Jennifer Mitchell, who was Westcliff’s teacher of the year last year, was awarded the title and a $5,000 honorarium last month. She will be formally recognized at a luncheon this week.
The Academic Chairs for Teaching Excellence program, modeled after the university-level chair program, recognizes outstanding classroom teachers, according to the Fort Worth ISD website.
The school’s principal, Sara Gillaspie, encouraged Mitchell to apply for the award.
“She’s just an incredible teacher — she’s one of a kind,” Gillaspie said. “We have a lot of incredible teachers here, but Jennifer Mitchell just has a different way of connecting with kids.”
The application process, which included multiple essays, a teaching demonstration and an interview, offered Mitchell a chance to talk about her teaching philosophy, which she said is made of two parts.
“There’s an academic side and a personal side,” Mitchell said. “It’s really important to hone my craft as an educator so I can understand what they’re going to need to know for the state tests. But the bigger part of my teaching philosophy is I want them to walk out of my classroom knowing how to be good people.”
Mitchell’s personal teaching style is part of what makes her an excellent teacher, Gillaspie said.
“We’ve had kids with real trauma, and she healed them in a way,” Gillaspie said. “She counsels them, she involves them in things and finds special ways to touch every kid and gives them opportunities to change the course of their lives.”
Mitchell said she tries to empower her students by helping them realize that they have control over their own success.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from; it’s what you do with what you’ve got,” she said. “If you come here, every single person is given the same opportunity. I will never be impressed with how smart you are, but I will always be impressed with how hard you work.”
Mitchell, who majored in interior design at Texas State University, said she never expected to become a teacher. She was working as an interior designer when the housing market collapsed, and she decided to reinvent her career and start teaching.
“I swore I’d never be a teacher,” she said. “I feel like I’ve found my niche, whether that was intentional or not.”
For Mitchell, the most rewarding part of being a teacher is seeing her students learn to believe in themselves.
“It’s almost addicting to be there with the kids and get to see their progress,” she said.
Staff and students at Westcliff gathered in the school’s gymnasium to surprise Mitchell with the award. After the presentation, Mitchell and her students paraded around the school with a student-made banner.
“Everyone on our campus feels that she’s so deserving and is the perfect person to be highlighted for excellence in teaching,” Gillaspie said. “Our campus is super proud to have her all the time.”