If someone had told Jennifer Cassel upon her graduation from Lodi High School that in 20 years she would be teaching English classes to teenagers, she would have called them crazy. But one literature class at University of California, Davis, intended as a break from her heavy engineering major course load, was all it took to change her mind.
"It felt like coming home," she said. Now she teaches three periods of senior AP English literature at Tokay, along with college prep English for juniors, with so much passion that her students say they have been converted into Shakespeare fans.
"She actually makes you like Shakespeare," said Randa Moustafa, a senior at Tokay. "I feel like she genuinely actually cares about how her students are doing."
And her students notice. Nineteen seniors nominated Cassel for this year's high school Classroom Hero award, and she won. One hundred and fifty-five nominations rolled in for 49 teachers, but the enthusiasm in letters from Cassel's former and current students sealed the deal.
Brandon Cule, a senior, said Cassel is more sociable than other teachers, and he can talk to her and trust her as an equal.
"She was really helpful with college essays," said senior Bushra Salem.
Several students noted Cassel's approachable attitude.
"If I ever need anything, I can talk to her," said Shaina Kharufeh, a senior, adding that Cassel monitors her students' grades in all their classes to keep them on the college track.
"She's always on it," Kharufeh said.
Another thing Cassel's students appreciate is her laid-back teaching style.
Cassel acknowledges that her students sometimes face complicated lives and run into extenuating circumstances. In her mind, a late paper is not the end of the world.
"If I can be flexible and a little lenient without being a total doormat, I will," she said.
Cassel remains in contact with her students after they graduate, at which time she will begin accepting Facebook friend requests from them. She often invites former students who have begun their college journey to return to Tokay and speak to her seniors.
Cassel's first year of teaching was at a high school in the Bay Area in 1994. Next, she got a job at Bear Creek in 1995 and spent five of the next 13 years team-teaching with her mom, Bonnie Cassel, who currently serves on the Lodi Unified School District board of trustees.
"She's my inspiration. She's one of the best teachers I know," said Cassel.
But when a position opened up at Tokay in 2008, she took it because she wanted to be teaching in Lodi before her own children reached high school age.
It's difficult for the mother of three to imagine doing anything else.
"I am convinced it's one of the most important jobs in the world," she said earnestly. "I'm in a position where I can help make people's lives better, and that's huge to me."
Does Cassel consider herself a classroom hero? Maybe, but she said they're all around us, and added that she was honored just to be on the same nomination list as many of them.
"It's good that there's so many wonderful teachers," she said. "We need more here."
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.