Jureen Gardner with Randi Peck
“When I grow up, I want to be…” As children, we all completed this sentence with varying aspirations. Jureen Gardner admits that teaching was never one of hers. And yet, God had a call on her life- one that became increasingly obvious to me over the course of the two hours I had with her. For as Jureen shared stories about “her kiddos” and expressed gratefulness for her Savior, through sweet tears of passion, I couldn’t help but think, “When I grow up, I want to be… like her.”
When Jureen and her husband, Doug, found out their oldest son’s kindergarten class would contain thirty-two five year olds, she began homeschooling. She continued to provide her three children with an education well into elementary school, and then became very involved in volunteering at the schools they attended. But as their children neared high school graduation, the Gardners wanted to find a way to help pay for their college tuition. Doug encouraged her, “Do what you’re called to do. Do what you love. You need to go teach.” So at forty years old, she went back to school and earned her Masters of Education.
But being a great teacher requires so much more than a degree. Jureen attests: “It is a calling.” For Jureen, this calling involves being constantly attuned to the needs of each of her fifth graders at Jefferson Elementary. It means being fervently attentive to the heart of the Lord… And, as she models so well, it is the willingness, as a teacher, to be teachable.
Was teaching what you expected? How or how not?
Teaching. Oh, I love working with children. I love learning, myself. The curiosities of life, I think, never end. When you see learning as a lifelong goal or process, and not just something for when you’re young, it opens so many avenues. So that part of it and working with the kiddos is what I expected.
Challenging, because of the behaviors. That has changed even in the past seven years. There’s a lot of really broken kids. Really broken situations and families. And that’s difficult not just to deal with in the classroom, but to deal with emotionally. I’m really sensitive, so it’s not a job you just leave at the office.
It is probably difficult to watch kids who have a troubling home life. How do you support them without constantly bearing that burden of what you may be unable to change?
One of the biggest things as a teacher is not just the lessons you’re presenting. I mean, they pay me to teach math and reading and writing and social studies and art. But my real goal or job is to build those relationships with those kids and to give them the skills that they need to cope through life, whatever life they have. Some of them come from really solid homes, some of them come from really broken homes. I don’t even know that we can use the word “dysfunctional family” anymore, because what is functional?
It is my biggest struggle to leave it behind. I have such a heart for those kids. The last day of school is always really emotional, even if you think you’re ready for a break and you’re looking forward to summer. You look back, so excited to see them fly because they’ve grown so much and yet you know you’re going to miss them because they’ve found a special place in your heart. You’ve really gotten to know those kids. And it’s the ones that are the most challenging that write you the sweetest notes or say the things that will forever leave an imprint on your heart. And that’s when you know you’re in the right place.
How have you balanced the stress of work with your responsibilities at home?
It’s very difficult. Not always do I do that so well. I think that’s probably the age old struggle of working women. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom or a mom out in the working world, to balance all of the needs that we perceive are on us. And sometimes they are self-inflicted. We place more on ourselves than other people around us do… Some of us want to be too much of a perfectionist. And that isn’t what God asked us to do. He asked us to do what’s right in front of us, in the moment. And to do the very best that we can, doing all as unto the Lord.
Would you consider your work largely a Christian or secular environment?
You can’t leave yourself at the door, so you take Christ with you wherever you go. “Why are you teaching in a public school?”- that’s one of the biggest questions I get from Christians. I’m teaching in a public school because they need to know Jesus too. I can teach them the premise of the Bible without using [Scripture references]. And they can see it in action.
Again, people will say, “Well, you can’t teach about Jesus.” And yet there are those opportunities when kids ask a question. We were reading in a section of our social studies books and it referenced Christianity [Protestantism] and Catholicism, and somebody said, “Well, what’s the difference?” And I was able to draw an umbrella on the board and wrote “Christianity” across the umbrella- and talked about what Christianity teaches, the complete gospel.
Have you ever had complaints from coworkers who don’t share that worldview?
No one has complained. And in the classroom, I make sure there is [freedom of speech]. We live in a society that was built on the equality of the right to speech. Which can be, to some, a threat and hindrance. But when you know God is really the truth, it’s okay to open the door. So another year, I had a Hindu boy from India. Same thing, somebody asked a question about Christianity, so I had shared the gospel and then I said, “Is there anything you would like to share about the Hindu faith?” When you realize there is one truth and it is God, you’re not afraid to open those doors to those opinions or those teachings.
I wanted my own children to look at everything that the world said and compare it to the Word and find the truth in the Lord. So that’s the way I approach it in the classroom. Because there are so many different views and it’s not something to run from, but to put out on the table.
