Jessica Jernegan may no longer teach in a Bixby classroom, but she’s still being recognized for her success as an educator.
Jernegan, who taught for a decade at Bixby North Intermediate School until her promotion to director of school and community engagement this year, is one of five teachers nationwide to receive the NEA Foundation’s prestigious 2020 Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence.
She learned the news this summer but had to keep it secret until the official announcement during last week’s school board meeting. She’ll travel to Washington, D.C., in February to receive the award and a $10,000 prize.
As excited as she is to be recognized for her hard work, Jernegan said the award is more of a reflection of Bixby and Oklahoma teachers as a whole.
“It sounds like an individual award, but it’s really not,” she said. “There are so many great things happening in our schools, and I know that a lot of times Oklahoma can be viewed in a not-so-positive light from the national level. It just makes me feel so proud and humble that we get to go and tell our story at that level and show people that we have some amazing things going on in our school here, and our kids and our teachers deserve that recognition.”
Jernegan’s commitment to advocacy played a significant role in her being selected. As the former president of the local Oklahoma Education Association chapter, she led numerous Bixby educators and community members in daily protests at the state Capitol during the two-week teacher walkout last year.
She also helped create the Spartans at the Capitol initiative, which involves her and fellow advocates traveling to Oklahoma City every Tuesday during the legislative session for the past four years. The goal is to foster a better relationship with elected officials and fight in solidarity for education funding.
“What I was experiencing a lot as a teacher at the Capitol was a lot of rhetoric about how money isn’t getting to the classroom because it’s all going to administration, or the problem with education is that parents aren’t involved enough,” Jernegan said. “And I knew that not to be true in my world. That’s kind of how Spartans at the Capitol was born, so that we can tell our story in a more powerful way and we can prevent (legislators) from pitting our stakeholder groups against each other if we go together.”
Giving up teaching for a new administrative role at Bixby Public Schools was not an easy decision. Jernegan remembers the tears as she packed up her classroom for the final time in May. But she knew she was ready for a new challenge and was thankful to find that challenge in the same district as director of school and community engagement.
Bixby Superintendent Rob Miller perhaps was even more thankful to keep Jernegan, though he’ll miss her presence in the classroom.
“I feel a little guilty sometimes that we elevated her to this position,” Miller said. “But really, that’s one of her strengths, her ability to communicate and ability to form positive relationships with community members and parents and other teachers.
“So really it is one of those things where she has a unique talent that has allowed her to move into this new position, and the bottom line is she’s going to continue to work on behalf of teachers and kids.”
He’s also more inclined to give Jernegan credit for earning the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence than she is herself.
For one, she was an outstanding classroom teacher with an unrivaled passion for working with students, Miller said. But it’s her unyielding advocacy combined with an ardent demeanor that sets her apart.
“Typically when people think of OEA or NEA, they think of a union kind of mentality,” Miller said. “But that’s really not what Jessica’s approach is. She really is focused and very passionate about doing the right things with teachers and kids and really not being adversarial, but being collaborative and trying to find solutions that are in the best interest of both parties.”