MINNEAPOLIS — Jessica Macken still remembers the train ride that inspired her to become a teacher several years ago.
The ’03 Schalmont High School grad had just earned her master’s in mathematics from the City College of New York and was commuting to her job at Comedy Central, where she worked in ad sales and research. That’s when she saw a sign. Literally.
“I feel like I wasn’t making an impact on society,” Macken said. “So, I was on the subway and saw this sign that read, ‘You remember your kindergarten teacher’s name, who will remember yours?’ It spoke to me.”
Ultimately, Macken recalled conversations she had with a high school teacher about “maybe teaching down the road” and decided it was finally time to fulfil that promise. Macken then got some additional training, decided to use her math degree and followed in the footsteps of her teaching inspirations, Schalmont’s Diane Evans and Sandy Merrill, both of whom she remains in touch with.
Her career switch paid off last Monday. Macken — who has taught students from the Bronx to Minneapolis, and moderated extracurricular activities ranging from dance clubs to yearbook clubs — celebrated winning the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching for her work at the Hiawatha Collegiate High School in Minnesota. The national award, which was only given to 107 teachers this year, comes after Macken won a similar state level award last year. She and her parents, Laurie and Brian Macken, who still reside in the Capital Region, celebrated with her at the Minnesota State Fair.
“It’s easy to feel a little bit of imposter syndrome when you’re looking at something like this,” Macken said. “Especially with teaching. Somedays, I feel like I’m the best teacher in the world and other days, I feel like I’m not doing close to enough. It’s like a roller coaster in this job, so I think I was honestly a little bit shocked.”
The shock hasn’t really worn off for Macken. After finding out about her national recognition in July and having to keep it a secret from her co-workers for a few weeks, she excitedly let them know late last month. She hasn’t told her students yet, however, as she doesn’t want to make much of a fuss about it. But after all, only two teachers per state win the award each year — in both math and science — so celebrations are certainly warranted if she changes her mind.
In-person celebrations, though, aren’t much of an option right now. Recipients in previous years attend a ceremony at the White House where they collect their awards. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s ceremony featured a Zoom presentation, with promises of an in-person event to come when COVID settles.
“It was really nice that they did something,” Macken said. “It was obviously not the same as in-person, but we should hopefully be able to go once things are under control with COVID, so I’m looking forward to that.”
Seeing herself among the other recipients, Macken said, was interesting.
There was one teacher who even took his students on a trip to the Carribean. In comparison, Macken said she’s taken students to field trips to the movies, and even brought some on college trips. So while being recognized among these names was a bit of a shock, she sees it as a reminder that what she does is just as important as where she does it.
“I think that I’ve been really dedicated to working at schools where students deserve really great teachers,” Macken said. “I worked at schools in districts that educate in underserved communities. For me, it’s about being someone with a strong background who really cares about my students and believing in them.”