t want to be doing the same thing either.

How awesome. Congratulations again on all your achievements, Jessica, and thanks for “spilling the tea” with us today!


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