Capital City’s Wonder Woman

Education / Featured Sliders / HER Profile / Stories / July 10, 2018

Creativity, dedication and perseverance make award-winning
JCPS teacher Jeni DeFeo a real life super hero

Story by Samantha Pogue • Photos by Julie Smith

As a child of the ‘80s, Jeni DeFeo absorbed herself in pop culture.

The sweet, fruity aroma from her Strawberry Shortcake collection often filled her childhood bedroom. She enjoyed acting out good guy-bad guy scenarios with Masters of the Universe action heroes she “borrowed” from her younger brother. And she would belly up to her Justice League TV tray and engage in the weekly ritual of watching Saturday morning cartoons.

She loved many of these familiar icons and traditions, but Jeni’s appreciation for one female protagonist has lasted into her adulthood: Wonder Woman. She respected the super hero’s representation and message, whether it was drawn in comic books, animated on “Super Friends” or depicted by actress Linda Carter on the heroine’s self-titled ‘70s TV show.

“The idea of truth, affinity for children and protecting innocence – everything that is right and good in the world – I can be all of these things. There is nothing you can’t do in the world without a good pair of boots and a lasso,” she said with laughter. “But having strength and grace all at the same time, being able to do that makes her unstoppable.”

Jeni witnessed how her super hero mentor and other important female figures in her life showed that women can do it all, breaking the dichotomy of stereotypical gender traits. She has since channeled her inner Wonder Woman to be creative, determined and strong in everything she does.

Jeni danced in ballet and threw shots and discs in track. She became the first female athletic trainer at her hometown high school. She has a brown belt in Tae Kwon Do, bakes extreme cakes, and has befriended countless entertainment industry professionals through her and her family’s love of attending comic book conventions.

A teacher for more than 20 years, Jeni respects important curriculum guidelines but engages her sixth-grade students in learning both significant academic lessons and vital life skills through creative projects and her vibrant, kind and supportive nature. Her continued efforts earned her the 2011 Jefferson City Public Schools Teacher of the Year award and made her an eternal teacher favorite among many of her sixth-grade students.

Jeni has become the capital city’s Wonder Woman to her students, her family, her friends and the community. Her motto could easily be one of Wonder Woman’s many empowering lines: ‘I am the man who can.”

“My mom used to say ‘I never wanted to tell you can’t do that.’ I say, ‘Watch me, it will happen,’” she said. “Don’t ever think I can’t do it because I’m a woman … I will figure it out.”

‘You are stronger than you believe’

 As Antiope, the Amazons’ military general, said this to Wonder Woman in the 2017 blockbuster movie, Jeni’s parents instilled this in their children and backed it up in their own efforts professionally and personally.

Pryor, Oklahoma, is Jeni’s hometown – where she went to school and where her parents still live and work. Her father’s personable nature and strong work ethic landed him a lengthy pharmaceutical career at Walmart and a following of clients now working a few times a month while easing into retirement. Jeni’s mother was a nurse before going back to college to become a nursing instructor, which she did at the collegiate level for some time. Now she writes college textbooks for nursing courses.

In between their job responsibilities, her parents also kept up with Jeni’s multiple extracurricular activities during her youth. She started dance classes when she was 3 years old, continuing that hobby through school. She also read a lot as a child, spending many summer days at the local library engaged in teenage favorites like the “Sweet Valley High” series and classics like “Gone with the Wind.”

“Even in my moments of boredom, I was coming up with things to do. My mom used to say, ‘It is not the situation that is boring; it is the people in it. You have to make your own fun sometimes,’” she said with a laugh.

“I would make up stories about people while I was walking down the street. I still do this – when I read a book, I worry way too much about the people in the book; if I close the book, are they OK?”

That creativity led her to push boundaries through her adolescence and young adulthood. She played for a state championship basketball team and became the first female athletic trainer for Pryor High School. Feeling this was “her jam,” Jeni decided to take up the department’s volunteer request for the athletic trainer position, first talking to the coach about the opportunity and then doing what she needed to get the job.

