For Peoria Unified School District teacher Jennifer Cheesman, science and space really are the final frontiers.
For more than a decade she has been teaching science to Zuni Hills Elementary School students.
During that time, she has attended countless summer experiences for educators on top of attending and presenting at local, state and national level science conferences.
She said these experiences have allowed her to bring back fresh, new, novel ideas to both her classroom and the community.
She struck gold with one such idea — an annual STEM night created six years ago.
Nealy 300 students, parents and community members attended the inaugural event. The year prior to the pandemic, more than 800 attended.
The event has become a signature event for Zuni Hills and is planned for March, if the pandemic cooperates.
“Teaching is about building connections, but sometimes those connections go deeper than what happens in the classroom,” she said.
As a veteran teacher of 26 years, Cheesman has been introducing the world of science to her students.
For her work, she has been named the Peoria Independent Hometown Hero in the educator category.
The Hometown Heroes Awards are a celebration of individuals who live or teach in the city, and Peoria businesses for their local achievements and distinguished contributions to the community.
Cheesman will be honored at an awards luncheon next year.
In partnership with the city of Peoria, Cheesman was also interviewed by the city.
Learn more about her here.
What I like most about working in Peoria Unified.
I love working for PUSD because it has been my teaching home for over 25 years. Just like most families there are good days and bad days. On the good days, we celebrate together. We come together as a family to celebrate the successes of the previous school year, but also use it as a springboard to the amazing things we will do for the coming year. PUSD has become my family because I have been at three different elementary schools — Peoria, Ira Murphy and Zuni Hills. It has allowed me to know teachers from the northern to the southern parts of our district and how each area has its own unique challenges.
Personal background highlights.
• Alice Moore Excellence in Leadership Award, 2010-2011;
• Pride of Peoria 2009;
• Honeywell Space Academy for Educators, 2009 and 2012;
• NASA Microgravity University 2013;
• Fulbright Distinguished Award for Short Term Teaching, (six weeks in rural Vietnam) 2019;
• Arizona Semi-Finalist for Teacher of the Year (Top 10) 2022.
What does it mean to be a teacher?
When I am asked this question, I think of Christa McAuliffe, the astronaut teacher who lost her life on board the Challenger disaster.
“To teach is to touch a life forever,” comes to mind. Teaching is more than just standing up in front of the room and teaching a lesson. Teaching is about providing lessons on leadership and the soft skills such as collaboration and communication. Teaching is about building connections, but sometimes those connections go deeper than what happens in the classroom.
I had a student named Lily a few years ago who ended up being admitted to a long-term mental health facility. I knew her struggles and understood what she was going through.
When she felt good, she would call or text me and catch up. It is about being there for our kiddos. If their most basic needs are not being taken care of — food, clothing or shelter — then their learning cannot happen.
Their mental health comes first then the curriculum second. Touching lives occurs in many ways, not just about a lesson or a guest speaker, but for some, it is saving lives.
What do you think you bring to the local community and district?
I relate to many of my students in my community and district because my parents divorced and re-married when I was young.
When I was 9 years old, I was removed by police officers from school and my mother’s home due to welfare. We had been homeless for over six months living in cars, hotels and floors/couches of friends and families’ homes. I was told when I was given to my dad and step-mom that if I did not get caught up by the time school would start again for fifth grade, I would be held back. My parents and I practiced my multiplication tables nightly plus learning the skills I missed when I was not in school. Due to being homeless I missed the first two months of fourth grade. It has been this experience that has led to me to understanding the struggles many of our students go through on a daily, weekly or yearly basis. It allows me to know how emotionally fragile our students are and how important their mental health is.
What would you tell people about why it’s important to make a difference?
Making a difference can happen in small ways such as buying a drink for the person in front of you in Starbucks. You do not know what the other person is going through. Perhaps that $5 drink gives that new mom a quick pick-me-up or a doctor getting off a long shift the energy to get home or a tired teacher the strength to get through the day after a holiday like Halloween. Making a difference starts small and has a big effect — sometimes you don’t know what that is, but knowing that you made a difference is what counts.
My family (what have they taught you?).
