Jeni Rogers was dragging.
This was several weeks ago and she was coming off the flu and the level in her normally endless reserve of energy and general peppiness was hovering near empty as she entered her fifth-grade classroom at Prairie Elementary School in Naperville.
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After several minutes, one of her 24 students, a boy, eased up to her the way fifth-grade boys do, looked her in the face and said, "I'm so glad you're here. I love you so much."
And suddenly Jeni Rogers, a teacher known throughout her school community for her ability to build connections based on mutual respect with her students, their parents and her peers, felt it all pay off.
The teacher who has built a career by building confidence in others, by knowing exactly what motivates them and how to push them to excel, by demonstrating the importance of caring, had come face to face with a student who not only learned those lessons, but instinctively knew how to apply them.
"It was," she says now, "like a gift from God."
Funny she should say that, because after almost 30 years in Prairie classrooms, many of the folks she has come in contact with feel Rogers is something of a gift herself.
"I cannot do justice in words to express my gratitude for the passion, commitment and excellence of Jeni Rogers," parent Jennifer Curtin wrote in one of many emails the Daily Herald received nominating Rogers as a teacher worth celebrating.
Curtain said her son was in Rogers' class and she hopes her daughter will be, too.
"She changed my child for the better, and we feel absolutely blessed to have had her in our lives," Curtain wrote. "Jeni Rogers is a diamond among gems in our Naperville Unit District 203 school district team."
This is Tracy Dvorchak's first year as principal at Prairie, but she sees it, too.
She talks about how Rogers strives from the first day of school to the last to treat each student as an individual, to find out what drives and interests them, and to build upon their attributes.
She talks about how Rogers sets goals for her classroom and how she's a serious educator who makes learning fun.
Walk into Rogers' classroom, she says, and you'll see kids learning in many different ways but, "inevitably there's laughter and joy."
Better still, Rogers is the same way with parents and staff.
"She makes you feel special," Dvorchak says. "She takes time to laugh and celebrate."
"In a lot of ways," Dvorchak says, "Jeni is the heart and soul of this school."
Always a teacher
"Mrs. Rogers was an absolutely fantastic role model for my son. She brought out the best in him and helped him to become a confident and strong young man. … She is also a wonderful motivator … funny, charismatic, smart, witty and loving." -- parent Yvette Pelicot.
Jeni Rogers grew up in Naperville, went to school here, and knew early on she wanted to be a teacher. As a young girl she was always "playing school," and by the time she reached Jefferson Junior High she found she loved everything around her. Loved the classroom. Loved the teachers. Even loved the principal.
She started out teaching first grade at Prairie for about 14 years, then spent four years as a second-grade teacher and finally settled into her fifth-grade classroom.
Ask around about what makes her so effective and almost everybody will settle on a common theme: She seems to know what makes kids tick. And they know what makes her tick, too.
Fifth-graders challenge her, she says. They make her laugh. "They're funny, inquisitive and I love to see the growth," she says.
On a recent morning, Rogers gives her students a group assignment that will take maybe 10 minutes and sits down with a visitor. During that conversation students approach her with questions, oh, every minute or so. And every one of them says "excuse me" or waits to be acknowledged. And Rogers thanks each of them by name for their courtesy, patiently answers their questions and sends them off with some simple encouragement.
That process of mutual respect starts the first time a student walks into a classroom and, as we shall see, never really ends. Parents marvel at how quickly she connects with their children, how quickly she builds trust.
She calls it "emotional intelligence."
"I try to get to know them individually as people before I try to teach them," she says. "I get to know what they like and what they're afraid of.
"I always say they have to think that you care before they care what you think."
It doesn't happen overnight. She starts each school year with roughly two dozen new students, each with a different personality, background and skill set, and begins the process of preparing them both scholastically and emotionally for the coming jump to middle school.
Dvorchak says Rogers starts by working with her students to build expectations. That, she says, gives the students a sense of ownership and that sense of buy-in is key to Rogers' success.
Rogers strives to make learning fun, but she can be firm when she needs to. Earlier this year, for example, a problem was developing with cellphone use in her class.
"Your job here is to learn," she told students, "and your cellphones aren't helping."
At the same time, Rogers doesn't dwell on the negative.
"If a child makes a mistake, that's how she looks at it -- as a mistake," Dvorchak says. "She addresses it and then says, 'How do we move forward?'"
"She's a great teacher because when we don't understand something … she goes back again and again until we understand," student Ellie Stanich says.
Rogers says she strives to be flexible, patient, aware of individual differences and forgiving. It's not a bad approach for her students to take, too.
"In this classroom, we have each other's backs," she says. "We try to forgive people and be able to apologize. I tell kids, 'If you make a mistake, don't beat yourself up.'"
