It’s a new year; for Jessica Larson, that means a new role. “I love it so far,” she says, speaking on the start of principalhood. “I think there’s always a learning curve, because every district is different, but everyone here has been super welcoming.” Ottawa born and raised, she’s proud to call herself an “agent of change” in an educational environment that’s receptive to it. As she slips into the shoes of principal for Shepherd Middle, Jessica says “remembering the human factor” is a key tenant of how she operates.
Jessica first observed the human factor in full swing in second grade when she underwent a kidney transplant. Under the combined efforts of her mother as a donor and the Ottawa school community rallying around her, she made a full recovery. “It’s funny, because I never had intentions of going into education,” she says. “Actually, it was my health that caused it to happen in a roundabout way.”
She was at NIU studying Business, not Education, but as she considered her future and what really mattered to her, she revisited the events of her past. As she deliberated over plans she was still laying for her future, she was reminded of how the community had rallied around her as a second grader, and how important that support was in enabling a love of learning. Ultimately, it was this moment that moved her onto an Education track, but after switching majors from Business to Education, she soon discovered a whole new dimension of importance to the work.
“From the minute I started classes, I had a professor who asked, do you want to be a content curriculum guru or do you want to be an agent for change?” These were the two main pedagogical paths, and Jessica had already decided which title fit her best. “I knew I wanted to be an agent for change. I wanted to work within schools to make things better.”
Jessica’s first teaching job was at a middle school in Freeport, and she primarily taught social studies, science, and language arts. She also worked as a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) Coach at Freeport before joining the district office as a multi-tiered system of support coordinator and guided discipline and intervention efforts across the entire district. From there, she was recruited to Belvidere Central Middle School as assistant principal, where she thrived for five years until returning to her old stomping grounds here in Ottawa.
She arrived home at a particularly chaotic time. It was the summer of 2020, and the pandemic provided unique obstacles to what would otherwise be a routine move. Jessica stayed with her parents while waiting for the housing market to rebound and commuted 90 miles to Belvidere in the meantime. “I was really excited when I saw this position had opened up,” she says. The desire to be closer to home and her family finally bore fruit, and she now resides in the home next to her 92-year-old grandfather. She’s overjoyed to see her parents regularly and be able to help her grandfather when he needs it.
The human factor that Jessica cherishes relates not only to family and personal definition of home but also to her outlook on the community’s role in education. “I think it’s important to make sure families and students and staff view education as a partnership. We’re all working together to make sure that people are successful,” she highlights. “Teaching kids how to be critical thinkers and have logic when they’re approaching things is everything they need.” Her main objective is to make Shepherd Middle safe, where everyone is welcome, regardless of future plans, status, and immutable characteristics.
Over the years, Jessica laments, people have “become comfortable dehumanizing others.” It’s this type of animosity she seeks to face head-on. “In education, any decision we’re making should be within the frame of, would I be okay with that if it was my child?” She says the simple act of listening goes a long way. “There’s a lot of listening being done on my end,” she explains. “It’s just being present and, in the moment, seeing that good things are happening here.”