When Jack Hesser started teaching science at Indianapolis’ Harshman Middle School in 2016, he also picked up a part-time job at Steak ‘n Shake and ended up working alongside local high schoolers.
His young co-workers told him they didn’t have enough opportunities to talk in class, he said, leading Hesser to reflect on his own teaching style. The feedback “really helped change how I structure my class to incorporate more student voice,” he said.
Four years later, Hesser has worked to build genuine relationships with students in his classes — and schoolwide. On Friday, Hesser was named Indianapolis Public Schools’ 2021 Teacher of the Year, recognized for his leadership, creative lessons, and strong connections with students.
“Even outside of class, I feel like he’s always there,” said MangHnem Tial, one of Hesser’s former students. “You can depend on him.”
Tial, a rising junior at IPS’ Shortridge High School, said Hesser’s interactions with students should serve as a model for other teachers. She recalled, for example, the time Hesser organized and choreographed a lip sync battle after school.
“He’s like their friend,” Tial said. “Out of respect to their friend, they tend to focus more, and try harder” in class.
Hesser said he uses student input to create goals for his science classes and to improve Harshman’s school culture generally.
When the teacher who ran the school’s daily announcements left Harshman, Hesser took it upon himself to revamp them. First, he and another teacher asked the students what they wanted out of the video announcements. They said they wanted them to be informative, but also funny. Hesser continued to run the morning announcements after campuses closed in March, editing old clips so students could see themselves in the videos.
As soon as IPS closed school buildings, Hesser reached out to families of all the students in his advisory class, which functions similarly to a homeroom class.
“I felt strongly that if I wasn’t working with families right away, that I ran the risk of losing contact,” he said.
Hesser held optional Zoom calls for his 16 advisory students every week, even before the district officially started distance learning. He’d pick an article, poem, or game to ground the call, but mostly it was a place for students to process what was happening and say “hi” to their peers.
In normal times and now, Hesser teaches science from a lens of racial equity and talks about influential people of color who haven’t made it into students’ textbooks.
When his class builds rockets during the first semester, they also read the book “Hidden Figures,” a story about a group of black female mathematicians whose work for NASA was critical to the success of the U.S space program.
“For many of our students, that might be the first time that they’ve done a science project in which black scientists and black mathematicians have been centered in the discussion of the physics and math that they’re learning,” Hesser said.
Projects like that are one way for students to see themselves reflected in the learning process, Harshman Principal James Larkin said.
When Larkin found out Hesser had been named Teacher of the Year, he felt a rush of adrenaline because “it’s a really special thing to be the principal of a teacher of the year.”
Within a half hour, Larkin got most of the school’s staff onto a call to tell Hesser about the award. Amid the challenges of these times — between COVID-19 and recent police brutality incidents — the staff was thrilled to celebrate some good news, the principal said. (The educators had already caused a traffic jam on Hesser’s street earlier this spring, when they orchestrated a parade to celebrate his being one of 10 finalists for Teacher of the Year.)
It was an unusual year to be honored as IPS’ Teacher of the Year. In lieu of naming one statewide Teacher of the Year, Indiana last month honored all teachers as Teacher of the Year, in recognition of educators’ pivot to remote teaching.
Recognition aside, Hesser said he’s proud of the work he and his colleagues have done during these unprecedented times.
To this day, Hesser works a part-time job at a Japanese restaurant and uses some of the money he earns to fund student projects. He also fundraises for dissections on his Facebook page.
While he acknowledges that it “always feels good to be seen,” he says he’s excited to keep getting better.
That’s no surprise to Larkin, who said of Hesser: “He’s relentless.”