Jackie Thurston is the kind of teacher who is often up for a challenge and change making. And it’s that spirit that led the special education teacher to make a big switch during a global pandemic. After fifteen years of teaching special education at the elementary level, she opted to teach at North Branford High School this past year.
She said she’s primarily working in English classes as well as teaching skills like how to build resumes and interview for jobs. She’s fallen in love with it even if it has come with challenges she hadn’t anticipated.
Thurston said she’s learned that high schoolers face many difficulties beyond getting to graduation. Students are enduring serious mental health issues that have been compounded by a global pandemic and the pressure of living in the fish bowl of social media, she said.
Some of them also are learning what it’s like to be LGBTQIA+ youth leaders in a small town where many people know you from the time you’re a kindergartener until you graduate.
To be a leader in a minority community takes so much guts and bravery. I want to be that teacher that can say ‘I see you, I hear you and I support you in making the world a better place.
Thurston helps advise the North Branford High’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). Toward the end of this past school year, she helped the GSA and the prom committee to brainstorm ways to make a classic high school rite of passage – choosing a prom court – a more gender inclusive event in the future. Such a brainstorm was necessary after a student was singled out to be elected to the court as a joke. Thurston said the incident opened up an opportunity to have meaningful dialogue with students.
She said she learned the true value of being an ally and being someone with whom students can have safe and difficult conversations. Thurston said she found herself pulling students aside to talk to them about gender and gender identity. She also talked with them about why playing someone’s identity for a joke could have real consequences for another student – a student they’ve likely gone to school with since they all were in kindergarten.
“In our town, the students go kindergarten to 12th grade in the same exact schools,” she said. “They don’t separate at all. That creates a really special community where you get to know people very well.”
Thurston said those conversations led to epiphanies that might not always occur to students growing up in a near homogenous small town. She said after those talks many students told her, “Yeah Ms. Thurston, I get it now.”
She said for the students brave enough to come forward as a bit different, such conversations are essential. And she credits the students of the North Branford High GSA with being advocates for their classmates and for their willingness to educate their fellow students and school staff.
“They just really faced this challenge head on,” she said. “I was so inspired that they’re 16 and 17 and see this happening and they’re just ready to take on the world and make the change.”
Thurston doesn’t mind being the memorable teacher who stands out to students. She said she’s been known to dress in costumes and even to orchestrate the revival of a student circus partly to see if it could be done. Thurston is passionate about global education and global studies so she makes it a point to expose her students to the wider world beyond their state and town borders.
She advises her school’s Global Citizens Club and this year the students developed digital relationships with a classroom in Israel during the most recent eruption of violence between Israel and Palestine.
“They were showing us videos of bombs going off right outside their homes,” she said. “The kids were able to talk about what was happening in real time. My students were just mesmerized by these conversations.”
Making sure that her students are exposed to the world and its challenges is one of the big ways Thurston tries to impact her students. But she said she hopes the little things she does make a difference too. A trip to India three years ago as a Fulbright Teacher in the Global Classroom Program helped reinforce for her the value of simple kindness.
The occasion was a school tour in Hyderabad, where there was a classroom of students celebrating a child’s birthday. And Thurston, who described herself as a “theatrical human being” sang a rendition of a birthday song that was sung at the elementary school where she used to teach.
“I sang her this song and then went on with my day,” she recalled. “Two hours later, when I was heading to a taxi, the little girl came up to me with tears running down her face and handed me candy. She said, ‘Teacher, that was my birthday and this was the best birthday of my life because you sang to me.’”
Thurston said she was deeply touched by the little girl’s gratitude and it taught her something about the impact that teachers make every day.
A teacher's impact is so profound. Something that small can change the trajectory of the day and you can’t underestimate the value of each moment and each opportunity.
She said teaching can be hard and takes emotional, physical and intellectual investment.
“Every part of your being is part of your teaching life,” Thurston said. “It’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle.”
Working in special education, she knows what it is like to work with five other adults to restrain a child so that they don’t harm themselves or anyone else. She said it’s not a profession that people go into because it’s easy.
“Sometimes I go home exhausted and I’ll just cry from the impact of the things we are experiencing,” she said. “I hate to ever have to be a part of the worst part of the student’s day.
“[But] I think teachers really have to understand their impact is so big and so profound,” Thurston added. “You have to take advantage of those moments. Every interaction is an opportunity to do something positive and meaningful.”
She said even though teaching can be tough, it’s more than worth it especially as she sees students she taught in elementary and now high school go off into the world as capable adults.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” she said. “It’s quite the job and I’m really lucky to say I am a teacher. I’m really blessed.”
Watch hereJackie's interview with Mackenzie Maynard on WTNH News Channel 8