For more than 20 years, BP has been recognizing Alaska's exceptional teachers — like Jennifer Bleicher — through the BP Teachers of Excellence program. Since 1995, the company has honored nearly 700 educators for their dedication to teaching and inspiring students.  Nominations for this year's awards are open until Feb. 1; the program is also accepting submissions for the new Educational Allies Award, which celebrates the unsung heroes in Alaska's schools, such as principals, teaching assistants and other staff members.

Years ago, when Jennifer Bleicher's children were still young, she watched construction crews building Cottonwood Creek Elementary School. The Wasilla school was just a few minutes away from Bleicher's family home, and she just knew her own kids would become students there one day.

Cottonwood Creek Elementary School teacher Jennifer Bleicher (pictured in the middle) received the BP Teachers of Excellence Award in 2015. Photo courtesy of BP.

"Little did I know that I would end up teaching there," she said. "It must have been fate for me or something."

Bleicher followed an untraditional path to the classroom. It started with a single course at her local community college. As a busy mother of three, "I decided I needed something for myself," she said. One course led to another, and the credits began piling up. She considered pursuing her degree. She made up her mind after volunteering in her son's classroom alongside a charismatic, inspiring teacher named Jane Anne Aldrich.

"I never had a teacher that made a difference for me, growing up, but (Aldrich) was that teacher," Bleicher said. "I said, 'This is my cup of tea.' And it kind of went from there."

It took seven to eight years to earn her degree, and after that, it wasn't long before she was back at Cottonwood Creek, being mentored by the woman who'd first inspired her to pursue her new career.

Supported by her family and fellow teachers, the years flew by. In 2015, after more than a decade on the job, Bleicher was recognized as a BP Teacher of Excellence a title awarded to outstanding educators around the state.

Her most valuable lesson? Hard work pays off.

At Cottonwood Creek, Bleicher teaches fifth-grade math and English, focusing on preparing her students for their transition into sixth grade. Her work is influenced by her own classroom experience. As a child in school, Bleicher struggled, she said. At times, she thought she might be living with a learning disorder. She still remembers the humiliation she felt after confusing negatives and positives in a high school math class one day.

"'It's okay,'" her teacher told her. "'You'll never get it.'"

At the time, it was crushing. These days, Bleicher has a different perspective: The challenges she faced as a student help her to better understand her own students today.

"I can relate to the kids because I've been there," she said. "I hold them accountable, but I will also build them up. I try to treat them how I'd want to be treated. I just want them to know that they can do it because I've been through it myself."

While she frequently uses technology in the classroom, Bleicher is still partial to more traditional teaching methods time-tested tools like printed dictionaries, paper and pencil.

"I've tried to get on board with the technology, but I still believe kids need to be able to open up a book, rather than just pushing a button," she said. "It's old school, and you don't see that as much."

In class, she tells her students to expect a challenge, then offers them any help they need to overcome it. Need to come in on a Saturday? Bleicher will be there. Need a little extra personal attention? Just ask Ms. B.

If a student is struggling, she'll pull them aside and let them know it's going to be okay. Perseverance is the key to success, Bleicher said, and she uses three yearly test scores to illustrate students' progress. If students don't see the desired improvement, it's back to work. When they see their test scores jump, Bleicher said, "I just wink at them and I say, 'See, I told ya.'"

"I don't sugarcoat anything. If they're slacking, I let them know. If they're working hard, I let them know," she said. "I also let them know that I care."

Beyond her regular classroom work, Bleicher puts in dozens of hours in other areas. She meets with parents and students as the school's Talented & Gifted program coordinator. She's coached cross-country. She organized the school spelling bee. She helped launch the school's Community Service Club. The group held a canned food drive at Thanksgiving, a coin drive at Christmas and a handmade bouquet sale around Valentine's Day, to raise money for local charities. She helps set up the school science fair and the math olympiad derby.

The reward, she said, is watching students reach their goals, recognize the power of perseverance, learn, grow and thrive.

Eventually, Bleicher said, she'd like to become a mentor, following in the footsteps of the other Cottonwood Creek teachers who so inspired her in the first place. Possibly, she said, she'll pursue teaching at the community college level. No matter where her career takes her, she knows she wants to stay in education.

"I've always reflected on what I can do better," she said. "My main goal is to try to instill in the kids that with hard work, they can achieve anything they want. Even as an adult."

This article was produced by the creative services department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with BP. Contact the creative services editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.