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Madera teacher honored by TV host

For The Madera Tribune

Madera County Superintendent of Schools special education teacher Jenna Speights sits in the dressing room of the Ellen DeGeneres show. Speights appeared on the show in December and won $25,000 that will help her treat her students when they can get back together.


Liberty High School graduate and Madera County Superintendent of Schools teacher Jenna (Jones) Speights was given a “superhero” award by TV show host Ellen DeGeneres on her talk show “Ellen” in December.

Jones, who graduated from Liberty in 2010. walked away with a check for $25,000 and an experience she will never forget.

“I have been an Ellen fan for about 15 years,” newlywed Speights said. “She was like my biggest idol for so long. It was her and Justin Bieber.”

Jones teaches at Howard Elementary School in special education.

“I was an assistant for six years in the same exact classroom that I am in now,” she said. “I left to go to school for four years to complete my degree. I’ve been back teaching for three years.”

Speights is doing about half of her work week from home and the other half of the week at the school.

“I’m doing more from home, but it depends on the week,” she said. “I have to go in to print paperwork and do the things I need to do.”

Currently, Speights is enjoying what she is doing at Howard and is teaching in the same room she helped out as an assistant.

“It was my dream classroom,” she said. “It’s not for most people because the kids I teach are emotionally disturbed. It’s a severe behavior intervention program. It’s difficult and really hard. There’s a high turnover rate for teachers. I was hoping there would be a turnover right when I trying to get in. There happened to be the year I came to apply. I got in. I was so happy. It was the exact grade I wanted and everything.”

Jones and a couple of her friends won tickets to the “Ellen” show in January 2020 and went to a showing.

“While I was there, I got pulled by a producer,” she said. “They asked if I potentially wanted to go on stage and play a game with Ellen because they liked my personality. I said sure. They pulled about 20 people out of the 150 people in the audience. They gave us an hour-long training about what to do on-stage. I ended up not getting called down. I was bummed, but the one that got called down won and I was happy for her. That’s how they had my information. When I got pulled, they had me fill out a questionnaire. They asked what I did so they knew I was a teacher.”

Speights didn’t think any more of it until she received a phone call in early December.

“The producer asked if I remembered him. They asked if I was still a special education teacher. He questioned me about my history and my student loans and said they would love to invite me to the show. They were doing a superheroes segment to honor the superheroes of the world. They wanted me to play a game with Ellen. I said, ‘let’s do it.’”

Although Speights was excited about being on the show, she was still a bit nervous about not knowing what was going on.

“You don’t know the anxiety I had on the days before I left,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about what was going on. I knew nothing. You want to prepare for something. I was excited to go, though.”

Speights and her husband drove down to Los Angeles on Dec. 7 for the taping and the show aired on Dec. 8.

“They sent me an itinerary,” she said. “They sent someone from Los Angeles to my house here to COVID test me. That was done on Saturday. Sunday, I got a call that I was negative and was okay to come. My husband and I drove to Los Angeles. He was the best. He sat in the car for four hours because he couldn’t go in because of COVID. I didn’t want to drive alone. He just worked from the car.”

Speights arrived at the studio by noon and then was given the best experience she could have thought.

“I went in through the back way,” she said. “We did another COVID test when I got there. They got it down to a tee about social distancing. They knew what they were doing. There was another girl that was on stage with me. We got to know each other a little bit. We got the whole experience. We got our own dressing room, we did hair and make-up. I felt like a celebrity. It was the coolest experience of my life. They told me about the game, but no specifics. That’s when the pressure was off a little. It’s a total guessing game. She really wanted to honor us. We were dressed up like superheroes. DC was the sponsor for the game. Ellen wanted to make the game easy for us to win.”

In the game, “Two Truths and a Lie,” sponsored by the movie “Wonder Woman 1984,” Speights and her opponent had to try to figure out false statements about DeGeneres, show deejay Twitch and a studio audience member. The winner would receive $25,000.

Speights got all of the answers right while her opponent went one-for-three. However, in the end, DeGeneres told both contestants they were each heroes and gave them both $25,000.

“I was thinking about the three answers, but I chose the one that would be the most obvious,” she said. “I had no clue. I got all the questions right. I have been a big fan of the show. I have seen where they both get the prize. When I was an audience in the show in January, the winner won $10,000 and the loser got an iPad. That happens a lot. They always get the losers something.

“When I heard the prize, in my head, I said, ‘I have to win. We have so much debt to pay. I just went for it and enjoyed it the best I could. I didn’t expect for both of us to each win the money.’”

Speights said the filming was quick and over in about four minutes. It didn’t really sink in for her until she sat down in her dressing room and called her husband.

“It took a while for it to process,” she said. “It happened so fast. They threw a stack of money on the podium and said bye. We picked up the money and it was fake. We gave the prop money to the crew and had to go fill out some paperwork. This is for real. I immediately called my husband. It was in shock. I was dead serious. He was over the moon for me waiting for me to come out.”

Although Speights is a hug Ellen fan, she didn’t get the opportunity to personally meet the TV host. However, that may have been a good thing in the long run.

“The only time we saw Ellen was during the bit,” Speights said. “She actually got COVID and got it after we left. They kept her isolated. The whole show was socially distanced. As much as I wanted to give her a hug, I am kind of glad I didn’t. They shut down the show today (Dec. 10) so I was on the show in the nick of time.”

A few days after the show aired, Jones still feels like the previous few days were a dream.

“It still feels like a dream,” she said. “Just the way everything happened and how generous and kind everyone was, the experience we had and how they treated us, it literally still feels like a dream. Being backstage and seeing everyone, there were people everywhere. I remember just watching them. It is a positive show and everyone was so happy.”

Speights said the money will help her and her husband, financially, with some debt they’ve encountered after buying their first home. Also, Speighths wants to use some of the money to help give her students a field trip.

“We are going to pay off a lot of debt,” she said. “My husband and I just bought a house in July and the house came with a lot of issues we were not expecting, which was a little unfortunate. We had to put in a lot of money. The money is going to pay off the renovation on our house, as well as some student loans. Unfortunately, not anything too exciting. We’re not going to take a lavish vacation or anything. I will put some into my classroom. We do big fundraisers every year in my classroom. Last year, I took my kids to San Francisco. I raise all that money myself. I am going to put some money in that. If we ever get back to school, I will definitely take my kids on a cool field trip and not have to worry about the money. Normally, I am penny pinching to get the kids to do what I want them to do. I want to throw them parties and have fun. I’m in the middle of the teaching credential program and I’m paying that every month. I’m going to pay that all off. Most people asked me what I am going to do with it, I tell them 'you won’t see anything lavish.' For us the financial freedom is allowing us to start from a clean slate.”

“It was such a blessing for us. It still doesn’t feel real,” Speights said.

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