Jessica Goodman thought Farmer Elementary’s (Jefferson County) first school-wide assembly in two years was for special guests to learn and celebrate Farmer’s literacy efforts. Instead, the assembly, which included special guests Kentucky Commissioner of Education Jason E. Glass and Gov. Andy Beshear, what for her.
Goodman, a kindergarten through 5th grade science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teacher, was awarded the Milken Educator Award on April 22 in a surprise ceremony. Reflecting on the experience, she said she is “overwhelmed with kindness.”
“I’ve just been overwhelmed with everybody being so nice and so sweet about everything. I’ve got tons of emails and texts and people being incredibly kind. Our staff is so great here and everyone has been so nice,” she said.
Before becoming a recipient, Goodman had heard of the Milken award. She had read online about Kevin Dailey, the previous Kentucky Milken award recipient, but was not expecting her name to be called when she went to the assembly.
The secretive nature of the award prevents family from attending, which made this Milken surprise extra special. In a Milken educator award first, Goodman’s father, “Courier Journal” photographer Jeff Faughender was at the assembly. Faughender also thought he was at the assembly to cover Farmer’s literacy efforts, something he has done before.
Faughender, just as shocked his daughter, was able to help Goodman accept the award along with her two daughters, Evelyn and Margot.
Receiving such a prestigious recognition is icing on the cake for Goodman, who became a teacher because of her love of school. One of her goals is to “make school a place where kids want to go.”
“Even when I was a kid, I never wanted to miss a day of school. I belong in schools,” she said. “I think schools are so important for not just content knowledge but developing skills as a person and developing skills to be successful.”
Goodman began teaching at Farmer Elementary in 2013 as a special education resource teacher. She was drawn to elementary school children due to their willingness to learn and be awed.
“I’ve fallen in love with kids’ creativity at this age,” Goodman said. “They still have so much imagination and love to play and aren’t so self-conscious about that kind of stuff.”
In 2015, midway through the school year, Farmer Elementary Principal Shannon Conlon asked Goodman to step in as the first-grade teacher when the previous teacher retired. It was the perfect opportunity for Goodman, who wanted to go to the classroom eventually. She knew the kids in the class and felt “it was good for them to have someone they knew take over as their teacher.”
Goodman finished out that school year in first grade before she was asked to take on the role of STEM Lab teacher. At the time, having a single teacher devoted solely to STEM was a newer concept. Conlon gave Goodman the freedom to design the class as she saw fit.
“You give anything to Jessica, it’s going to be product. She goes above and beyond,” said Conlon.
“I did a lot of research and discovered the four ‘Cs’ of STEM: creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking,” Goodman said. “Everything we do relates to those four ideas in some way.”
Some of her students’ favorite projects include collaborative building. Goodman will bring in items like Legos, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks or a roll of tape and give the students a design challenge.
“Before they build together, we learn about the engineering design process. They have to ask questions to figure out how they will best meet the challenge. They have to brainstorm solutions together, make a plan together and then they get to build. It’s not just diving right in and getting to play with Legos. There’s a process,” she said.
On occasion, Goodman can bring in the fifth ‘C’ of STEM – compassion.
“One of the goals of people who go into STEM should be to help people and improve the quality of life for people,” said Goodman.
To work in compassion, Goodman uses a project called “Help Harry.” Students are given a little fuzzy ball named “Harry” and tasks they must complete to help him. Students might have to use tubes to make a path he can roll down or build a stand so he can see in class. From the outside it may look silly, but the students are learning deeper concepts.
“I like to keep it fun. I want them to be engaged. It’s an elementary school. They still have that silliness and whimsical (nature). They like stuff like that so let’s do it,” said Goodman. “They are really into it and they are following a complex concept like making a plan. For a kindergartener to say they are making a plan, that’s cool. For them to talk about brainstorming. For them to learn how to ask a good question that’s going to help them with the project.”
Goodman believes STEM is important for elementary students because of the foundational skills they can learn for digital citizenship.
“With the way the world is, we are so extremely connected to each other. A lot of work environments are moving toward a more collaborative setting. We are using collaborative digital tools like Google Docs and Google Slides,” she said. “It might not be Google Docs in 15 years when they are out in the workforce, but for them to have the foundational skills of how to have digital etiquette and how to use technology appropriately will still be relevant.”
Goodman practices what she teaches in terms of collaboration – she sponsors the Junior Beta Robotics and Technology team with her husband, Patrick. When Goodman was approached about being the robotics team sponsor, she knew his creativity, engineering background and hands-on skills would help the students.
“I went home that day and said ‘Hey, do you think we could do this together? Do you want to build a robot with me?’ and he said absolutely.”
Students on the robotics team go deep into the engineer design process. Each school year, the Goodmans host a build day for students to make, test and modify their robot to fit the constraints of that year’s theme.
“We are honest with them if we can’t do something,” she said. “But that means they have to be creative and think of other things they might want to do.”
Since its inception, the robotics team has won the Kentucky State championships for the last four years and were National Champions in 2017 and 2019.
Goodman’s teaching methods and dedication to students learning and growth led to her selection as one of more than 60 Milken Educator Award winners honored during the 2021-2022 school year. The Milken Family Foundation has recognized more than 2,800 educators – including 58 in Kentucky – since the Milken Educator Awards were first presented in 1987.
She received a $25,000 unrestricted cash prize and became part of a network of colleagues that serve as a resource for educators, school boards and other groups dedicated to excellence in education.
In addition to her work with students, Goodman’s colleagues say she is the type of person you want to work with.
“She is one of those colleagues you can always count on whether it’s the smallest of tasks or biggest of tasks, she is always willing to jump in and do the work,” said Mindy Stivers, assistant principal of Farmer Elementary. “That colleague’s role is part of her personality and it comes out in the work she does.”