By Antonia Sheel
As an educator and mother to young children, I had the opportunity to chat with the newly appointed Massachusetts Teacher of the Year (2021), Jennifer Hedrington a seventh-grade math teacher at Ferryway School in Malden, and her former student, Taylor Neal, a sophomore at Point University. The experience was both refreshing and inspiring.
Our Zoom conversation touched on everything from what brought Hedrington into the field of education to how Hedrington’s teaching impacted Taylor, who has kept in touch with her years after she first sat in her 7th grade math class.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Antonia: I want to say first and foremost congratulations! How do you feel?
Jen: I’m overwhelmed and humbled. I’m very private. You know I went from having 100 people on my Facebook to 300 or 400. I’m like, oh my gosh this is crazy. I have to remind myself that this is not about me. This is about them. God has blessed me for one year to be a voice to speak up for the kids. I need to put myself aside and put my fears aside.
Antonia: Tell me about yourself. What do most people not know?
Jen: I’ve been teaching math 16 years, 11 in Malden and I have my own two kids who go to school in Malden. Before the pandemic, I commuted 50 miles each day. I do it because I absolutely love the kids in Malden. They’re just phenomenal. I was just telling my husband if I knew that I could love so deeply I may have held off on having my own children. I mean it is that serious. There is no me without them.
Antonia: What drew you to teaching?
Jen: I needed the money. I was in law school and I had a lot of grief. And while in law school an alternative school in Revere needed a math teacher, but more so they needed a disciplinarian and prior to becoming a teacher I worked at group homes and detention centers.
So they hired me and I enjoyed it even though I no idea what I was doing. I don’t have a math background. I don’t have an education background. My students were my age and that was the crazy part. They were like two years younger and I’d be on the board and we would teach each other because I had no idea what I was doing. But I quickly had to learn how to add some numbers.
Antonia: In a previous interview you mentioned how you wanted to be the kind of teacher that you needed? Why is that important?
Jen: I only had four black teachers . I went all the way through law school and one teacher that stuck to me was my fourth grade teacher. Of course. I didn’t realize it was because she was Black; it was not until later that I did. But there was something about her, like the way she loved me. I wanted to do better because of her. I learned my math. I made sure that summer before school started, I learned my multiplication tables so I could show off for her. It took me a while to realize it was because she looked like me, she could relate to me.
I wanted that for the students I taught. You know when I walked into class for the first time in Salemwood — I did Salemwood for 10 and at Ferryway I’m in year two — the kids were, like oh you’re Black. I’m like yeah, I’m Black. So that was important for me.
Antonia: I want to ask about representation and diversity and how important you think that is in teaching especially today.
Jen: I don’t know; I’ve never been the student. I know as teacher I get excited when I go to PDs that are outside my district and I see other teachers of color. In my district there are only four or five out of 800. So you know from a teacher’s point of view, I get excited but I don’t know what a kid’s point of view in this time period would be. So if Taylor could help me out with this.
Taylor: Ms. Hedrington was my first Black teacher. You know growing up in a society where people of color were not wanted or where people of color were not looked at as the people of our future was hard. She was the best teacher of all time. You know going in and out of the grades switching between classrooms, she was the only one teacher that kept it 100 percent real with you. She told you what the future is going to bring, based on how you decide to live your life. Having a teacher like her made me fight for a better lifestyle. My life has taken a turn for the better and because of her, I can honestly say I graduated high school a year early. I am studying to be a teacher to follow in her footsteps.
Antonia: Jen, since you came into teaching in an unconventional way, coming from law school into something completely new, what were some of your earliest impressions of teaching or what it meant to be a teacher. How did you come to your own style?
Jen: To me the least important part of teaching was the math. What I wanted because I knew students might not remember the Pythagorean Theorem when they leave, but they can remember the lessons, the life lessons that were taught— the things that we talked about — the stories. My parents are pastors. So growing up, my dad spoke in parables, so it turned out I speak in stories as well. And I knew that that was what would leave a lasting impression. So I did the numbers because I need them to pass a test. I need them to make sure they can get to whatever level academically they want to. But I wanted them to pass a test of life, which did not require them to know integers. So that was my style. Even now I literally don’t know whether they do it on purpose or not, but they’ll get me off track really quick. They’ll say “Ms. can we get a commercial break?” and I’m like, “No we got to do these numbers.”
