Featured Teachers: Jen Schutte

Photos by Daniel Vasta/The Herald
Southridge Middle School language arts teacher Jennifer Schutte, right, assists sixth-grader Mallory Tooley during class at the school in Huntingburg on Tuesday.


HUNTINGBURG — Unlike most people, Jennifer Schutte, 33, knew what she wanted to be when she grew up in second grade.

Back then, she was a student at Loogootee Community Schools and decided she wanted to be a teacher when she grew up. And while she’s sure she had some other ideas in high school, Schutte stayed on the path that led her to her sixth-grade language arts classroom at Southridge Middle School.

“I love this age group,” Schutte said. “They’re chaotic; They’re lost half the time. But it’s fun to be able to joke with them, and you can see when they get something.”

Schutte finished her ninth year of teaching last week, all of which were done in the Southwest Dubois School District. She started in a kindergarten classroom fresh out of the University of Southern Indiana where she earned a degree in elementary education with a minor in Spanish. After three years teaching kindergarten, she took the position teaching sixth-grade language arts that she currently holds. The first few years teaching language arts were a challenge, she recalled, because she has more of a math mind, but the other sixth-grade language arts teacher, Nichole Riehle, helped alot.

While teaching, Schutte pursued her master’s degree in education online through Ball State University. In that program, she took a concentration in RTI — response to intervention — that uses different data scales to measure student progress and develop plans to help.

Both the master’s concentration and the Spanish minor in undergrad have come in handy during her career.

Southridge Middle School Principal Greg Gogel said Schutte’s played a key role in the student intervention task force that looks at academic, behavioral and social-emotional student data to identify ways to help the students. She’s also one of the staff members he relies on to help translate when a new Spanish-speaking family moves into the school.

“She just really steps up and takes things on with initiative,” Gogel said. “I just really appreciate her work and her effort and how she tries to reach our kids day in and day out.”

While Schutte does use her Spanish skills regularly with students whose first language is Spanish, she does her best to find a balance between using Spanish with them and making sure they learn English. With some students, for example, she may write their test directions in Spanish so they’re clear on the expectations, but the questions and answers are all in English. Or when she’s giving Spanish-speaking students directions, she’ll say them in English, then repeat them in Spanish, then repeat them a second time in English.

Southridge Middle School language arts teacher Jennifer Schutte, center, watches student presentations during class at the school in Huntingburg on Tuesday.

“I think it gives them a little bit of confidence that there’s someone they can ask for help, but I try to keep it as minimal as possible because they’re here to learn English,” Schutte said. “But it does help with the nervousness of students that have no clue when they come in here and don’t know of anyone else.”

Once her students reach a level of proficiency on English language learner tests, she stops using Spanish with them in class.

It’s still early in Schutte’s career, but she’s taught long enough to see lots of changes in education, most notably the increased use of technology in teaching. When she moved to the middle school, they were using computer labs. Now, every student has his or her own Chromebook.

The change is good and bad, Schutte said, but she thinks it’s positive overall. Her students are more organized now because all their documents are on their Chromebooks instead of on sheets of paper spread around different folders and their lockers. They also get more opportunity to improve their keyboarding skills, which will serve them well later in life.

The technology also helps Schutte differentiate teaching to meet the needs of all her students. With tests, for example, she can write different versions of the test or create a video of her reading the test, which students can listen to with their headphones. That way, students with special needs can take a test in class, rather than having to be pulled out of class like they did in the past. It helps those students feel like they’re part of the class and doesn’t put them on display on test day, Schutte said, which she sees as a positive since they’re doing the same assignments as their students who don’t need accommodations.

Research has also become much less daunting, with students able to find answers to all their questions quickly.

“Of course, now we have to teach about credible sources and how to recognize them on the internet,” Schutte said.

The key to successfully using technology to teach, Schutte said, is finding a good balance. She and Riehle make sure to put at least one novel in their students’ hands each quarter and to foster a love of reading in their students. To that end, Schutte begins each of her class periods with 10 minutes of pleasure reading time where students read something that interests them.

“Kids need this book that they can hold in their hand and read so not everything is computer-based,” Schutte said. “The kids get so much of that, in their own free time, too.”

Schutte also has her students take notes in traditional notebooks and works in one device-free group project each quarter. This quarter, the group project had students create bottle characters — dolls of a character from the book they were reading made from plastic bottles. Students had to decorate their bottle to look like a character from “The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg” by Rodman Philbrick. Students also had to choose a character trait they wanted to show, such as honesty or faith, and find text evidence that proved the character displayed that quality. That evidence went on note cards that were placed inside the bottles.

In addition to providing a creative outlet for her students, the project also gave Schutte a way to sneak writing practice into the lesson. With sixth-graders, she said, improving their writing skills can be a struggle, so she looks for ways to let them write about subjects they like and to incorporate the skill in unexpected places. With the bottle characters, writing practice came when the students wrote complete sentences on the note cards.

“They don’t realize they’re doing writing when they’re doing something they enjoy,” Schutte said.

The projects also give the students a chance to let loose and be silly. One group, for example, created a bottle character of a Quaker man from the book. To show his faith, they glued a big cross made out of gold pipe cleaners on his head. When Schutte explained that he would have worn the cross around his neck, Maddi Wright told her jokingly that the cross was actually the knowledge of God coming down from heaven into his brain.

“Well, that is symbolism,” Schutte said, laughing.

Exchanges like that are common in Schutte’s classroom where she and her students like to have fun together.

“She’s really nice and funny,” Maddi said. “She’s an overall great person and just a good person to be around.”

The class gets some of the biggest laughs out of the stories Schutte tells about her kids. She and her husband, Adam, have two kids — Coal, 2 and Cailey, 1. Schutte tells her students all about her toddlers’ antics.

“I love that I can tell my kids stories about my crazy 2-year-old and they find it funny,” Schutte said. “I say, ‘You know you were that age once. You were also that terrible 2-year-old at one time.’”

For all the fun they have in class, Schutte knows there are some challenges. Over her nine years as a teacher, she’s seen mental health become a challenge for some students as they stress a lot about their grades. “Kids worry about their grades and stress to an extreme over it,” Schutte said. “You’ve got to be OK that you may get down on a few of them. Study harder the next time. You can do it without taking it to a terrible stress level.”

The stress goes back to elementary school, Schutte thinks, where kids are being expected learn earlier and earlier. When she taught kindergarten, for example, she remembers seeing the play time decrease as state standards required kids to be more and more proficient with reading and writing sooner.

“They don’t get any play time. It’s all rigor and it’s all extreme,” Schutte said. “They’re writing paragraphs in kindergarten now. I wish that things could change [because] you still have to have that play time.”

The high expectations at a young age translate into older students who expect themselves to be perfect and don’t understand that it’s OK to fail as long as you try harder next time, Schutte said. She wishes that the lawmakers who control standards better understood the effects those requirements have on the kids.

Still, Schutte said, she tries not to worry too much about the laws and actions that come out of Indianapolis. On that front, things are constantly changing, and it’s mostly out of her control. Instead, she focuses on what she can control: the learning and atmosphere in her classroom.

“I can control more in [the classroom],” Schutte said. “I try to make the difference that I can here.”

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