April 15, 2021

AFSCME member is Illinois Head Start 2021 Teacher of the Year

AFSCME Local 900B Chief Steward Jennifer Feeney was selected as the 2021 Teacher of the Year for the Illinois Head Start Association because of her hard work and dedication. Read more about what helps make her the best Head Start teacher in Illinois this year in this interview with AFSCME.

Tell us about your job as a Head Start teacher.

COVID has been a big change. Being a virtual teacher involved making videos to give families the freedom to view them at any time instead of having to miss a live zoom call. We did virtual field trips where I’d “take” the kids to a beaver dam or to the grain elevator in Ivesdale. I tried to make it interactive, so the kids weren’t just watching but felt as if they were joining in on the experience.

A lot of my job is relationship building, with the children, the families and my co-teachers. We try to help the parents be a part of their child’s education. We have homework activities each week. During a normal year, we have book mentors that come in to improve literacy opportunities for the families.

What’s your inspiration to go to work every day? What keeps you motivated?

My favorite part of the job is the relationships you build with the children. You have the chance to see children become comfortable with you and share the things they’re excited about and watch them grow. All the neurons that are connecting and the wiring going on in the brain at this age is so incredible.

I also really enjoy the fact that every day is different. One class was really interested in dirt, so we talked about how rocks are weathered down and crunched Oreos pretending we were the forces of weather. Or you’ll have a class that’s really interested in trees. There is so much opportunity to learn new things and it’s challenging. What works for one child won’t work for another child, so you’re constantly learning and trying new strategies and techniques.

I have the most amazing teaching team. I love the collaboration aspect of the job.

How does your job provide a valuable public service?

We are giving parents a place where they can know their children are safe, cared for and loved. They’re going to have healthy meals and be held and encouraged throughout the day. They’re going to get to experience things they might not have the opportunity to do at home for whatever reason.

With a background in early education, you can teach parents things about the growth and development of children they might not otherwise know. That helps strengthen them as a parent. We can introduce new ways of teaching at home. Instead of learning letters and numbers by sitting down and copying, you can teach in interactive and meaningful ways. You can say, ‘Let’s go to the store—what letters do you see on this box of your favorite cereal?’ That way it’s fun and not a power struggle.

What have you learned from your career?

I have learned to be kinder to myself. I’ve learned that it’s OK to have bad days. It’s OK to have struggles. It’s important to acknowledge those struggles but know that you’re not a failure. You just need to persevere. You’re not going to succeed all the time, but you’ll have the opportunity to learn and do better or try something else next time. Everybody makes mistakes.

It’s the same way we approach discipline—we assume positive intent. If a child is acting up, it might be because they have had a bad day, or if a parent has [a difficult] attitude, it’s because they care about their child. It makes your life happier if you assume a positive intent about yourself and others. Assuming the opposite will tear you down.

How does your union improve your work and the services you provide?

Being union has improved our working conditions, increasing our salaries and making our health insurance less expensive than it would be without a union. That makes the job more attractive to quality teachers—and longevity is a plus to both the employee and to management. It’s such a huge cost to train new people and there is so much to learn in Head Start.

Why are you active in the union?

What got me interested in being a steward is I would hear people complaining, and I thought I would be someone who does something. I wanted to have a say. If you don’t do the work, you really don’t have a right to complain. In negotiations, I know what management starts with and where we end up; if the membership saw how far the difference was between that and the outcome, people would be a lot happier and more appreciative.

Without a union, decisions would be made without as much consideration for employees. Head Start funding is grant driven. Those grants can be written in a way to provide more money for management or for employees. If there wasn’t a union, employees would be less of a priority. The wages would be lower. Health insurance would be higher. You could be fired for no reason, there’d be no protection. And if we had less to offer employees, we’d have a lower quality program for the children.

How does it feel to be recognized for your hard work?

When I got the news, I felt utter shock. They were considering so many talented, wonderful teachers across the whole state. I’m so honored. My grandma paid for my last two years of college and I just wish she were still with us so I could tell her about this news in person. My mom said grandma knows.


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