Antonia: Speaking of life lessons and those “commercial breaks,” can you tell me more about them?
Jen: One example that sticks with me is I was in class and was teaching and I looked to the corner and there was a little girl and something hit me to stop my lesson and I gave a commercial break. I don’t remember what I said.. But after class she left and I go to my desk to grade papers and get ready for the next class. I find a note on my desk and it says “Miss H., my plan was to end my life today after school, but the story you just told changed my life.”
Antonia: Taylor do you have any stories or any memories about the commercial breaks or any valuable life lessons that Jen shared with you?
Taylor: I have a lot…she spoke to my father because I was having the worst year ever. She sat there, she got to know me and she asked me what do you want to be when you grow up? And I looked at her and I said I want to be a baker and she goes and you know in order to be a baker you have to be good at math. And I looked at her and I was like, “What does math have to do with making cookies?” She said you have to learn how to measure. You need to know your measurements and all these other good things. She was telling me you need to be good at math in order to succeed in life, and to get to where you want to get to, you have to pay attention to what’s going on in front of you. The next week, instead of walking into her class like “oh great I have to sit in her class,” it was like she made me just more cheerful. She made me look at the different side of things.
Antonia: Beyond the good things, have you faced any challenges in your teaching?
Jen: When I see the adults and other teachers, whether intentionally or not, at times harming our kids and our kids not having the support to speak up. That gets to me. You know I try to empower students but usually things have happened too many times prior to me meeting them, and it scarred them. I mean I refuse to let you live with that. So let’s find a way to put you back in your original position and regain your power. I think that part of education matters to me where our teachers do not see our children and I remember when I was 13 and 14 and I remember not being seen.
Antonia: Any particular triumphs you want to comment on?
Jen: Seeing Taylor and she’s telling me she’s going to be a teacher. That’s what makes me proud. You know one of my students was like, “Ms, I’m a pastor, come see me preach,’ another says, “I do stocks, let me help you out.” I have one who’s an NFL prospect. In seventh grade I have them stand up and say what they want to be. One seventh grader said, “Ms, I’m going to be a pilot.” — Do you know, sure enough, he is in his last year of aviation school in Arizona. He comes to visit every time he comes back to Massachusetts. He comes to my class and I introduce him to the kids. I tell my students I don’t need you to be the doctor, the lawyer, just whatever you do, be the best at it.
Antonia: What would you share with other educators or other teachers about how they should be thinking about what they are doing?
Jen: I know we have to teach the curriculum. I understand that’s what we are paid for. That’s where we get our insurance. But before that, we have to teach the heart. We have to open up because a lot of these kids are directly affected by Covid. I am not directly affected. I have not lost anyone. I still have my job, I’m still employed but, many— too many — of our children are directly affected by this pandemic and we have to show them that we see the child, we see the human. Like the other day if you could have just heard the noise and the words that were in the background of one student How can I be upset with this child if they didn’t complete their homework? How does anyone complete homework in that type of environment? You know parents are stressed out because there’s no money, there’s no job, and it trickles down to the kids.
My thing is to teach in color through the lens of love. I would definitely encourage any new teachers to build a relationship. Know your children, see your children. And I also encourage that whatever you’re willing to ask of a child that you willing to give to a child. So then I like to ask Taylor — you were the recipient of education and you’ve gone through it. What would you like to see for your daughter?
Taylor: I think if you are a teacher who builds a relationship, gets to know your children and understand what they’re going through in school and at home, you can be their voice and you can guide them. I want to be one of those teachers who actually helps the students so they feel comfortable to be who they are.
Jen: I think this is the power of teaching and I think you know many times we teach and then we release. We teach the child and we release the child. And you don’t ever get to see what happens. I like to keep with them and go on this journey with them.
Antonia Sheel, a citizen journalist for Neighborhood View, is busy loving on her family, writing, teaching first-generation college students and always thinking in Malden.