Leah Juelke was awarded the 2018 North Dakota Teacher of the Year today by Gov. Doug Burgum and Superintendent Kirsten Baesler at a special ceremony held at the school where she teaches, Fargo South High. Juelke is a language arts instructor for English learners, and a member of the Fargo Education Association and North Dakota United.
Juelke was named as one of five finalists for the award earlier this month. All five finalists are members of North Dakota United, the state’s union of 11,500 professional educators and public employees. The other four finalists were: Sandra Evenson, a sixth-grade science teacher at Cheney Middle School in West Fargo; Thomas Klapp, who teaches physics and chemistry at Northern Cass High School in Hunter; Lynae Holmen, a special education teacher from Longfellow Elementary School in Minot; and Heather Tomlin-Rohr, a kindergarten teacher at Louis L’Amour Elementary School in Jamestown.
For Juelke, receiving this award at Fargo South was especially personal as it’s where she grew up, having graduated there in 2001. She knew that she wanted to pursue a career in helping people, but initially she thought that path would be through nursing.
“My mom was an art teacher, and in the back of my head I was always thinking it would be fun to be a teacher,” Juelke said. “The helping-people aspect was always there, but I was focused on nursing because I’d been a CNA during high school and a little bit during college. And I thought that was where it would take me.”
She did her first year at North Dakota State University as a nursing major, and then joined the Army. “I took a semester off and went into the Minnesota National Guard,” she said. “So I went to boot camp at the end of January, and came back in July. As a medic, you have six months that you’re gone for training. And then I came back, and I was still nursing, but then I started to drill one weekend a month. And my unit ended up getting called up, and we were the guys that went overseas to capture Saddam Hussein and to raid the palace, and all that stuff. And right before we left, they said I wasn’t going to go because females weren’t going to be going.”
She stayed back stateside, and started training new recruits on CPR and medical practices, and realized that she loved teaching the soldiers that were coming in. “It was very clear at that moment,” she said. “I love the medical part of the Army, but I love the teaching more.”
She then went back to school and received her bachelor’s degree in English Education and ELL from NDSU, as well as a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction.
After college, she went out to see the world. Starting as an instructor at a boarding school in Taiwan, where she did a little bit of everything. “I was the comic book adviser – and I don’t really like comic books, but I did it – and I was the volleyball coach,” she said. “That was something I enjoyed. I also organized this all-school speech tournament. You do everything. I was a dorm parent, so I lived in the school with the kids.”
After a year there, she left for Ecuador to teach at a private school for the next three years. “That’s where I met my husband and had my baby, and then I ended up coming back into the U.S. And then I worked at a charter school in Colorado for a year, and then ended up coming back to Fargo South.”
It was her experiences overseas that instilled in her a curiosity for different cultures and seeing all that this world has to offer. “Throughout college, I also did a summer in China, a summer in Costa Rica, and I did a semester in Oxford, and we did a study tour around Europe,” she said. “After teaching in other countries, it really put me in a place where I had to figure things out for myself. I was new to their culture, wherever I was. I went through language issues where I couldn’t explain what I wanted to the person at the bank, and I had to use my little book or rely on someone else. And so now, teaching the population I teach, they’re coming here in this situation that I’ve been in. So, I think that really helps me as a teacher, to empathize with them and understand where they’re coming from when certain situations happen.”
In her relatively short amount of time as an ELL instructor at Fargo South, she has established a great deal of innovative projects and practices, including the coordinating of ELL curriculum across disciplines, so that they can sort of fast-track their English skills. “So, in science, they will be doing prepositions at the same time that I’m doing prepositions in my English class,” she said. “Social studies and math will be doing the same.”
Also, for the past three years, Juelke has put together anthologies of narratives, written by her students, about their journeys to America.
“The first year I did it, it was an assignment in class,” she said. “And it was just narrative writing, and I said, ‘Well, what do they all have in common? What do they know? Well, they all came here.’ So then I had them do an assignment in class and turn it into me, and obviously the caliber of writing wasn’t spectacular, and we did a little writing workshop with me running around the class, helping everybody who needs help. And after I read them, I just kept thinking, wow, other people have to read these. I kept sharing them with the other ELL teachers. And then I started thinking, why can’t we produce something?”
