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SLPS Educator Of The Year Jana Flynn Traded Courtrooms For The Classroom

Last week, just before St. Louis Public Schools kicked off a fall semester like no other, Jana Flynn’s masked colleagues surprised her with flowers, a plaque and signs — all in celebration of her being named the district’s 2020 Educator of the Year.

An Aug. 28 release cited Flynn’s “passion, dedication and desire to think outside of the box” in her work with gifted students ranging from preschool to eighth grade.

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Jana Flynn
Educator Jana Flynn hasn't let 2020's challenges slow her down from her work engaging the hearts and minds of young students.

It’s safe to say Flynn’s thinking outside the box even more these days as she finds ways to engage students’ hearts and minds virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic. But as an educator who works with three different schools and travels among as many as 10 different SLPS buildings over the course of any given month, Flynn was already accustomed to being flexible.

So even as her colleagues celebrate her honor and wish her well in representing their efforts in Missouri’s statewide teacher-of-the-year contest, Flynn is quick to pass along any kudos to her students and their families. Since Flynn’s instruction involves pulling gifted students out of their regular classes at particular points, it can seem like another Zoom-oriented complication.

“I look at the parents and worry it’s one more class they have to get their kid connected to,” Flynn told St. Louis on the Air. Still, she said that time and again it becomes clear, even through all the screens, that the students are glad to be interacting with her and each other. And even though they’re often working remotely in teams on everything from coding to robotics projects, they’re getting it done.

“My students have mastered it,” Flynn said.

On Friday’s show, Flynn joined host Sarah Fenske for a closer look at how she’s helping students make the most of a difficult year — and what drew her back to working with children after an interim career for the state of Missouri as a juvenile conflicts attorney.

Flynn explained that while she found her previous role as a public defender in St. Louis fascinating and fulfilling — working with “some of the neatest people” that she’s ever interacted with — she missed the classroom.

“For me, teaching and what I did as an attorney, they’re in the same vein,” she said. “They go back and forth. And for me it’s just seeing kids and helping them and seeing what more they can do and how they can better themselves. But [it] got pretty dark at times, especially being a juvenile attorney.

“There’s certain things people shouldn’t see in life or know exist in life, and so I thought to myself: ‘I need that light back. I need that happiness back. I’m going back to teaching.’”

And she plans to stick with it.

“A lot of people have said, ‘Oh, are you going to go into administration or are you going to do something else?’ … I’m doing what I want to do. I love it. Does that mean that I won’t go back into law? No, I’m still a lawyer, I still have that, I can still write briefs and do things on that end of that. And I can go back into the courtroom if I want to. And again I’m fascinated by it. But it’s just not the same as teaching with kids.”

Flynn added that she thinks SLPS doesn’t receive enough credit.

“Because I’m in multiple buildings, I see the level of creativity and learning that’s taking place, and I see families and communities showing neighborhood pride in reclaiming their schools,” she said. “So for me St. Louis Public [is] a wonderful school district from what I’m seeing.”

Ahead of the conversation with Flynn, the talk show team reached out to listeners for their stories about teachers who made a big difference in their own lives.

In the St. Louis on the Air Facebook group, Debra Mize wrote about Mr. Adams, her high school mythology teacher in Collinsville, Illinois, decades ago. She remembers Adams giving his students a question to research: “What is special about the knots DaVinci tied on the corner of the tablecloth on his painting of the Last Supper?”

Mize wrote: “I think I was one of the few who looked. Couldn't find it. I asked [him about it] at the end of the year. He said he was surprised I was still thinking about it and to check back when I found it. ... I kept searching, through some really bad, hard times. I couldn't find it."

Years later, one of Mize’s daughters had Mr. Adams in class, too. Mize wrote: "I finally cried uncle. I went and told him I couldn't [figure it out]. He kind of smiled and said that was the answer. The knots tied couldn't have happened. They were impossible. ... His message was that not all problems have solutions. Not all can be solved, but we have to put effort into it. ... As much as the answer was not expected, it was a process I needed. I still long for something like it to inspire me to keep looking and looking.”

Dennis Bentley of St. Louis Public Radio recalled a physics class during his senior year of high school, one he was taking simply because he needed a science credit and where he found himself “lost, day one.” His teacher, Mr. Bowen, recognized Bentley was struggling.

He took me aside with batteries, wire and meters and hooked things together,” Bentley recalled. “How he knew that I had a yearning and knack for electronics, I don't know. He showed me electron flow and even burned out an ammeter explaining it to me, after hours, on his own precious time. A year and a half later I was teaching electronics for the Air Force.

“I sent him a note explaining why that meter burned up. I also thanked him for showing me physics rather than just spewing textbook theory. This single lesson set the course of my quite successful professional life. I'm still confounded by complex math, but I can fix your computer."

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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