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Teachers are Heroes: Jessica James aims to ignite spark in both reading and math

Published Wednesday, July 6, 2022

jessica james 
BCSD photo / Monica Kreber

If any student is having trouble with math at St. Stephen Middle, they typically get sent to Jessica James.

James is part of the sixth-grade staff, but she has helped students in all grade levels in middle school tackle math. Her teaching philosophy involves letting students – and others – know that it is OK to make mistakes.

“I think that’s the biggest thing – just that kind of resilience,” she said. “If you mess up, it’s okay. We’re all here to learn.”

Growing up in Sumter, James knew even at five years old that she wanted to be a teacher, and she had always been particularly good at math. However, teaching is a bit of a career change for her: when she graduated high school she went to college for a year and then got married and had a job working in a factory. After five years, she decided to leave the factory and go back to school.

James got her undergraduate degree from the University of South Carolina. She then got her Master’s Degree in curriculum and instruction from Capella University. In 2021, she got her certificate in Library and Media Information Science through Valley City State University.  

She started her teaching career with seventh-grade math in Sumter. She and her husband then moved to Berkeley County 10 years ago and she taught sixth-grade at St. Stephen Middle ever since – she currently teaches both regular and Gifted and Talented classes. Last year she also taught seventh-grade Gifted and Talented math.

Sixth-grade math is kind of like an introduction to multiple focus areas like algebra, geometry and data and statistics, and James said she likes how a lot of the math problems become more real to the students.

“They start dealing with ratios and proportions, and I like that because it’s like a lot of real world stuff,” she said.

She particularly lives for those “lightbulb” moments that she gets with her students.

“There’s so many kids who come in and they don’t understand math, and that just have that mindset from the beginning,” she said. “So it’s exciting when they finally realize, hey, this isn’t as hard as I thought it was.”

The cool thing about math is that there is always an answer. James tells her students that the answers to math problems are not open to interpretation – there may be more than one way to arrive at answer, and she will show them, but there is only one answer.

James enjoys seeing the students get excited when they understand something – and then they start asking questions, wanting to learn more.

“Sixth-grade Gifted and Talented class was like that a lot this past year…that was fun,” she said.

She may be gifted at math herself, but James also enjoys reading, so she hopes to utilize her certification in Library and Media Information Science to transition to becoming a school librarian at some point. James alluded to being a teenager herself and having trouble finding something she enjoyed reading, so she aims to help get books in students’ hands and get them to like reading as much as she does now.

“I tell them, ‘You’ve just got to find the right book, and then it will be exciting and you’ll want to read,’” she said. “Especially now, every subject…involves reading. I want to help them find that spark that makes them want to read.”

This summer she served as the site facilitator for the content recovery program at St. Stephen Middle, mostly helping students at any grade level with their math. During the school year, she usually helps with weekend and after-school tutoring. She was named St. Stephen Middle’s Teacher of the Year in 2021.

James has been married 14 years to her husband, Michael. They live in Moncks Corner and have two adult children, plus two cats.

In her free time, James enjoys reading and hanging out on her new screened-in back porch at home and just “taking it easy.”

James’s advice to rising new teachers this school year: “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Be forgiving…It’s okay if you mess up.”

Her favorite thing about St. Stephen Middle is that it is a small, tight-knit group.

“My team – the sixth-grade team – we work together really well,” she said. “It’s kind of like a family…We just work really well together.”

Monica Kreber