Janaya Wright is usually the one cooking up something special with her students. But this fall, she was surprised with a top statewide award after being secretly nominated.
In early November, the family and consumer sciences teacher found a plaque nestled in her mailbox at Indianola Middle School. Its engraving announced the good news: Wright was the recipient of the Iowa Family and Consumer Sciences Educators (IFCSE) Outstanding New Educator Award for 2022.
“I was really curious as to who nominated me,” she said. “And I was excited, too, because I’ve not gotten an award like that, and I’m still a fairly new teacher. It was just cool to see recognition.”
As it turned out, her nominators were Annette Jauron, director of teaching and learning for the Indianola Community School District, and Kristy Ellis, principal at IMS.
According to Jauron, Wright’s effort toward “continual improvement” motivated the pair to put her in contention for the honor, which required submission of a short biography and letters of recommendation.
“She strives to create connections with students, so that they are motivated and willing to learn,” Jauron explained, “and she ensures that the FCS program incorporates the most current information and skills students need.”
To be eligible for the award, a teacher must work in an Iowa high school or middle school and have taught for at least three years but not more than five, although it’s acceptable for a nominee to be in their sixth year at the time of application.
And to be selected is quite the honor indeed, noted Jauron.
“IFCSE is the state organization for all Iowa FCS teachers, and only one new educator is selected annually,” she said. “For Janaya to be recognized by her peers within her specific field of expertise is wonderful.”
For Wright, the recognition also carries special meaning for several reasons. Originally from Ottumwa, she was the first person in her family to graduate from college, earning her bachelor’s degree from Grand View University and now working toward her master’s from Buena Vista.
Wright hadn’t realized as a youngster that she was meant to be a teacher, but hints had been there. Playing school had been a favorite pastime, with Wright even crafting assignments for her “pupils.”
“I always tortured my cousins – well, not tortured – but they were always my ‘students,’” Wright recalled, laughing. “They would always do my worksheets.”
Drawn toward cooking and sewing, she had envisioned perhaps opening a shop someday along those lines. But her own family and consumer sciences teachers in high school helped her realize that she wanted to join their ranks – not only because of the fascinating subject matter, but because of how they encouraged her.
“I had a lot of really awesome FCS teachers in high school. … They kind of took me under their wing when I didn’t have anybody else to take me under a wing,” she said. “They helped me through.”
As an undergrad, Wright had student-taught in bigger districts like Waukee and Southeast Polk, she said, but was drawn to Indianola for her first full-time teaching position because of its “hometown feel.”
Five years later, she’s still exactly where she wants to be. Every student who attends IMS has at least two classes with Wright: a quarter of family and consumer sciences in seventh grade and again in eighth. She also offers a daily sewing class and a biweekly after school cooking club.
The most recent club meeting featured a “dessert edition of Friendsgiving,” she said, with the 15 students in attendance whipping up a dozen different confections to share amongst themselves. But once every month, the club turns its sights on treating the community.
“We’ll pack Meals for the Heartland,” Wright gave as an example. “We will make goodie trays and take trays to different businesses in Indianola like the daycare or fire station. We did several nursing homes the year before last.”
Although cooking and sewing are key subjects in Wright’s classes, she makes sure to cover a wide variety of practical “life skills,” from interior design to budgeting – even the realities of what it takes to care for a baby.
Then, at the end of every quarter, she seeks input from students via a written review. For instance, if they didn’t enjoy something, what could make it better?
Of course, that’s where the “continual improvement” that Jauron has observed in Wright often comes into play. Even when a unit is a hit with students and Wright alike, Wright still goes to work thinking of how to make it better yet.
“I feel like I need to do more,” she explained. “So, even if a unit goes perfectly, and the kids and I are happy with it, I just know I can push it a step further and do something more interactive or more hands on.”
Even before Wright earned the Outstanding New Educator Award this fall, she felt like an award winner, thanks to her students.
“I have kids who tell me I’m their favorite teacher – and not just because I give them free food!” she said, laughing. “These kids are so sweet. I have the best kids.”