Julie Wright, kindergarten teacher at Glendale Elementary in Vero Beach, says her biggest goal is to teach her students to love learning. ED DRONDOSKI PHOTO
BY JANIE GOULD
Longtime Glendale Elementary kindergarten teacher Julie Wright, selected as the Outstanding Teacher of the Treasure Coast for Indian River County, realized soon after she started college nearly three decades ago that she wanted to teach kindergarten.
A summer job teaching pre-kindergarten students launched her on that career path. She says her enthusiasm for teaching young learners has never waned, and it’s what she intends to be doing years from now. Fellow Glendale teacher Nancy Kulp, the colleague who nominated her, says Wright has patience and kindness and knows how to make learning meaningful and fun.
“I have worked with Julie for 23 years and never met anyone more amazing,” Kulp wrote.
When the current school year began in August, Wright chose to work with a half-dozen students from other countries who started school without knowing any English. They became part of her regular class. One child, a native of Thailand, spoke only Thai. Another spoke only Vietnamese, and several others, only Spanish. Then there was the little girl from Nepal, who had just moved to the U.S. with her family. Her native tongue was Nepali.
“The girl from Nepal just kind of watched to see what the other kids did,” Wright said. “Now she’s like a different child.”
A Glendale teacher who hadn’t seen the girl for a while marveled at how she had progressed in Wright’s class.
“She said, ‘oh my gosh, I can’t believe she’s talking in sentences!’ ” Wright said. “It’s amazing how quickly they progress. I love working with these students to see how they grow.”
A faculty member certified to teach English as a second language works with the children on a daily basis. In the classroom, Wright might seat the youngsters in front, but otherwise she uses the same teaching strategies she employs with their classmates.
“It’s very visual and hands-on,” she said, “The more fun it is, the more kids want to learn.”
She says kindergarten students are like sponges in that they soak up learning. New to formal education, they are open to the prospect of learning new things, she says.
“They come in with nothing and are so excited about learning,” she said. “My biggest goal is for them to love learning. I want to make them lifelong learners.”
Wright utilizes such technology as a “smart board” that displays pictures of each student. At the start of the day, the children move their pictures to a designated location on the board to show that they are in class. Then they compile the day’s attendance by counting the photos of students who are present.
It’s all fun and games.
She uses visual aids and games to help the students learn academic skills. Before Valentine’s Day recently, the children practiced addition by counting M&Ms on each side of the drawing of a heart.
To mark the 100th day of school, she had 100 small cups to give to the children. They were learning how to read “sight words,” those that cannot be sounded out phonetically. When the students read a word correctly, she gave them a cup to add to a tower of cups.
“As soon as they read their word and show it to me, I give them another cup and they see who can build the highest tower with their cups,” she said.
She uses what she calls partner talk to help the children learn communications skills and how to take turns. In the peanut butter and jelly session, one student is peanut butter and the partner is jelly. On cue from Wright, after a story or lesson, the partners turn to each other and discuss what they have learned.
Wright said she has had very few behavior problems over the years. In fact, she never raises her voice.
“Actually, I do the opposite,” she said. “I tend to go quieter. As long as I’m calm, they’re calm. I tell them to make sure they’re in control. My big thing is, you give respect, you get respect.”
And when she asks her students what they need to do if they want to do fun things, a chorus of young voices will reply, “Make good choices!”
Wright said she has no aspirations to move into a supervisory job.
“I’m not very good with adults,” she said. “I’m much better with the kids. I’m in my comfort zone with the little ones.”
Principal Adam Faust said she is dedicated to her students.
“She absolutely loves all the kids and treats them like her own,” he said. “She comes in early, stays late and works all summer. She really cares about the students and has a heart of gold.”
School: Glendale Elementary School in Vero Beach
Family: Husband, Jason, and two sons, J.J., a sophomore at Florida State University, and Zachary, a junior at Vero Beach High School.
Background: Sixteen years teaching at Glendale, mostly kindergarten, preceded by nine years at Garden City Elementary School in Fort Pierce. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and is nationally board certified in kindergarten education.
How I got into teaching: “I did a summer job teaching pre-K when I was in college. I went into college undecided and as soon as I did that summer job, I decided what I wanted to do. Both of my parents and several aunts and uncles are educators.”
Something students probably don’t know about me: “I talk to them about my family. I talk to them about what I like to do. I can’t think of anything that they don’t know about me.”