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Jessica May smiling at the camera standing in front of a brick wall

Alumna Named Colorado Teacher of the Year

Jessica May will spend the next year serving as an ambassador of sorts for the state’s teachers and will join the education commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet, a state advisory panel of educators, according to the education nonprofit Chalkbeat Colorado.

For 2024 Colorado Teacher of the Year Jessica May, ’96, experiential learning is what teaching is all about.  

For the eighth graders in her Family and Consumer Sciences courses at Turner Middle School in Berthoud, this could mean taking care of a “rice baby” for two weeks with no more than three hours away from the pseudo infant at any time. Or, for her seventh graders, it might be planning a redesign of the school’s outdated classroom kitchen before ever baking anything, to teach them budgeting, planning, teamwork and conflict resolution. This hands-on teaching isn’t new for May, who’s been in the classroom for 21 years, teaching everything from English language arts to social-emotional learning. 

When May was studying Elementary Education at UNC in 1994, the university was piloting a program where college students taught three consecutive semesters at Mary Blair Elementary School in Loveland, which is now part Peakview Academy at Conrad Ball after a consolidation in last year. Typically, college students spend just one semester student-teaching. This elongated and continued experience gave May time to build relationships with her students and teacher mentors, as well as get to know the administrative staff and the school. 

Forging strong connections to her school support system has been invaluable for May, and the primary reason for which she attributes her success in winning this award. 

“I didn’t get here alone,” May said, acknowledging the scores of teachers, professors, mentors and administrators who contributed to her success along the way.  

In the classroom, May wants to ensure what she’s teaching applies to students’ lives.  

“Make your content connect to the real world or why are we teaching it,” she said. 

For example, when she taught financial literacy, May brought it back to real-world application by having her students research the average earnings of someone with and without a high school diploma and someone with and without a post-secondary degree. From there she had them calculate the average costs of rent, groceries and gas. Finally, she related this back to a person’s reading level and how not being able to read and comprehend at grade-level impacts a person’s ability to pass a driver’s test, graduate high school and thereby impacting the type, location and level of work they might get. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when she and her peers were teaching remotely, they had to determine how to teach four core subjects in only three class periods. 

May and a science teacher decided to combine their courses, English language arts and science, into a single course called “SciComm,” where they co-taught. It was part science lesson and part reading and comprehension of the science text.  

Jared Stallones, dean of UNC’s College of Education and Behavioral Sciences, said that all of these experiences speak to why May was nominated for, and ultimately won the award.  

“Jessica’s selection for this award reflects UNC’s long tradition of excellence in teacher preparation. The fact that nearly one in three of all Colorado Teacher of the Year Award recipients are UNC graduates underscores our role as the premier teacher preparation institution in the state, as well as our deep commitment to education in Colorado,” Stallones said.

The Colorado Teacher of the Year award is supported by the Boettcher Foundation and Denver 7. Watch Denver 7's announcement below:

May will spend the next year serving as an ambassador of sorts for the state’s teachers and will join the education commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet, a state advisory panel of educators, according to the education nonprofit Chalkbeat Colorado. She’ll also represent Colorado in the National Teacher of the Year competition, visit the White House and participate in NASA space camp. 

May is the 18th UNC alum named Colorado Teacher of the Year. Since the Colorado Department of Education began recognizing exceptionally dedicated, knowledgeable and skilled K-12 classroom teachers in 1963, about 30%, or one in three of awardees, has been a UNC alum. Known as Colorado’s teacher of teachers, the university has graduated more than 50% of the education professionals in Colorado. 

Many of these teachers start their journey at the annual Future Teacher Conference, hosted by UNC for the past nine years. The event brings together high school, Teacher Cadet and community college students for a series of hands-on workshops and experiential sessions led by student teachers (current UNC students), local educators and veteran teachers, along with UNC faculty and staff.  

One of the many lessons learned during the full-day conference is that a teacher’s job is never done, and that being actively present is a job that takes both skills and mastery. 

For May, this has been true throughout her career.  

“I’m never sitting at my desk. I’m never grading. I’m never checking emails. I’m focused on the kids,” May told the Berthoud Weekly Surveyor about her experience when teaching her class.

– written by Christina Abel.

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