MARSHVILLE – Jennifer Whitley grew up in a family of educators and learned to appreciate education at an early age.
Her appreciation eventually grew into a passion that brought her back to her alma mater, Forest Hills High School, to teach history – and ultimately become the 2014-15 Union County Public Schools Teacher of the Year.
Whitley followed in the footsteps of her mother, who retired as a UCPS teacher and now serves as a school guidance counselor in South Carolina.
“I remember just seeing education as a lifestyle, so it became important to me at a young age, having a mom who was directly involved in it,” Whitley said.
But Whitley didn’t originally plan to become a teacher. Her goal during her junior year at Forest Hills was to become a lawyer; however, an internship with a law firm made Whitley realize the profession wasn’t for her, and she decided to pursue a career in education instead.
Whitley enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she majored in history on a North Carolina Teaching Fellows scholarship – something she said not only helped her pay for school, but also gave her valuable hands-on classroom experience.
“It’s a great program and enabled me to get directly into the classroom my first year in college,” she said. “I was able to go in my first semester of my freshman year working at West Meck (High School), getting hours in. It gave me … an educator’s perspective as a student early
After graduating from UNC Charlotte, Whitley landed a job at Piedmont High School, where she taught before a position opened up at Forest Hills. Whitley has taught at Forest Hills for a total of about five-and-a-half years, with some time off in between, and she’s thoroughly enjoyed her time at the
“I love the students. I love being part of the community,” she said. “I think that’s why I’ve always wanted to get back to Forest Hills. I love being part of something that’s bigger than me, to invest in the students there to let them know they can be successful.”
The biggest challenge about being a teacher, Whitley said, is time management – trying to figure out how to cover all of the content and convey it to the students in a way they can understand, while also pacing the curriculum to line up with the allotted instruction time.
But hearing the students’ success stories makes it worth the hard work and is the best part of being a teacher, she said. One of her former students was Forest Hills’s Teacher of the Year last year, and another former student became the first person in his family to go to college.
“For an African-American male to go and be successful in college is a great thing to celebrate,” Whitley said of the student. “To celebrate those success stories at Forest Hills, that’s really exciting to me.”
Forest Hills Principal Dr. Kevin Plue said the school sees students from many different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. One of the things that makes Whitley an asset to the school, Plue said, is her ability to teach to all students, whether they’re acing an honors class or struggling to pass a general course.
“She can teach at both ends of that spectrum,” Plue said. “She’s equally adept at teaching all of those kids and helping them reach their highest potential, whatever that is.”
Whitley said becoming the county’s Teacher of the Year has been a humbling experience, and she wants her legacy to reflect someone who helped each student reach his or her full potential and learn how to give back to the community.
“The biggest advice I have (for other teachers) is don’t get so wrapped up in the data and the numbers,” she said. “See each student as an individual (and) create within them their own unique confidence to be successful.”