It is hard to continue with a gospel-centered perspective in a worldly atmosphere- have you found anything specifically that helps?
Continually checking in. A constant check-in with the Lord.
This year was probably my hardest as far as classroom behaviors and just kiddos that are really hurting. There are times in class- and I do this often- where I would just take a step back, take three deep breaths, count to ten and I’m just praying, “Lord, give me the wisdom and insight to continue forward, the strength to do the job that you’ve given me to do.” There’s nothing magical, it’s just a continual checking in.
What do you wish people knew about teachers- perhaps something commonly misunderstood?
For the most part, at least with the teachers I work with, we wear our heart on our sleeves. Our goal really is to help those students in the classroom… The majority of teachers I talk to went into teaching because they genuinely care about the students and about them learning.
Your job involves a lot of creativity and, at the same time, it involves doing the same thing over and over again. Many people can probably relate to feeling stuck in a rut, as far as the creativity end of it. How do you find fresh motivation and inspiration for your job?
I think by constantly learning, myself… The students inspire me. So they come in the classroom and all have different interests and I try really hard that first week to find out what their interests are and what their connections are.
One year I had a little girl who had gone through a lot in her life and I knew the background, and so I watched her really carefully the first week. And she was really into trees. She kept drawing trees. So my art, that year, and my science revolved largely around trees. And I just saw her blossom. Most of my inspiration comes from the students themselves and being able to get them out of their seat and doing projects they like.
What would you say to a young woman who wanted to pursue a career but also ultimately wanted to be a mom/wife?
Remember your family is first. God first in your family. So if you need to go to work to help your family out, that’s okay. Don’t feel condemned that you’re not a worker at the home- because you’re always a worker at the home. But your family has to come first.
I don’t regret being a stay-at-home mom for the years that I was. We made sacrifices. We didn’t have those vacations, we didn’t go out to eat, we didn’t do some of those things. But I don’t think my husband or my children or I regret that. We remember the times together. I was able to be involved. I was always Team Mommy and helped out at school. And that was a wonderful season.
But then there came a time and a season where I needed to work to help my family and that was a good season, too.
Many parents see the increasingly secular environment within public schools and are considering homeschool and private school. From your perspective as a public school teacher, how would you advise parents deciding where to send their kids to school?
I think there’s a lot of thing to look at. My children have been homeschooled, in public school, and private school depending on the season and the child. Again, it’s really seeking what’s best for your child in that stage of their life.
For me, one of our reasons to go to a public school was we wanted our children to, number one, be able to be a light and plant some seeds. We [also] wanted them to be able to be exposed to the world while under the safety of home.
No matter what school setting a parent chooses, sometimes you have to let your children navigate through some rough stages…
Well, I think that it’s important as a parent to remember that our children are writing their own history. We don’t get to write it for them. It really is their walk with the Lord, and they’re writing their own story.
As parents, we hope they’ll learn from our mistakes and that they’ll learn in the sanctuary- that they’ll hear those things and choose otherwise. But there’s a myriad of personalities and one of mine really had to experience it to learn it. And wrote a beautiful story. She’s writing a beautiful story of her life.
But as parents, it’s us having to let go… We made mistakes, our children are going to make mistakes. That’s how we grow. If we didn’t make mistakes, we wouldn’t need a Savior.
Any words of wisdom for the parents who send their children to public school?
You are your child’s biggest advocate. Be involved in spending time with them. Keep teachers informed about issues at home so they can be a support. If something is going sideways in your life as a parent, it’s okay to let a teacher know, “Keep an eye out for my child. This is what’s happening.” Teachers want to be supportive.
How would you encourage a woman interested in teaching and early childhood education?
Go into it with your eyes wide open. My first piece of advice is go spend time in a school- before you enter the education program- and see what it’s really like. To see if that’s what you want to do. If you love children… If that’s terror to you, don’t do it.
Next to being a mother, I can’t imagine a more valuable job (Not diminishing all the other ones out there because they’re all important- it’s what God calls you to). For me it is pure joy and pure struggle all molded into one.
And lastly, how would you encourage those who look at where our culture is headed and lack hope for the up and coming generation of children?
Keep your eyes on the Lord. There is a plan and we don’t understand it. I think oftentimes we hear all the negative in the news and we can see all the negative around us. We have left, as a nation, seeking the Lord and its had its impact on our generations. But it can always turn around and its one heart at a time… As Christians, we know the end story. And it’s not always going to be pretty from here to there. But it is one heart at a time.♥
Keep your eye out for more Faith at Work interviews- a series exploring the various callings of the women in our church, and how they use them for eternity.