“I took apart their training room. I had studied all summer long about what they needed to do with this training room,” she said. “By lunch time, I cleaned out the training room, taking out Bandaids that I swear had been there since the Cold War.”

She also had a list of all the things they needed to adequately stock their training room, earmarking those items in a catalog one of the coach’s had on his desk.

“I came out at lunch and handed them the catalog and they were like ‘OK, I guess I need to go buy some plywood,’ ” she said, noting during that lunch hour the work began to build a partition for her to access the training room without seeing what was going on in the locker room. “I literally busted down a door on that one.”

By the time she graduated high school, she was in charge of the majority of the athletes’ rehabilitation, served as an equipment manager and was working with a mentor program through St. John’s Medical Center in Tulsa. Her school position also earned her induction into the inaugural all-state training class for the state of Oklahoma.

Jeni developed another passion for choir and stagecraft, particularly because of one of her favorite teachers, Herchel Avra. Under his tutelage Jeni learned to build sets and work technical aspects of many productions including “Oklahoma!”, “My Fair Lady” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” She participated in special community programs such as the Boars Head Feast madrigal dinner where she first roamed telling fortunes as a gypsy and later sang as a princess in the royal court.

“You always wanted to do something more in his class, because you knew it was appreciated and you were a valued part of that community,” she said. “He taught me about being at the job and being dedicated to the kids, making sure your relationship with your kids is so important. … He taught me more about being a teacher than any class I would take.”

At that time, Jeni had no plans to become a teacher, with aspirations to become the first female athletic trainer for the Kansas City Chiefs. In fact, she turned down opportunities to go to Oklahoma State University and Oklahoma University after being accepted into a program that gave her a full scholarship to pursue a physical therapy degree at Rockhurst University in Kansas City after she graduated high school in 1993.

‘You have greater powers than you know’

 One of Jeni’s teachers saw great powers that Antiope saw in Wonder Woman, changing her life’s path for good after her first semester at Rockhurst University.

Jeni’s future at the college was in dire straits after finding out she was failing her honors biology class, which threatened maintaining her 3.5 GPA and her scholarship. The course’s professor, Doc Wilson, met with Jeni after Thanksgiving, posing the question to her, “Have you ever been happy?” A confused Jeni didn’t understand where he was going, with Wilson then asking, “When was the last time you were ever truly happy?”

“He sat there, and you could hear the clock ticking. I said to myself, ‘Fine, I am just going to wait him out,” she said, noting 10 minutes went by before she began describing a time she filled in for a teacher while in the teacher cadet program. Doc Wilson stopped her in the middle of her story. “He said, ‘You need to be a teacher. You are more animated right now than I have seen you in an entire semester in my class.’ … He told me, ‘Aristotle said there is perfection in happiness. You are perfectly happy when you are talking about a classroom.’”

Wilson then made a call to his wife, who was the head mistress at St. Theresa’s Academy and where Jeni observed a team-taught English and history class on the American expansion of the West and fell in love with teaching.

After working out the details to change her major, Jeni stayed at Rockhurst University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in education in 1997 and a master’s degree in integrated humanity and education in 1999. She also met Ben DeFeo while in college and married him in 1998.

Jeni student taught “by fire” at Brookfield Elementary in Shawnee Kansas, jumping in to take care of fifth-graders alongside a substitute teacher. She also worked in the after care room at Notre Dame de Sion Lower School in Kansas City, teaching math and science there during their summer school program. After graduation, she continued to work at the school for a total of three years and learned a lot from instrumental teachers in the district, including a Texas Teacher of the Year recipient Donna Clarrissimeaux.

“She taught me about what the box looks like. Don’t tell me about the box, tell me how I can use the box. We rebuilt the box an awful lot,” Jeni said. “She told me about how to do big projects and how to orchestrate them.”

One of those unique and popular projects was Camp Hyatt, an opportunity for the students to become the personnel such as bellhops, chefs and the hotel manager at the Hyatt hotel for a day.

“There is a quote by Picasso, ‘Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist,’” Jeni said. “I know the rule book up and down because I will always be on the edge sometimes. I am still within those guidelines, but man, I am hugging the curb.”

