Jessica Solano was a standout math teacher at Highlands Grove Elementary when she was selected as Polk County’s Teacher of the Year in 2016. She then rose to statewide prominence upon being named Florida’s 2017 Teacher of the Year.
Solano has since left the classroom for a new opportunity, but her influence as an educator has only grown within Polk County Public Schools. We recently caught up with her for this Q&A session.
Q. For those who haven’t heard the news, what is your new job with Polk County Public Schools?
A. This past summer I took on the newly created role of Teacher Engagement Leader. The position was designed to increase our teacher retention rates by implementing new initiatives targeted at engaging new and experienced teachers. Many of our projects are geared toward connecting educators, supporting their development both inside and outside of the classroom, and using feedback to enhance their experience as a teacher. In this role, I oversee the Recruitment and Engagement department and work with my team to make a seamless transition between accepting a job, and transforming that job into a career.
Q. What inspired you to leave the classroom for this opportunity?
A. In my office, I have several pictures of my past students to remind me of how much I truly love teaching. As hard as it was to say goodbye to the classroom, I felt that the potential impact on countless more students would help comfort my teacher heart. Teacher engagement aligns so well with my passion for quality, equitable and sustainable education. I’m excited to connect my experience as a teacher to our new efforts in teacher engagement.
Q. What are some of the most memorable moments from your time as the 2017 Florida Teacher of the Year?
A. It was life-changing! There were so many once-in-a-lifetime experiences, such as meeting the president, being recognized at the college football National Championship game, going to Space Camp and touring the state to work with other educators. By far the most rewarding take-away was getting to see firsthand what it’s like for our students to be out of their comfort zones when asked to learn something new and challenging. I was stretched to learn more than I ever had before; although it was painful at times, in the end I have such a wider perspective as to what truly matters in the world of education. Working alongside other passionate educators and engaging in conversations about the impact we are having on our students continues to encourage me to push forward and think differently.
Q. What advice would you offer to those who are just starting out as teachers (or perhaps those who are still very early in their career)?
A. My advice to any teacher, particularly to those who are just starting out, is to find your “why,” write it down, and remind yourself of it daily. Being a teacher can be extremely challenging, to say the least. However, by focusing on the reason you became and stay a teacher, you are able to push through the challenges and keep your focus on what matters. For me, it came from my experience as a foster sister when I was in high school. I entered the classroom with a sense of urgency and conviction that I was a key player in each of these children’s lives. They needed the perfect balance of love and accountability to ensure they could reach the same opportunities as their peers.
It’s also essential to have a go-to person that you can rely on to help you through, such as a mentor or confidant. Look for someone who is positive, who searches for solutions rather than focuses on the problems, and pushes you to be better than you were yesterday. It goes without saying that this should be someone who also loves teaching and knows their “why!” Being grounded in your purpose and having someone to work alongside you will make a huge impact in the success you have as an educator.
Lastly, as often as you can, be in other teachers’ classrooms! You won’t know what great teaching looks like until you actually see it for yourself. Ask questions and get down to the fine details about how techniques are used in the classroom. Take it a step further and have other teachers come see you in your classroom! Feedback and practice are essential to getting better, and they are truly the key to moving from survival to thriving as a teacher.