Growing up I saw my dad go through night school to get his Bachelors degree and later on his Masters degree on top of being the sole income provider in our household. I saw my dad work hard for the nice things we had and sometimes we had to make sacrifices such as working nights or weekends. But dad did not give up. He always had time for me growing up. Even working in his office on his degree, he would stop what he was doing to share a lemonade with me. Spending a few minutes did not take away from his program because he knew the value of family and spending time with me. My dad and I are the only two people on his side of the family who hold college degrees so it has given us something in common and a bond that has tied us together. So dad has taught me the value of working hard and not giving up. It was the one rule we had growing up — giving up was not an option.
When I failed geometry my junior year of high school, dad said, “You will re-take it your senior year on top of your other math class.”
I did not fail geometry for a lack of trying (I simply did not get it). My senior year in high school, I took geometry (again) for “A” hour then Algebra II Trig last hour.
Now as a teacher, I know the value of trying to get to those kiddos who struggle in math. You have to teach them in multiple ways and encourage them not to give up. Yes, math is hard but life is hard. You have to learn to persevere through the hard times.
My interests and hobbies.
• I love to cook, grill and bake. Sharing food with others makes me happy. Gifts of food from the heart especially during the holidays is a big part of who I am.
• Travel. Every summer I road trip with my boyfriend to Grand Tetons and Yellowstone.
• Reading. This slows my brain down and helps me relax.
• Writing curriculum. For example I recently saw animals who lost their limbs due to poaching and created a unit for my high school group through Arizona Education Foundation called teachSTEM. Showing students that STEM is all around them is so important. STEM is not an isolated topic but encompasses so many things in our daily lives. My friends have nicknamed me the “Lesson Plan Whisperer” because they call me when they are stuck or need inspiration for their own classrooms.
The trait(s) I admire in others.
Compassion. We work with kids who are going through so many ups and downs on top of their hormones running rampant through their bodies. Understanding that not everyone is perfect or have perfect lives. When our kids show up to school in the morning making sure their most basic needs are met is key. We cannot put the blame on 10-12 year olds (or younger) that their agenda is not signed because a parent is working a swing shift or that they are working two jobs to make ends meet. This means understanding that our lives change and sometimes our kiddos just need a hug, some food and a quick nap before getting ready to learn.
John F. Kennedy stood on the steps of Rice University and proclaimed, “We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard."
I admire hard work and those who choose to work hard especially toward a common goal.
I love this quote because hard work pays off even if it is hard.
People who inspired me (and how).
I have a broad group of friends around the world who inspire me. We call ourselves the space sisters. We have met mostly through our space conferences and institutes we have attended. We are like-minded females (a few men thrown, in but mostly females) who support each other through personal and professional struggles. These women are the apex of STEM teachers and have the same passion and mindset that I do. We do what is best for kids and bring the power of STEM into our schools and communities.
When one of is us struggling, we rally around each other through gift cards, flowers, texts, care packages, etc., to make sure we each feel supported and taken care of. When I (or any of us) am ready to give up and discouraged, these amazing ladies rally the troops and get us over that hump. I have not left the classroom because I still love what I do and I am inspired on a daily basis to continue my journey of teaching science.
My guiding philosophy.
At the end of the day, only kindness matters.
If you treat other people with kindness, then more than likely, they will treat you with kindness in return. During the pandemic, our families have been faced with unprecedented stresses. Treating people kindly especially during this time has been crucial in building relationships with families. This, in turn, helps to build my program and supplies. Parents are willing to help the teacher out who responds kindly to them when supplies are needed. It is a mutual respect, but kindness is key.
My advice to today’s youth.
Find your passion.
An astronaut friend, Clayton Anderson, applied to be an astronaut 15 times before being accepted into the Astronaut Training Program. But he did not give up. Failure is not an option. Find the things you are good at and pursue them. Don’t give up on your dreams. You will be happier in life if you are pursuing your goals and dreams even if you disappoint a parent or guardian. Explain why these goals are so important to you and ask that they support you. Those who live a life they love are happier people and will be more successful in life.
Name a couple future goals.
• Run for a school governing board seat;
• Start a science/STEM blog about all the amazing science/STEM opportunities that Arizona has to offer.