The Interview: Milken Educator Award winner Jennifer Olewnik

Jennifer-Olewnik

Every year the exceptional work of one state educator is recognized by the Milken Family Foundation.   It’s called by some the Oscar’s of Teaching.  Grand Bay Middle school reading teacher Jennifer Olewnik is Alabama’s 2014 winner of the Milken Educator Award. Olewnik recently shared about the shock of receiving the prestigious award.  She also talked about celebrating students when they realize that reading is a life skill they need,  and how years ago she knew teaching was in her future.

“My grandmother was my greatest inspiration growing up, the stories that she would have from the classrooms, would just keep me laughing.   And so, I wanted those stories, I wanted to be able to make a difference,” remembers Olewnik.

Jennifer Olewnik “is” making a difference everyday in the lives of students.  Olewnik is Alabama’s newest Milken Educator Award winner.  She was recognized for what she does in the classroom.     Her grandmother’s early influence.. led to years of practice,

“I loved school growing up, I went home and I had the imaginary class with the papers spread out on the floor.   And, I had a grade book because thats what teachers had.    All my little stuffed animals lined up with their work in front of them and I would name them after relatives or friends.  So, if someone made me really angry that day, their stuffed animal got in a lot of trouble in class,” Olewnik says with a laugh.

She remembers being just four years old when she started working with her stuffed animals.  As a senior at Murphy High school, she was an “observing” helper.

“I probably could have been at the beach with all of my friends. I actually went and helped out a family friend at the school that she teaches.  I sat in on her class just to observe, just because I wanted to know everything there was to know about it,” states Olewnik.

Olewnik initially headed out of state to the University of Southern Mississippi for college. She later learned of the benefits of getting her degree at South Alabama.

“When you graduate with your degree you also get a teaching license in the state that you graduate in.   So, I transferred my sophomore year and ended up coming back and finishing at South.   And, I had a wonderful experience,” shares Olewnik.

As a Reading Intervention Teacher at Grand Bay Middle school, Olewnik credits her students for their success.

“It’s my students I mean they just work hard.  I don’t necessarily always think that it’s that they can’t read, it’s just sometimes they’re not interested in reading.  And, especially with our age of technology now, there’s 101 things that they’d rather do than pick up one of those paper books. A lot of it is just finding something that they will enjoy so that they get interested in it, and then they will start doing it on their own.   I just try to help guide them in the right direction so that they find a love of reading like I have,” says Olewnik.

Olewnik says she a tough taskmaster. She finds books they’re interested in and uses technology like texting and social media to engage her students. She believes relationships are important and letting students know you care. Olewnik also supports them in other school or athletic activities that they’re successful in.

“I might jump up and down or yell or high five or holler because it needs to be celebrated. All of their accomplishments should be celebrated.  Oh my gosh, that’s what makes it worth it. The best part is when you have someone that hasn’t been getting it, that doesn’t quite understand.  And then, all of a sudden they’re raising their hand to answer the question in class and it’s a great answer. Especially when it’s an area they have problems with, then that’s a big celebration,” states Olewnik.

Olewnik’s Milkin Educator Award was presented at a surprise celebration.

“It’s mind blowing to say the least, I had not heard of the Milken Foundation at all.  I said are you sure that you called the right name.  I’m not sure this is supposed to be for me and the Milken Foundation representative just laughed and she said, all of our people say that because it’s such a shock. You’re extremely honored, but then you start thinking well what have I done that was so big.   I come in and do the best job I can for my kids every day,” shares Olewnik.

“I definitely want to stay in the classroom.  I can’t imagine not being with them and they are why I come to school every single day.   They need me, I need them, I learn as much from my kids as they learn from me, i’m sure, if not more so.   So, I have to stay in the classroom I can’t imagine life without it.” says Olewnik.

Jennifer Olewnik is one of only 40 teachers nationally to receive the Milken Educator Award. The teacher recognition program was created to help attract, retain and motivate outstanding talent in education. Each winner also receives an unrestricted $25,000 award.

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