Teaching went from convenience to passion for award-winner

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By Scott Akanewich

When Jennifer Hurley began her career in education, she was also a young mother who didn’t want to have to choose between being a teacher and a mom.

She wanted her cake and the ability to eat it, too.

Which is exactly what she found, and more.

“I think I honestly began a career in teaching because I was a young mother. When I started college I already had a child,” said Hurley. “I wanted to have a job that would allow me to be a mom, have a full-time career and still have quality time with my children. But, I soon learned teaching is so much more. I’ve continued to do it for so many years because even in spite of the challenges, it’s so rewarding to make a positive difference in a child’s life.”

Hurley was named Liberty Hill Elementary School Teacher of the Year for the 2019-20 school year and said she couldn’t be more proud of receiving such an honor.

“It is very humbling to be awarded Teacher of the Year by my colleagues and administrators – they’re my people,” said Hurley. “We pour so much of our heart and soul into our work together each day. We really do become a close-knit family, so to be recognized by my peers is very special to me. It also puts a little stress on me to make sure that I’m being a good leader – not just for my students, but also for my colleagues, my district and my community. I learn so much from my colleagues and they inspire me to keep trying new ideas to reach my students. That really keeps me going in this line of work.”

Hurley, who is entering her 23rd year of educating, began in the classroom as a kindergarten teacher – something she said she would never do, but ended up doing for the first 17 years.

“When I first began my teacher training in college, I swore I would never teach kindergarten,” she said. “But, then I spent a day in a kindergarten classroom as a required assignment and I fell in love. Those kids were so funny. They soaked up every word their teacher said. I was hooked from then on. In fact, when I began teaching kindergarten, I quickly filled up a journal of writing down funny things kids said and did throughout my days. Young kids are so innocent and just want to learn. I knew the elementary age was where I would spend my teaching time.”

However, in order to completely quench her primary motivation, she realized she would have to move up the chain a bit, she said.

“Writing is one of my passions, so I was ready to move up in grade levels so I could dive deeper into writing with my students,” said Hurley. “When the newest elementary was built, I found my way ‘back home’ to LHE and continue to teach second grade there.”

Hurley said she has developed a philosophy over the years that is spun from experience, but also a product of truly knowing what students need – which can only be gleaned by getting to know each and every one of them – something that differentiates teaching at the elementary level compared to older students.

“Teaching elementary students versus upper grades is ‘day and night,’ as far as academics go. But, in the end, they’re all kids. They all thrive on building a strong relationship with their teachers and classmates. People need people. I’ve always been a big believer we have to reach their hearts before we can reach their heads,” she said. “So, no matter what age you’re trying to teach, you have to get to know your students. Some people may think elementary-age students come to school ready to learn, ready to please their teachers and just have a great time – not true. Many of our kids come through our classroom doors with trauma – a broken home, poverty, anxieties or no books at home. We have to be prepared to be their safe place and know their fears and uncertainties often come through as negative behavior challenges we’re dealt. Whether you’re teaching elementary or upper grades, we have to help build strong character in our kids.”

According to Hurley, despite some core aspects of the profession remaining the same, there have also been myriad changes over the years that have helped enhance not only the learning experience for students, but the teaching experience, as well.

“Education changes every year. I have not had one year where it was the same as before. Technology, of course, has been one of the biggest changes in education. I still laugh thinking back on a time before we used e-mail and teachers sent important messages to each other via a Post-It note during the day which was passed from classroom to classroom,” said Hurley. “Kids make videos to explain their learning, kids with dyslexia have access to speech-to-text and my students wrote their own stories digitally this year. Also, our classrooms are much more active than they used to be. Students do a lot of work collaboratively and they’re often showing me technology tricks.” 

In fact, even the global pandemic and the obstacles it has placed in the path of learning have provided a unique opportunity, she said.

“During this school closure, we made history,” said Hurley. “For the first time ever, I taught reading lessons via Zoom calls with my students.”

For Hurley, one of the most fulfilling aspects of not only teaching, but doing so at the level she does is getting a healthy dose of the best medicine each and every day.

“By far, the best part of being a teacher is getting to spend your day with all those little bodies and laughing about something,” she said. “Something funny always happens, so even on your most difficult day, you can have joy. It’s always a reward to see them apply something they learned into their daily world.”

But, like an athlete who only spends part of their time performing on the field, there is much that goes on out of the spotlight, which must be done to ensure peak performance when the lights are on – and it’s not always pleasant.

“The worst part of the job is all the ‘behind-the-scenes’ work which has to take place — the long meetings, the unending lesson planning and the data analysis,” said Hurley. “Also, often not seeing the fruit of your labor until years later. Sometimes, students leave you and you’re not sure if you did all you could do for them.”

All these years after she made the choice to pursue teaching and sometimes Hurley finds herself on the opposite end of an equation that helped shape her professional destiny.

“It always warms my heart when someone tells me they want to be a teacher one day because I was that person one time,” she said. “I told my teachers I wanted to be a teacher one day and they encouraged me and made me believe I could do it if that’s what I pursued.”

But, there was one very big asterisk that went along with the advice she was given.

“They didn’t tell me how hard it would be,” said Hurley. “I actually remember crying on my first day of teaching. As soon as the kids had a recess break, I broke down. My best training was just getting out there and doing it — trying and failing. I also had a college professor tell us, ‘If you don’t like children, you better look at another career fast.’ Teaching is hard, but, it’s so worth it. If you like to work hard and make a difference for others, teaching is a great place to do that.” 

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