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From airhead to ace-educator, Rossier School graduate student Janine Jellander is names the best first-year teacher in California.
Janine Jellander is so bubbly her pupils sometimes wonder if she’s high – on natural stimulants, of course.
“My kids say, ‘Do you drink coffee, Miss J.?’ or ‘Boy, you eat too much chocolate!’” chuckles the high school teacher and USC graduate student.
Why all the euphoria? Simple, replies Jellander, who teaches geography and history at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, Calif. “I’m happy to be there. And I think if I’m happy to be there, they’re happy to be there.”
Others are happy she’s there too, most notably the American Association of School Administrators. The organization has named Jellander the best first-year teacher in California for 1999. She received the award at a Sept. 17 ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Jellander is the second USC Rossier School of Education graduate student in three years to be singled out for statewide education honors. In 1997, the Association of California School Administrators named Howard Lappin “Principal of the Year.” Lappin, who is principal of Foshay Learning Center, one of the USC Family of Five neighborhood schools, is working on an Ed.D. at the Rossier School.

The award that Jellander won, which includes a $1,500 prize and an expense-paid weekend in Washington, D.C., was launched 15 years ago by Sallie Mae (the Student Loan Marketing Association) to recognize excellence during what is widely regarded as the most challenging year in one of the most challenging professions. The 1999 Sallie Mae First Class Teacher Award Program received more than 1,400 nominations from across the country. A panel of experts chose one teacher to represent each state; Jellander was selected from among 104 entries from California.
“I can’t think of anyone who deserves this award more than she does,” said Larry Picus, a professor of educational policy, planning and administration and Jellander’s academic adviser. “I’m always surprised by her hard work and dedication and her unending enthusiasm for the task.”
The award caps a harried year for Jellander, who put in 12-hour-plus days at Mira Costa while juggling the demands of graduate-level coursework in educational leadership. She reported to school at 6 a.m., and usually lingered several hours past the last bell at 2:48 p.m. Like her students, she hit the books every night. But unlike them, she also had to plan lessons for the following day.
Yet somehow, Jellander found the time to coach the powder puff football team, announce the school marching band during football games and serve as yearbook adviser. Genuinely interested in her students’ lives outside the classroom, she also turned out for their volleyball, football and water polo matches and their drama and chorus performances.

Success didn’t always come so easily for Jellander. The self-described former “academic airhead” from Thousand Oaks spent two years in a probationary program at University of Northern Colorado for undergraduates with high school GPAs below 3.0.
The death of her twin brother Michael served as a wake-up call. “I really wanted what he [had] wanted,” she said. “He had been accepted to USC, but I just didn’t have the grades.”
Jellander cleaned up her academic act, transferring to USC in 1994 as a junior. She majored in history, earning straight A’s in her final semester.
The reformed airhead went on for a master’s degree at the Rossier School, finishing summa cum laude in 1997. Jellander entered the Ed.D. program the following year and began her doctoral thesis this fall.
She makes no secret of her academically checkered past. In fact, the 25-year-old teacher eagerly draws on her life-experience to motivate her students.
"The message to them is, no matter your failures in high school, you can become a success," Jellander says. "It just takes effort and determination."
The three-degree Trojan makes no secret about her college choice, either. An entire wall of her classroom is plastered with USC pennants, pom-poms, posters, and booster paraphernalia.

-Meg Sullivan



Photograph by David Roberts

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