Into the classroom

Jennifer Kelly offers insight into middle school years

By Richard Ploch | Nov 13, 2013
Photo by: Richard Ploch Jennifer Kelly and Owen Lubinski — Into the classroom with Jennifer Kelly

Those crucial middle school years


Richard Ploch,


Jennifer Kelly teaches math to students in their middle year (seventh grade) at Waynesville Middle School and knows that these are critically important years for a child to develop a commitment to education.

“They’re at the right age to be mature enough to be responsible for themselves,” she said, “but they still care what their parents and teachers think about them. In middle school, students develop their study work ethic, so it’s a good fit for me. They even still appreciate my sense of humor.”


Kelly recognizes the importance of her work with these children.

“Educators know that exposure to math and science are early indicators of future success or Americans will not be competitive in the global work force. Teachers today are preparing kids for jobs that don't yet exist. I hope to show my students that I believe they can be successful in school,” she said.

People often enter the field of teaching because of the early influence of a teacher on their own lives. That is true for Kelly, whose mother is an educator and still fills in at Clyde Elementary’s exceptional children’s classes. But for Kelly, there was a much deeper reason for entering the field. With a Stetson University major in marketing and a challenging career in advertising that took her from Tampa to Atlanta to Washington, D.C., her future was bright with a loving husband and a baby on the way.

Eight days before her son Austin’s birth, however, her husband, Thomas, died suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 36. Then, by the time Austin was 2, he was diagnosed with Fragile X Syndrome, a condition that is the number one genetic cause of intellectual impairment and also the leading known genetic cause of autism.

“It was evident early on that Austin would be served by the exceptional children's program once he got into public school,” said Kelly. “Being a teacher has given me insight into the types of educational decisions that have been and will be made for him. Having a work schedule that is consistent with his school schedule has been really valuable in planning therapy and doctor's visits to specialists that we see as far away as California.”

“I have the greatest admiration for Ms. Kelly,” says her Waynesville Middle School Principal Trevor Putnam. “She has faced so many challenges in her life yet she has a smile on her face every single day. Ms. Kelly is an excellent role model for our students. She leads her class with patience, kindness, and compassion for all students.”

A teacher’s work day is at least 10 hours long with after school lesson plans to prepare, papers to grade, reports to submit, and conferences with parents, plus additional hours on weekends.

Yet Kelly loves her work because she cares about her students’ success, which is apparent when visiting her classroom. Her advanced math class comes right after lunch as 30 12- and 13-year old children noisily fill her room.

“Mrs. Kelly, you’re the best,” says one girl.

The day’s lesson is a problem solving treasure hunt. Classmates team up and move about the room to locate the match for math problems and their solutions, which were posted on walls, dry erase boards and cabinets.

On the front corkboard, the day’s lesson is spelled out with language most adults would find baffling, “I can apply the distributive property with positive and negative numbers to simplify expressions and solve problems.”

Jennifer McHenry and Virginia Fry were hard at work.

“Mrs. Kelly makes it fun to learn,” they agreed. “She explains things so we can understand them. If one student needs a review, she stops and makes sure we all know the answer. She let’s us be outgoing without letting us go crazy.”

It’s an interactive hour with physical and mental activity. In another corner of the room, Shelby Glace shares the same insight as Jennifer and Virginia.

“She explains problems on the board so everyone in class understands,” Glace said.

“She’s awesome,” adds Elizabeth Flowe.

Through it all, Kelly moves through the room with serene confidence that she is where she is meant to be as she gives individual attention to students who ask questions and need extra help.

“I am so fortunate to be part of the math department at Waynesville Middle School. Every day I am especially thankful to be part of the seventh grade team of math teachers. One was my mentor last year, Kristine Bates. Even as a veteran teacher she is always trying new things and eager to collaborate with other teachers,” Kelly said. “The other math teacher, Elaine Hyatt, came to teaching later in life like me and she is so amazing with her students. I could not have wished for a better Professional Learning Community (PLC) than this one. We touch base every day, in the halls, between classes, in the cafeteria...every chance we get. We share resources, write tests together, talk about tips and tricks that worked in class that day. It just works.”

In spite of the obstacles she has faced, Kelly approaches her career with cheerful gratitude,  noting “I've had enough experiences at this point to know when I have a good thing going and at WMS I've got a good thing going!”