She launched her “Journey to America” narrative writing project during the 2014-15 school year, and received a grant in 2016 that allowed her to bring in John Bul Dau, a Lost Boy of Sudan, to Fargo South to speak in front of the entire school and help her students in crafting their narratives.
“He started talking about, don’t be ashamed about your story,” Juelke said. “Don’t be shy. Look at me. I drank urine and I am now a CEO of my own company. I’m not embarrassed to tell my own story.”
A pair of narratives written by two sisters were the impetus of one of the most remarkable transformations that Juelke has ever seen in her students. “ It was two sisters who wrote about how they were running from their village, and they turned around and their dad wasn’t there,” Juelke said. “He had been shot, and they ran back to him. These guys had poured gasoline on him and lit him on fire, right in front of his 8- and 9-year-old daughters. And they started crying, and were told, ‘Don’t cry.’ And they argued, ‘Should we kill them? Should we not kill them?’ And they decided, they said, ‘Let them suffer.’
“And so these two girls who were in my class, they were so shy, and they started writing these drafts, and I was just so amazed at their perspective of the account of what happened. One of the girls, Arlene, she ended up going to Bismarck and she testified against that refugee bill they had last year (in the Legislature). She went there, and she told them how she was going to be a productive member of society, and she told them, ‘This is my story, and you cannot say that refugees are not going to be productive and good.’ So she was an amazing advocate, and that was after writing her story here. … And they have done readings around Fargo, and they volunteer to speak in front of other classes at Fargo South. And I go in and I can’t – I was pregnant last year, and I couldn’t even listen to them without tears coming to my eyes. Every time I hear it, I’m like, ‘Oh, my …”
This past summer, the two sisters sent Juelke an invitation to a memorial service for their father. “I was the only non-African there, and it was 100 people from all over the state that knew them, and the community of the Burundians. And I talked to her afterwards, and I said, ‘Why now? It’s been nine years since your dad passed away.” And she said, ‘It’s because of you. Before we wrote the story, before we talked about it in class, we never talked about my dad.’ She and her sister had not healed from that, and she said, ‘Every time I read it, I feel better. Sometimes I cry, but I feel better.’ She said, ‘Now, my sister and I and my family have talked about it, and we feel like it’s good to remember him.’ And so these two teenagers organized this huge gathering as a memorial. I was just floored. I was so proud of them, and I couldn’t stop saying, ‘I’m so proud of you girls! I saw you come in, so quiet and you didn’t really talk to too many people, and then, going to Bismarck, organizing memorials and reading your story. That’s a teacher moment where I felt like I made an impact.”
Beyond winning these awards for Teacher of the Year from Fargo Public Schools and the state of North Dakota, she still has many goals to achieve, as an educator and world traveler. She hopes to serve as a building representative for FEA. “I actually was going to be a building rep last year, but I was also pregnant, and very busy,” she said. “I just wanted to be involved. I went to the meetings this summer about negotiations, because I think that’s super important. I know some teachers get disillusioned with the whole process, and think ‘they’re just going to decide whatever, and it doesn’t matter what I think.’ No, if you don’t show up and you don’t show that you’re there, it makes a difference. In Bismarck, our students went and testified against the refugee bill. If they just didn’t go and thought someone else would do it, what would have happened? It’s just that mentality that I think is important, and to be an advocate for your profession.”
And she would like to cross off another item on her bucket list: Visit all seven continents. “I’ve traveled to 27 different countries, and I’ve been to six continents. Antarctica is the only one I haven’t been to,” she said. “But I’ve already devised a plan someday. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, because money is always an issue. But there’s a cruise ship that goes from Brazil down to Ushuaia, on the tip of South America. And from there, it will go around the Antarctic area, so you’re in it technically, and then it goes back up. I’ve already looked into it, because I think that would be just beautiful and amazing to see.”