Jacob Poelma is changing the game for students in Monroe County. Through critical mentorship, personalized teaching, and innovative technology, the biology teacher is improving how students learn. In his fourth year at Coral Shores High School, his efforts have earned him the Teacher of the Year award from Monroe County School District.
The Mississippi native recalls a letter he received his first year as a teacher. “It was after school, and I was questioning why I chose to be a teacher,” he said, “then this student gave me the letter, and it said, ‘Thank you for letting me be happy at school because I can’t be happy at home.’”
The memory still hits home, and Poelma tells the Weekly, “That became the seed in me that we’re teaching people. We’re not just teaching stats and numbers; these kids are people.”
It was then that the science teacher realized there’s more to kids than their good test scores, data produced or what they turn in. He works hard to honor this individuality, fostering a sense of community and a safe haven in his classroom for students. “They see me as an adult who’s not a parent that they can talk to. I really value that,” he said.
His focus on each students’ unique life and needs also informs how he teaches. “I focus on what a student can learn, rather than on what the teacher can teach,” he says.
Poelma uses a lighthearted teaching style and personal examples to engage his students. From using student’s own creations as lecture examples to pulling in what’s going on around school, he keeps students engaged with the material.
“When they see me not as a scary adult but someone trying to have fun with science, they also want to have fun with it,” he says. “It helps the material stick.”
Poelma has even revolutionized the classroom, casting real-time language translations of his lectures to student laptops and cell phones. “I can have it in Spanish for you, and Islandic for her, while teaching in English. It makes a big difference for ELL students to learn in their language, so when their English language skills pick up, they actually understand the material.”
This innovation is just one example of Poelma’s attention to the individual needs of each of his students, and one he hopes to implement in classrooms around the county.
True to his values, Poelma mentors students both in and out of the classroom, announcing home football games, sponsoring the Gaming Club, hosting the talent show and volunteering for extracurricular activities every chance he can. He loves it, saying, “There’s a lot of kids that when you see them and what they do, that they aren’t just doing it for volunteer hours on their sheets, you have hope.”
The Teacher of the Year is chosen from individual winners at every school in the district. Candidates are judged on instruction, data, school/community involvement, recommendation letters, as well as rigorous critique of a video of a lesson.
“The committee had a difficult time selecting from such a talented group of extraordinary teachers,” said selection committee chairperson Amber Acevedo. “In the end, Jacob’s passion for education and ability to build student relationships set him apart.”
Poelma concludes, “I still have that letter from my first year. It’s a big reminder of why I am who I am and why I love this job.”