‘I’m willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves’

After moving to Jefferson City in 2000, Jeni taught language arts and history to sixth- through eighth-grade students for two years at St. Joseph Cathedral School. She loved her job and never had thoughts about leaving.

Then after signs pointed her to re-opening her application at Jefferson City Public Schools, she received a call from the late former Thomas Jefferson Middle School Principal Roberta Hubbs, asking her about an open sixth-grade social studies teaching position.

Jeni interviewed with Hubbs and met with two women on the teaching team; that group included Kathy Zumwalt, Karen Dumey and Julie Abbott.

“I was walking out to my car (from the interview) and my phone rang. It was Roberta and she said, ‘I was told by my team that if I let you out of this parking lot and don’t hire you, they may have to find more teachers,’” Jeni said with a laugh. “I went from not needing a job to taking a brand new one.”

Jeni is so appreciative of the teachers and administration she has worked with, including social studies teachers Suzanna Baker and Jody Judd-Thomas, and was part of the Explorer Team and now Team Apex with Zumwalt since starting at Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

Creativity was already abound at the middle school, with an Aztec and Mayan Festival already in place when Jeni started back in 2002. The teachers worked together on presenting many unique, educational and collaborative projects for the sixth-graders including a Middle Ages Fair, a castle building contest and an Economics Day. Curriculum changes did alter projects, but eventually the teachers were able to do them in their own classrooms, and that is when Jeni developed a popular social studies project among the students: an ancient civilization amusement park.

For the amusement park project, the students are broken up into teams and tasked to develop an amusement theme park ride from scratch. Jeni got the idea while going on the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland with Ben and their three children.

“I saw the hieroglyphics on the wall and I said ‘How cool would it be to bring my kids here?’ My husband said, ‘No we don’t have the budget,’” she said with a laugh. “But how do you bring that experience to them? You look at this classroom, you wouldn’t think this is four days before the end of the school year.”

To show her students how amusement park moguls like Disney create such rides she reached out to her friend who does storyboarding for Disney. She asked what would the kids have to do realistically to make it work, then relaying that information to her students to give them real life options.

After they randomly select what type of ride they will construct from the Middle Ages or ancient civilizations groups in the project, the students conceptualize the ride using a storyboard, build their props from raw materials and prepare a script to walk someone through their ride while making a “In Plain English” video, which is filmed on a two-dimensional scale. Students then watch all the videos and vote on their favorites, for example “best dark ride” or “best ride from the Middle Ages.”

“It gives these kids the opportunity to flex their creative muscles. Some people are really successful in the classroom, but they have different talents and tools to use that are also important,” she said. “We want to make sure they can read and retain information, but we also want to see who has those ideas. It is a lot of teamwork. You see people jumping up, hitting their strengths, and utilizing each other’s strengths.”

Students Drew Holmes and Miki Peters told an original story about the devastating volcanic disaster at Pompeii that wiped out an entire city on their team. Their 4D dark ride follows history they learned about the God of Fire, Vulcan and the Goddess of Love, but also explores the possible reason why the volcano exploded by following a couple who asks other gods for blessings to a wedding, making the volcano mad and taking revenge on the city.

“I like that we could work in a team and if we didn’t understand something, we could have the people in our team help us,” Miki said. “I like how we could make up our own story for the ride. We had some things that relate to Pompeii and what happened and was able to make up some of our own stuff too.”

The amusement park project is one many students remember long after sixth grade ends. Others recall creating a fashion magazine, developing real estate listings for Mesopotamia or filming their own 30-minute movie based off a book they read in class, celebrated with a red carpet premiere.

“I’m a big believer of it is not what to think or how to think; it is knowing how to research and problem-solve,” Jeni said. “Taking that seed of knowledge and turning it into something bigger.”

Jeni had been nominated many times for the Jefferson City Public Schools Teacher of the Year, but had never won. The third time was the charm after Hubbs had nominated Jeni, securing the 2011 title. She then became one of six finalists for the State Teacher of the Year, not earning that title but highly appreciative to receive that honor out of 300 other talented, creative teachers making it to that level.

Even though she will not be able to win again during her career, she still receives glowing remarks from the administration, teachers, parents and the children she educates.

