Jennifer Parks was in her early 30s when she decided to leave her career in banking and finance in Miami behind to become a grade-school teacher on the other side of the country.

At the time it may have seemed like a spontaneous move, fraught with financial risk and uncertainty. But roughly five years after receiving her master's degree from Southern Oregon University, Parks, now a fourth-grade teacher at Walker Elementary, can say confidently that it was the right one.

“It’s a big change, a wonderful change,” she said. “It’s been everything that I hoped it would be. Not that teaching isn’t difficult and exhausting, but it’s so rewarding. And it’s fun.”

The Ashland School District isn’t complaining, either.

Parks, 38, and Ashland Middle School science teacher Kristi Healy, 53, both were honored for their commitment to the classroom recently. Parks was named the Oregon Council for Social Studies elementary school teacher of the year, and Healy was named the Oregon Science Teachers Association Region 4 teacher of the year.

Parks, whose nomination came from the parent of a student, said she felt honored to receive the recognition and was quick to credit Ashland School District with providing exceptional support.

“I love teaching in Ashland, in a community that supports our schools,” she said.

According to the OCSS, Parks’ creativity and energy bring lessons to life and make learning fun and accessible for every student, not just the ones who are self-motivated.

“Jennifer Parks uses multiple interactive simulations to teach social studies, meeting the needs of learners of all types, including those who traditionally have struggled in the classroom,” the OCSS reported in its award letter. “Mrs. Parks is energetic, creative, and compassionate. She inspires children and creates a respectful, safe environment where students truly believe they can achieve. Her support, encouragement and skillful challenging inspire them to excel.”

Parks learned of the award about two months ago and attended an awards banquet Oct. 4 in Portland. There, she was under the impression that she would accept the award, say thank you and quickly exit stage left. Instead, a woman approached Parks as she waited her turn to take the stage and said, “We’re so excited for your speech to hear all the details of your program.”

Parks improvised, sharing a story about a student whose life was changed by social studies and describing how much she loves exposing children to current events and the world around them.

Parks said the fact that she was nominated by the parent of a child made it feel extra special.

“It’s one thing for your school to recognize all the hard work you do, but for families to recognize when you’re going above and beyond, it’s very validating.”

Healy, who’s in her 15th year at Ashland Middle School, was notified in late September that she had been honored by the OSTA and was invited to accept the award during a conference in Portland on Oct. 10.

According to the OSTA, teachers selected for the prestigious honor are picked, “based on their ability to motivate student achievement and excitement in science, community and administrative support, ability to support and mentor new and pre-service teachers, and overall contributions to the profession.”

That description fits Healy to a T, according to Ashland Middle School principal Stephen Retzlaff, who spoke to the Ashland School Board about Healy during its Oct. 15 meeting.

“I can’t tell you how meaningful it is to know that when we bring in new staff, especially those that get to work with (Healy), the kind of care that she’s going to give and leadership that she’s going to bring to that department,” Retzlaff said. “We’ve hired well — we have good teachers — but those teachers are performing and the level of instruction and the quality of the curriculum and their programs that they have implemented in such a short period of time I don’t believe would be possible without Kristi’s leadership.”

When asked to explain the key to keeping students engaged and interested, Healy was reluctant to take credit. Instead, she pointed to the subject matter, its versatility and the attention it demands.

“It’s so easy to do with science,” she said, “because science is always changing and the way to present it is always changing.”

For instance, she said, she’s currently leading a unit that’s zeroing in on the current Ebola outbreak, using a model from a similar outbreak that occurred in Zaire in 1995.

“That’s how you hook them,” she said, “because it’s happening right now.”

But it’s more than just knowing the material and being able to regurgitate facts and figures, she said. To become a successful learner, the child must broaden their approach. Part of her job, she said, is showing them how to do that. Accessing the information, in other words, is only part of the process.

“We call it full-circle learning,” she said. “You learn it, you apply it and you teach it to somebody else.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.