From the very start of her time at Ashland University, two things were immediately obvious to most people.
First, Jessie Fiffick, ‘14, was meant to be a teacher.
And second, she was bound to do big things.
As an Eagle alumna, Jessie’s commitment to her students is a testament to both her own dedication and the power of her alma mater’s education program. But the recent recipient of the Orange County Public Schools Hero Teacher award in Celebration, Florida, almost didn’t choose to spend her college years at Ashland.
“Ashland felt too close,” she says. “I grew up about an hour away and was really drawn to the culture and excitement of larger schools. I really loved the vibe of the bigger state school campuses.” After spending a week on Ashland’s campus for a summer program prior to her senior year of high school, however, her perception changed. “I was walking across the quad, and someone called my name. I looked up, and it was the president at the time, Dr. Fred Finks. I’d met him once, and he remembered my name. I knew I was in the right place.”
In terms of campus opportunities, Jessie jumped in with both feet. She participated in various extracurricular activities, including her involvement in the Campus Activities Board (CAB) and her role as the Summer Orientation Director for the Orientation Team. “I learned so many essential organizational and leadership skills that helped me in incredible ways during my teaching career,” she says. ”I also made many friends I’m still connected to. Some are basically family at this point.”
As an education student, Jessie found Ashland University’s approach to teaching highly impactful. She points to the unique opportunity the university provided by immersing students in classroom experiences from their freshman year onwards, a rarity among other institutions.
“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. But, as freshmen, some of my friends knew they wanted to shift majors after seeing what all is involved with being in an actual classroom,” she says. “That’s huge. It lets you know early on whether to continue in this direction or find something else. If teaching isn’t for you, it’s great to know it upfront.”
Ashland’s faculty, particularly mentors like Jan Rinehart, played a pivotal role in preparing Jessie and her fellow education majors for success after graduation.
“Jan Rinehart was a phenomenal human being through and through,” says Jessie. “She was real with you. She recognized there were hard days in education, and that’s okay. I think a lot of people in her position tend to sugarcoat things, tell you it’s all sunshine and rainbows, but of course, it’s not. She shared her hard days with us. She shared her stories of tough students and tough parents and gave us the tools to navigate that. She said it’s okay to be frustrated. It’s okay to have hard days. You pick up the pieces and move on, and have a better day tomorrow.”
Jessie also points to her participation in the Southern Internship Program, through Ashland University, as a formative part of her education. Along with eight other students, she lived and worked in Celebration, Florida, for six weeks during her senior year. Following this experience, Jessie secured a teaching job in the area and has positively impacted students’ lives ever since.
Jessie was recently honored with the Orange County Public Schools Hero Teacher Award, which is given annually to the teacher who most exemplifies the commitment to motivating and pushing students toward excellence.
“It’s amazing to be recognized,” she says. “The best part of teaching is the kids. It’s incredible to watch them grow and mature and know that you had a hand in helping them get there. And those connections last. I attend many piano and ballet recitals and baseball games because the students want you there. They want you to be proud of them. The award was nice because it reinforces that, yeah, it’s all about the kids, and good things happen when you stay focused on them.”
Jessie’s journey continues to evolve as she takes on new roles within the school system. Her recent promotion to reading coach and an MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports) coordinator highlights her commitment to continuous growth and improvement, both for her students and the school as a whole. Although initially hesitant to step outside the comfort of the classroom, Jessie’s dedication to her students and the encouragement of her principal led her to embrace new challenges and opportunities. She gives much of the credit to her years at Ashland.
“Because of the Southern Internship Program, there are a lot of Ashland people down here,” she says. “And principals know about Ashland University. When they hear you’re from Ashland University, they want to hire you because they know how great the education program is. We’ve made a name for ourselves down here. Ashland University students work hard, they know that, and they’re excited to hire you when you come down here.”
Jessie’s unwavering dedication, passion and the enduring relationships she fosters with her students stand as a testament to the transformative power of education. Her story reinforces the value of embracing opportunities, forming meaningful connections and making a lasting impact on the lives of others.
Her advice is clear for students looking to attend Ashland University with a career in education on the horizon.
“Join as many clubs as possible,” she says. “Get involved in as many ways as possible. Seize every opportunity. Get out of your room and go meet people. Keep an open mind about the opportunities that come along. Education is tough. But it’s so rewarding. It’s all worth it as you see these kids grow and change as a result of your hard work and dedication.”