SciTech

EXCHANGE: Teacher averted burnout to become a top instructor

In this Friday, Sept. 20, 2019 photo, Jen Leban, a sixth-through-eighth-grade creative technology teacher at Sandburg Middle School in Elmhurst, Ill., teaches sixth-graders in technology
In this Friday, Sept. 20, 2019 photo, Jen Leban, a sixth-through-eighth-grade creative technology teacher at Sandburg Middle School in Elmhurst, Ill., teaches sixth-graders in technology Bev Horne

Jen Leban was burned out as a middle school art teacher and contemplating a new profession.

She's one of those people who wants to constantly be moving and learning new things from her students, but teaching art wasn't giving her that drive.

And then she became a creative technology teacher and everything changed. Suddenly, she felt she could be truly passionate about her work.

Now in her element, Leban's enthusiasm for teaching and thinking outside the box resurfaced and her path became clear.

On a recent day, standing in the doorway awaiting her sixth-grade students at Sandburg Middle School in Elmhurst Unit District 205, Leban realized they were quite late.

"This is very unusual," she said with a laugh. "Welcome to my life."

And, for a teacher, what a good life it is. Leban was recognized this fall as one of 10 finalists for the 2020 Illinois Teacher of the Year Award from the Illinois State Board of Education.

Leban began student teaching in 2001 at Sandburg. After being hired as an art teacher, she quickly felt drained.

"I thrive off change and get bored easily," she says.

When Principal Linda Fehrenbacher offered her a position as the computer teacher, Leban said no. Although she had a passion for technology, it wasn't the right fit.

But the district created a new curriculum the next year and Leban began her role as a creative technology teacher -- a job that fit her like a hand in a glove.

While she always had an interest in art and helping people, the chance to incorporate technology into her teaching makes her feel complete.

"The fact that technology is always changing energizes me," she says.

Her mindset is reflected in her classroom. With bean bags, exercise balls and stools for chairs, it is not a conventional learning space. The room is scattered with pieces of the students' inventive assignments, including small robots, tablets and graphic design projects.

As mini-robots scurry across the classroom floor, Leban bops around the room assisting students with their assignments and sometimes just chatting.

One boy talks about his favorite game, Minecraft. He tells her his favorite project is creating digital Lego characters of themselves and, as his face lights up, so does Leban's.

"I talk to the kids about anything," Leban says. "We talk about video games. I just ask them what they like. I always ask for their opinions and feedback."

As easy as Leban makes her job look, her colleagues recognize her dedication.

"She is willing to go above and beyond to support the learning climate of this school," Fehrenbacher says. "She is a very creative thinker and is always challenging herself and the kids."

Leban always has been passionate about technology, with all the Google badge certifications and a Tech Specialist Endorsement under her belt. As a teacher, she continuously applies for grants for technology such as cameras, computers and TVs.

Her students have worked with Google Drawings, stop motion technology and Video Reality. Her eighth-graders even created imitation YouTube channels and produced videos.

Technology Support Specialist Jan Dolan has come to rely on Leban's expertise.

"She is a wonderful resource for our department," Dolan says. "Whenever I have a question, I always think of her."

Leban brings more than her expansive technology knowledge to the classroom. She also has a special way of relating to her students.

Her own family illustrated how to form connections. With two younger brothers, a husband who also teaches and a 7-year-old son, Leban says she had a variety of perspectives.

When she began at Sandburg, her brother, who is six years younger, already was teaching there. He helped her bond with the kids. As a mother, she's able to understand parents' viewpoints.

"With a son of my own, I can relate to the parents," Leban says. "As a mom, I have empathy. When I first started, I didn't have that perspective."

She strives to understand her students and keep them excited about school. She says technology is an excellent way to make teaching stimulating, for both her and her students.

"When I want to learn something new, I throw it at them and they give me ideas," Leban says. "You can't wait to become an expert to teach. It's like we're learning together."

Ask Leban to describe herself and she uses words like "scrappy." She is continuously searching for the latest tech to explore with her students. It's evident that her colleagues and principal appreciate what she has done for the school.

"A lot of teachers improve their craft, but few are willing to share their teaching practices and their highs and lows, with others," Fehrenbacher says. "Her presence goes beyond Sandburg. It's hard to find anyone who has her level of involvement."

Leban presents programs around the country for the International Society for Technology in Education, sharing what she learned about teaching and bringing innovative ideas back to Sandburg.

"She always helps the other teachers," Fehrenbacher says. "She includes them in her new ideas and supports them."

Although Leban now feels fulfilled, she admits she went through rough patches. While teaching art, Leban began to feel the stress and demanding nature of the job, but wasn't getting anything out of it. She was ready to move on to newer teaching methods, but understood it can be hard to embrace new philosophies.

While she still teaches eighth-grade art, she also gets to share her passion for creative technology with the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

Leban says she can relate to middle-schoolers. And on those occasions when she gets frustrated, she reminds herself she is the adult in the room and tries to remember all the positives.

"It's not for the weak, but it's about what you get out of it," Leban says. "Their energy keeps me young. It is stressful, but I think you have to decide where to put your energy."

When Leban feels she's running out of new concepts, she turns to other teachers online. Networking with art teachers and technology enthusiasts inspires her and motivates her to learn new things so she can share them with her students.

The Sandburg community is happy to see Leban's determination pay off through her Teacher of the Year finalist status.

"This is so well deserved," Fehrenbacher says. "I think she has a nationwide influence on teaching."

While she is proud and excited, Leban says she has mixed emotions about her nomination.

"When something like this is handed to you, you almost want to ask, 'Are you sure?'" Leban says. "I don't feel like what I do is above and beyond. And I think this award could suit anyone at Sandburg. But it is an honor."

Jen Leban offers these tips for teachers:

1. Don't be afraid to teach something you're not an expert on. The kids will help teach you. We tell students it's OK to fail, so why don't we practice that?

2. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Your colleagues are a wealth of knowledge. Even finding a virtual network is helpful.

3. Be thoughtful about where you expend your mental energy. Some things are not worth worrying about.

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Source: (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald, https://bit.ly/2ISvBAS

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Information from: Daily Herald, http://www.dailyherald.com

This is an AP-Illinois Exchange story offered by the (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald.

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