“Instead of having us sit down and getting the text book out and teaching, she finds ways to make learning really interactive,” said Violet Conway, one of Jeni’s students. “It is everyone’s favorite class.”

Jeni’s defining moment as a teacher came when she was in her early 20s; she was reminded of this moment when her mother-in-law ran into a child’s dad in late May who said she was the best teacher his kid – now in his 20s – had ever had at any level of education.

“(It was) not because I taught him anything about social studies; it was because in a parent-teacher conference I looked at his parents and said, ‘Honestly, he knows everything I will teach about social studies. What I want to be our goal for this year is tact and using our knowledge to build others up; I want to work on his leadership,’” she said. “I remember that conversation vividly, because I was looking at two professionals in respected fields and I squared up as a professional in my field as an educator.”

It was the moment when she finally “got” what her job was about.

“We as parents and teachers owe it to kids to teach them hard lessons, to let them flail and fail a bit so they can handle adversity, to show them how to stiff upper lip when the situation calls for it, and to be a better person – a person that others want on their team,” she said. “I hope if anything when kids leave my room they remember those lessons, the ones woven around amusement park projects, ‘flights’ to foreign places, and epic games of ‘hot and cold.’”

‘I stay, I fight and I give, for the world I know can be’

As her students remember Jeni’s kindness, encouragement and support, so do those she connects within her community. Jeni often spends about half of her summer helping organize the annual “Glow of the Garden” Dinner and Auction, which raises thousands of dollars for the Samaritan Center – where Ben is director of operations – and is scheduled for July 12 at Capitol Plaza Hotel.

Ben also calls Jeni a “collector of people,” getting to know individuals in the comic and entertainment industries from all across the country. For more than a decade, the comic art collector enjoyed dressing up as Wonder Woman, Mama Fury with her little Avengers (her children) and other characters while attending comic book conventions.

“They would call me the Com Mom because I always had baby wipes or gave a bag of almonds or a granola bar to someone starving away at an exhibit table. I take care of people; it’s my normal jam,” she said.

She also baked hundreds of sugar cookies for her friends and relatives, and surprised a special middle school student and fellow icon enthusiast dressed as Wonder Woman on her birthday. “I treasure all the things I get to do. … It is all about the power of positivity. You may think never in a million years is this going to happen. Well it might just happen. … Nice things happen if you are a nice person and work hard.”

She is that nurturing, fun mom to many, most importantly her own 16-year-old Joe, 14-year-old Gwyn and 13-year-old Elie. She loves traveling with them, dancing and singing in the car, baking them extreme birthday cakes and supporting them in their many extracurricular activities.

“All three are runners in cross country and track, and I am a booster club mom for all of those. They are involved in student government, are readers, do all the things you hope your kids do. They make us so proud all of the time,” she said. “I tell them the most important thing you can do in life is be willing to help out and take care of your fellow man. They do and are pretty awesome.”

Jeni grew up with a mom who is a working mom and a loving mom, who would work all day and come home to bake her cookies and take her to practices. She was Wonder Woman to Jeni, and knew she could do that, too. When her family was watching the 2017 “Wonder Woman,” Jeni watched as the super hero emerged from the trenches, squaring off her jaw and walking across the field. A look of determination and strength on her face, and one her family says she often gives when she is told no.

“I watched my girls watching that movie, and it made me emotional,” she said. “The movie really introduced her to the entirety of the world, showing that women are strong and beautiful. There is important progress we as women are making in the world.”

Jeni’s ‘Super’ Likes, Dislikes and Life Moments

• Her favorite color is navy.

• She loves 44-ounce Sonic unsweet iced teas.

• She is not a fan of snakes or guinea pigs.

• She loved a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” puzzle she glued together and framed, displaying it in her room from adolescence through college.

• She battled it out in a high school class to receive the top score, earning the right to pick “The Princes Bride” for the class to watch at the end of the year. It has remained her favorite movie ever since.

• When she retires, she would love to become a tour guide for Disney or Universal Studios.

• The DeFeos are also St. Louis Cardinals Fans. 

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