Jane Schmidt: Educator, life learner, road warrior
If you live in Iowa, Jane Schmidt has an entry in her journal about a visit to your county. That’s because the outgoing 2014 Teacher of the Year has visited all 99 counties during her reign, racking up 15,000 in miles. She has traveled to Arizona, Texas, Florida, New Jersey and twice to Washington, D.C. And she has stories to tell. Chances are good if your school was along her route, she dropped in for an impromptu visit.
“When I would see a school, I loved to just drop in and see what they were doing,” said Schmidt, of Maquoketa.
And what she saw she invariably loved.
There was the high school in Mediapolis that had a bona fide bank branch inside the school run by students. There was the school district in Waukon that teamed with the city to build homes – construction that not only enhanced the building trades class, but created much-needed housing in the town. And, yes, there is a waiting list for them.
There was the high school in Fort Madison where the principal would wear an apron on Mondays, with a life lesson imprinted upon it that teachers would embed into their work the coming week.
“It is also a requirement there that each teacher have a personal connection with at least five students every day – beyond ‘how are you?’ We are talking real engagement,” Schmidt said.
Then there was the school district that recognized that poverty was a real problem among their students. They knew that on weekends – when there was no free breakfast or lunch programs – their students went hungry. So the district created an in-school pantry to ensure everyone is fed, each and every day.
“As Norm Borlaug used to say, a kid can’t learn if a kid is hungry,” Schmidt said.
And it’s the laser-focused attention to academics across the state that really impressed her.
“The passion almost knocked me out of my chair,” she said.
A number of districts have implemented Authentic Intellectual Work, known for its acronym AIW, that really caught Schmidt’s attention.
“It allows teachers to come together where they evaluate the recordings of each other teaching,” she said. “They critique one another. That’s collaboration – peer collaboration – really making a difference. Lots of districts are doing it.”
Several schools are adopting author Jim Collins’s “good to great” mentality from his book of the same name.
“They are quoting him because they are working to go from good to great,” Schmidt said. “It’s really quite exciting.”
And then there is Schmidt’s passion for the Iowa Core. She became a one-woman band on the state’s education standards, literally giving dozens of speeches across the state. One thing she learned was there’s a lot of misunderstanding on the subject.
“So many people have come up and said, ‘why don’t we know about the Iowa Core?’” she said. “We need to continue to talk about it. It is so important that we have common standards in Iowa.”
If there is just one takeaway that Schmidt had during the past year, it is the critical nature of leadership.
“I had one dynamic superintendent tell me that he hires the best and then gets out of their way,” she said. “And he had a top-notch team. You could see the strong dynamics working for that district.”
Citing the book, "The Multiplier Effect," which is aimed at management teams, Schmidt says it discerns those in leadership who are “multipliers,” or those who inspire great work out of others, and “diminishers,” those who unwittingly encourage bare-minimum status quo out of their charges.
“You can tell right away if they are a multiplier or a diminisher,” she said. “Even if you think you are a multiplier, this book could set you straight. This book will coach you to become a multiplier. The difference is are you willing to learn? It’s all whether you want to learn and grow. As the saying goes, ‘grow or go.’”
She plans to embrace the leadership role as she returns to the Maquoketa Community School District as the director of professional growth and student learning.
On the whole, Schmidt said her year-long experience has been delightful.
“It was just such a joy to walk into a school and feel at home,” she said. “’Iowa nice’ is just so true. People were gracious. It’s been an honor to represent teachers.”
Though she loved the passion throughout the state, Schmidt cautioned that educators can never rest on their laurels.
“We need to get to know one another, learn from one another,” she said. “The conversations need to continue.”
Seven questions for Jane Schmidt
1. In driving through 99 counties, what odd things did you come across?
On my travels, I had to stop at various times for wild turkeys to cross the road, pheasants flying in my path, a few red foxes slinking along the ditch, and too many deer to count. I saw Albert the Bull at Audubon – a giant 40-ton, 30-foot tall Hereford bull statue that welcomes visitors. You can push a button and he will tell you his story.
2. Being a road warrior, did you have any problems?
I love the term “road warrior.” I don’t know what I would have done without Siri (a feature for voice commands on Apple devices) to keep me on the right path – even though there were times she took me on gravel roads to reach a destination, she always got me there. No flat tires. No car malfunctions. On three occasions I rented a car to save from putting the mileage on my own car.
3. Anything funny happen along the way?
In one small town I decided to stay in a local motel. When I asked for a key, the owner said it was on the desk in the room. There was a rusty sliding glass door that I struggled to open and found the key on the desk. When asked about the poor internet connection, I was advised to sit on the west end of the room. I slept with a chair in front of the sliding class door and a knife under my pillow. The free breakfast consisted of a basket of granola bars and coffee you made yourself.
4. Oddest thing you encountered?
One town where I traveled had streets that were gravel roads. I also stayed around for an after-school program because they were making “fake snot.” Who wouldn’t want to stick around for that?
5. We imagine you dined in lots of small-town restaurants along your journey. How would you sum up your dining experiences?
Local diners are a wonderful way of understanding the community and what they value. In one town, the walls were covered with photos of students from 40 years ago to the present. I saw people enter the restaurant just to find their old high school picture. In another town, the local diner boasted posters of their athletic teams through the years. It is a great way to show community unity with a district.
6. What are you most hopeful about in education?
I am most hopeful about the dedication and determination I witnessed in districts as they strive to act in the best interest of their student population. I know in Iowa the districts that I visited are student-centered and determined to provide collaboration time for teachers to improve in their instruction.
7. What do you hope the Teacher of the Year will see in this state's education system 100 years from now?
Wow! Isn’t it fun to dream?! I would hope that in 2114 we would find differentiation in delivery of education through technological advances along with a continued focus on problem-solving and creativity. Our classrooms would be varied – the physical environment more comfortable with varied furniture or will be delivered online. There would be no walls limiting what we could do and more partnerships with the community and the world.
It is hard to capture in a few words what this past year has meant to me. I appreciate the trust given to me by the Iowa Department of Education, the guidance given by coordinator Isbelia Arzola, the encouragement provided by the Maquoketa Community School District, and the model of commitment shown by administrators and teachers of the districts I visited. It was an honor to represent Iowa teachers and serve as the Iowa Ambassador of Education. To all I say, “Thank you.”
“One of the deep secrets of life is that all that is really worth the doing is what we do for others.” - Lewis Carroll