Jen Pesce: VFW’s State Teacher of the Year

Old Saybrook High School English teacher Jen Pesce was recently named Connecticut Teacher of the Year by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Old Saybrook High School English teacher Jen Pesce was recently named Connecticut Teacher of the Year by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Photo by Becky Coffey/Harbor News

For students in Jen Pesce's English class, language arts are the key focus. But integrated into her teaching of English is the concept of respect, especially for the sacrifice of the men and women who've chosen to serve in our country's armed forces.

"We start the year with an exercise. I ask them to find a symbol in the room. [Someone) will say the flag. Then we'll talk about what it represents-sacrifice, freedom," says Jen. "Kids in my class stand at attention during the Pledge [of Allegiance]. We are a community founded on respect-and so they will stand and be silent because that flag represents human sacrifice that has allowed them the privilege to say the pledge every day.

"They get it. It means a lot. And that's why they are quiet for the pledge," says Jen.

The passion she brings to teaching English and to integrating into the study of early U.S. primary documents and U.S. literature views of the veterans' experience is why Jen was named the Connecticut Teacher of the Year by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). She was also chosen this year by her high school colleagues to be Old Saybrook High School Teacher of the Year.

Jen comes to her passion for teaching about veterans naturally-her brother is an Iraqi war veteran who returned from combat deployment suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A gunner on a humvee in the war, he struggled with the fact he had to take human lives.

"That kind of experience is life-altering," says Jen. "About six or seven years after his tour, he suffered anxiety, depression, and had a lot of anger issues."

But fortunately, a PTSD diagnosis wasn't the end of the story.

About seven years ago, Jen heard on public radio that Wesleyan University was offering a full scholarship for a combat veteran. She told her parents about it and suggested her brother apply. He did, was accepted, and earned his college degree from Wesleyan on a full scholarship.

"He was a real success story-through counseling and medication he was able to finish his degree and get control of his PTSD," says Jen.

In her classes, the students study a lot of early American primary documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and memoirs like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, which chronicles his experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War.

For one assignment, she has students do a webquest to learn the history of PTSD. PTSD was first called "soldier's heart" in the Civil War, and in later conflicts, soldiers with PTSD symptoms were called shell-shocked. But it was not until the Vietnam War that the government recognized the disorder as real, calling it post-traumatic stress disorder. And, as research shows, the symptoms of PTSD manifest themselves most strongly about seven years after the soldier had the combat experience.

To complement her students' research and reading, Jen also brings in active-duty soldiers to her classes to talk about their experiences and the sacrifices they and their families face as part of their service.

"Partly I teach about [the veterans' experience] and the evolution of PTSD to raise awareness of the legacy of war due to our role as a first-world power. It's important for the kids to recognize the level of sacrifice and suffering on soldiers and their families whenever the U.S. decides to get involved," says Jen.

For Jen, teaching is her second career, though clearly it's now her passion-her first career was 10 years as a project manager in software development in the telephone industry.

"I absolutely love teaching. Respect and love drives my teaching. As a teacher, I need to treat every child the way I would want my own son to be treated," says Jen. "I love the kids-and they know I enjoy what I do. It's a gift, not a chore, to come to this job every day."

In addition to teaching both 10th- and 11th-grade English classes, Jen also is the faculty advisor for the student literary magazine, Musings, and for the Amnesty Club.

What does she do in her free time?

"I'm an avid outdoorswoman and PADI-certified scuba diver. I've been diving in Aruba, Grand Cayman, Cozumel, and the Sea of Cortez-it is my favorite pastime," says Jen. "I dream about diving a couple of times a week. I love it. It's like meditation to be down there."

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