"My daughter sees Mrs. Rogers almost every morning as she waits for the bus to pick her up for middle school. It's fun to walk to the bus stop and see all of the former students smile and wave at Mrs. Rogers." -- parent Amy Lieberman.
If you're going to be a great teacher, you have to have a passion for what you do and you've got to understand that it's just possible your influence is going to last long beyond the end of the school year.
Jeni Rogers knows that, but it doesn't hurt to be reminded, and that happened over winter break when a former student, now about 30 years old, returned to Prairie to look up his former teacher.
The two chatted for a while and he recounted stories from his first-grade year, things Rogers had said and done, and she smiled and nodded and thought something like, "Jeez, I don't remember all that."
But her former student did, and ultimately that's what counts.
"You have to realize how important this job is," Rogers says. "What we do, what we say, how we act, is something these kids will never forget."
For Rogers, that sometimes means engaging in a little self-deprecating humor.
On a recent morning she turned to her students and asked, "What's my favorite joke?" and many of them shouted back "Your hair!"
She laughs because, truth be told, Rogers has lots of hair. Lots and lots of hair. Enough to make a bald reporter think to himself, "Hey, could you lend me some of that? Nobody would notice."
"What else?" she asks the students.
And one boy shouts back, "You slipped on some yogurt and tore your meniscus."
Rogers laughs again because, yeah, she did slip on some yogurt and, yeah, she did tear her meniscus.
"If you see me limping around," she says, "that's why."
It's a natural give-and-take, and it's the kind of thing that won't stop when the school year ends.
For just about as long as anyone can remember, Rogers has written emails to her former students that go out a day or two before they start middle school. It's a note that reminds them how special they are. It's a note that reminds them she's still thinking about them. It's a note that reminds them they've done all the necessary work, they've learned all the necessary lessons and they're ready to take this next, sometimes scary step.
"The night before he began junior high, we received a lovely email from Mrs. Rogers reminding my son (and his grade five classmates) that he was ready, that he was able and, more importantly, to remember how special he was," parent Jennifer Curtin wrote in her email. "He walked tall to the bus that morning and has come home with a smile on his face every day."
"Mrs. Rogers is one of those teachers that you never forget, the one with the poofy hair and nicknames for every student. She truly cares about each and every student. … The best gift Jeni Rogers will receive is the knowledge that … when asked years from now, 'Tell me a teacher that made an impact on your life,' many of these students, if not all, will say Mrs. Rogers." -- parents Andrea and Ajay Marwah.
In addition to her classroom work, Dvorchak says Rogers plays a key role on the school's continuous improvement team, helping plan staff development and working on curriculum.
"It's a remarkable balance," she says, "people and curriculum. When you're able to blend those two things, that's when magic happens in the classroom."
Better still, Dvorchak says, Rogers is adept at building the critical three-way relationship that connects the school, parents and children. It's based on a lot of open dialogue, she says, that allows Rogers to work with parents to identify their child's potential weaknesses and to formulate effective plans to deal with them.
"She sets high expectations for character and academic success," the principal says. "Every student comes in at a certain level and her job is to meet them where they are and help them move forward. When you can build a community in your classroom where students aren't afraid to raise their hands and say, 'Hey, I don't get it,' then you've accomplished something."
You also know you've accomplished something when the principal starts getting calls and notes in January from parents of fourth-graders who want their children to be in Mrs. Rogers fifth-grade class next year.
Rogers glances away when you tell her stuff like that. Look, she's 50 years old and been at this for 28 or 29 years, and she knows she's good at what she does. But she's also quick to deflect much of the praise, talking about the importance of parental involvement and the advantages that come with working with "some amazing colleagues, from the administration to the teachers."
After all these years, she says she'll occasionally be asked if she's ready to retire. This is a demanding job, after all, working with 24 fifth-graders, meeting new students and parents every year.
But, for now at least, she scoffs at the idea of stepping down.
Yeah, sometimes the day-to-day planning can be tough, and trying to keep on top of every subject you teach in fifth grade can be a challenge. And, yes, she's got a husband and four kids of her own -- ranging in age from middle school to college -- and sometimes it's hard when you've got to take some of your work home or maybe sneak in for an hour or two on weekends.
But retire? Now? With all those kids still out there, kids looking for a teacher who believes in them?
She'd cut her hair first.
"There's nothing I don't love about my job," she says with the same look in her eye that has made hundreds -- heck, thousands -- of kids believe in her message and believe in her.
Dvorchak knows the look, too. As a rookie principal, she faced some of her own challenges when she arrived at Prairie and one of the first people to welcome her was Jeni Rogers.
Every once in a while, she says, you meet someone who just seems made for the job. Someone with passion and humor and a sense of caring that just fits in perfectly with those around her.
She sees all that in Jeni Rogers, and if she was to tell her what she really, really thinks about her teaching, it would be incredibly simple.
"Wow," she would say. "You ended up doing exactly what you're supposed to be doing."