2020 East High School Teacher of the Year

Amanda Dennison

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Amanda Dennison
East High School
Social Studies

What factors influenced your decision to become a teacher? Identify what you consider to be your greatest contributions to and accomplishments in education. 
My path to teaching is a “never say never” story. If someone had told me five years ago I would be a high school teacher, I would have laughed. Nevertheless, that changed when my partner and I moved to Missouri to be closer to his family. Rewind years before, when I was an undergraduate student with ambitions of being a college professor. Graduate school thrilled me and I loved teaching college students of all ages and backgrounds. However, when we moved to Springfield, Missouri, I started substitute teaching, at the suggestion of my late mother-in-law. Throughout the 2015 school year, I subbed in schools across Springfield and made connections with teachers. At the end of every school day, I came home talking about the kids I met, their experiences at school, and the stories they told about their home lives. I realized I was using my advocate skills more than my Ph.D. Slowly, I realized kids need more support or they would not have the opportunity to go to college and potentially be one of my college students. Actually, it was Ryan, my partner, who asked, “Have you ever thought about being a high school teacher and having a classroom of your own?” I decided it was time for a career change. 

I sought out alternative certification and started applying to high school teaching jobs. Through the summer of 2016, I interviewed and considered offers. But something about East High School just felt right. I became an East Bear and we moved to KC, where I passionately encourage college-bound students to attend college and career-focused students to pursue the highest forms of certification in their fields. My passion as a teacher is to support students in living their best lives and be ready for life after high school. 
One reason I never considered teaching high school was because, during my undergraduate career, there was an assumption that only future coaches earned history education degrees. And I definitely never thought I would coach. I was the nerdy sister who asked her brother’s university college football recruiter how he could help my brother earn good grades! But never say never to coaching too. Today I am a proud coach of East Bears girls and boys soccer and, for two years, I coached the East High cheer team. 
I am thrilled my path in education led me through a fantastic doctoral program where I combined my real-life advocate skills to my dissertation, as well as uncovering the rich history of one of the first shelters for battered women in the United States. I truly value education, and know education comes in a variety of ways. I know not all of my students want to or will attend college—and that is okay with me! Instead, I help steer them in the direction of their passions and paths towards certification and finding the career they love. I am most proud of my ability to help students find their life passions, or at least start exploring them. Going to East every single day is a joy and I am excited to live my teaching passion while helping guide young people through life to find their own life passions.

Describe a project or initiative that you have led or been involved with that contributed to increasing equity in education and opportunity for students in your school. What was your role in this project and what was the impact? 
As an experienced advocate, I was naturally drawn to trauma-informed professional development and training offered during my second year at East. When Courtney Simpson joined our staff, we collaborated to meet the basic needs of many of our students. In the fall of 2018, my third year at East, Ms. Courtney envisioned what has become East’s Care Team. We started as a small group with a couple of teachers, the school nurse, Ms. Courtney, our school therapist, and occasionally a counselor and City Year. Gathering together on Wednesday mornings before school, we still meet to discuss student needs. Because of the relationships we build with students, we learn about the enormous obstacles some of them face: food scarcity, clothing and hygiene needs, suicidal thoughts, couch surfing, living without electricity and/or water, house fires, evictions, guardian unemployment, violence, etc. Through Ms. Courtney, we are able to make connections with community resources and help create equity and opportunities for all kids in our school. By the end of last school year, we started to meet more student needs when ELL teachers and staff accepted our persistent invitations. This year, our Care Team meetings include a few more staff and we provide even more students with the basics they need to be productive students. We also have weekly support groups to help students who are processing grief or anger or body image issues. As I reflect on our grassroots movement, I am overwhelmingly proud of the work we do on a daily basis. It is hard work. As a Care Team member, staff reach out at any time with student needs or suggestions on how to help our students. Students trust us with their insecurities and reach out throughout the day. In all of these ways, I know my work with the Care Team has led to greater equity in education and opportunities for our students because when their basic needs are met they can put their energy and focus into their academic and athletic work. 

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