Meet Jonathan Juravich (Ep. 121)

Jonathan Juravich is the 2018 Ohio Teacher of the Year, and one of four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year Award. He joins Tim today to discuss his experiences and how he has advocated for the arts. Jonathan talks about his whirlwind past year as a finalist (6:00), his experience visiting the White House (13:30), and why he wants to use his platform to promote teaching empathy (18:00). Full episode transcript below.


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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Today we’re going to be talking to one of the finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award. His name is Jonathan Juravich, and he is an elementary art teacher from Ohio. He was named the Ohio Teacher of the Year last year, and continued on to be named one of the four finalists for National Teacher of the Year.

That comes with a lot of exciting adventures, a lot of extra responsibility, but also a lot of opportunities to advocate for the arts. He’s been traveling all over his state, traveling all over the country, and acting as a voice for the importance of the arts, and the lessons and the skills we teach through the arts.

In between his speeches to thousands of people, he’s still finding time to teach, and to teach really well. One of his passions is teaching kids how art can make a better world, and fostering empathy through the lessons he presents, and how he teaches his kids.

I want him to tell you about it, because he can do it so much better than me. So, I think this interview’s going to take a while. I want to jump right into it. So, here to tell us about his teaching, his awards, and his trip to the White House just about a month ago, it’s Jonathan Juravich.

Tim: Jonathan, how are you?

Jonathan: I’m doing really well, how about you?

Tim: I am doing very well also. I’m excited to talk to you. I feel like you’re art teacher famous, so it’s going to be an exciting interview.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Tim: I told people a little bit about you and your adventures over the last year in the intro, but I’d much rather have everyone hear it from you, so before we get into all of the exciting awards, can you just tell us a little bit about yourself, and more importantly, what you do in your art classroom?

Jonathan: Yeah. Well, I am a kindergarten through fifth grade art teacher. It’s a wild adventure every day, right?

Tim: Yes.

Jonathan: I teach at this amazing school called Liberty Tree Elementary School. It’s in Powell, Ohio, which is north of Columbus. It’s an amazing school. I call them my school family. At this school, I focus a lot on collaborative experiences, and repurposed materials, and getting students to see that art is alive, and moving, and exciting.

So, I do that. I also coach middle school cross country and track. Those kids are actually the kids that I taught when they were in elementary school, so it’s this continuum, which is really amazing. I also teach at the college level, so I work with future art educators as well.

Tim: Alright. I love those connections, just being able to continue teaching those kids, and then, with college … I mean, you’re doing a little bit of everything, which is super impressive.

Jonathan: Got my hands in a little bit of everything, right?

Tim: It’s good for you, though. It is.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Tim: But I want to talk about the whole Teacher of the Year process, just how did you get nominated, how did you find out about it, what has the process been like, and once you won the state award, the Ohio Teacher of the Year, what has it been like since then? What has the national finalist experience been like for you?

Jonathan: Yeah, it has been a crazy ride. I was telling someone the other day, it’s like a year ago, I was John Juravich, your friendly neighborhood art teacher. I feel like I’ve lived five lifetimes since then.

Last March, my principal texted me in the middle of the day, and had all these questions. It was like, “I am teaching. What are you texting me about?” She had all these questions about things I was involved in, and I said, “I hope you’re not nominating me for something that I’m going to be doing more work for,” and she sent back a couple laughing emojis. I had no idea what was going on.

Then, in the summer, I was teaching an art camp at the zoo, which is also something I do, and I got a call, and I answered it, and they said that I had been nominated for Ohio Teacher of the Year, and that I was the regional award winner, because we’re broken up into these regions, or districts. I was floored.

Then, I had to complete an application process, and I sent it in, and then I was told that I was a finalist, one of five finalists for the Ohio Teacher of the Year. At that point, I didn’t tell anybody about it, just my close family, because you’re like, when do you tell someone, “Hey, I’ve been nominated for this award,” right?

Tim: Well, I would be telling everybody, honestly, but …

Jonathan: I know. I kept waiting for them to call and be like, “Oh, thank you so much for applying, have a great day,” right?

Tim: Right.

Jonathan: So, yeah. So then, what they did is, in August, right before school started, they brought the five finalists in, and we didn’t meet each other at that point, but they brought us in, and had us have a panel … There was a panel that asked us questions about our practice, and who we were. Then, we had to give a short presentation a la Ted-Talk style as well, and I left that day being like, “Yeah! This was amazing, and I am exhausted!”

Then, the school year started, and one day, my principal and superintendent came down to my classroom, and were like, “Oh, there’s a reporter that wants to talk to you on the phone about being a finalist for Ohio Teacher of the Year,” and I’m answering all these questions over speaker phone to this reporter, and then mid-sentence, they said, “I need to stop you.” I thought I did something wrong, and they said, “This isn’t a reporter. This is actually the state superintendent, and you are the Ohio Teacher of the Year.”

Tim: Oh, that’s awesome.

Jonathan: Yeah, it was super crazy. Then, they said, “And now, you have to keep it quiet for several weeks, and don’t tell anybody.” And we did. We had to keep it super quiet, and they prepped me with some things to deal with working with the media.

I wrote a speech, and we told our staff and students we were having a character education assembly, and we called everyone to the gym one day, and there were all these people in suits, and it was set up really fancy, and they’re like, “You’re not here for this, you’re actually here because Mr. J,” which is what they call me, “is the Ohio Teacher of the Year.” It was incredible. It was incredible.

Yeah. Then, as each state … There’s actually, this past year, there were 55 state Teachers of the Year, because it’s the 50 states, and then Washington D.C., the Department of Defense education activity, and the territories. All of us, then, were applied to be the National Teacher of the Year. Again, I didn’t even know this process fully existed at that moment.

Then, in December, I got a call saying I was one of four finalists. I got called, again, right at the beginning of the day, right before students walked in my room. They said, “This is really great, but you can’t tell anyone.” So again, I had to keep it a secret, and we had to go through some things, and then they announced it in January that I was one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year. And I’m not even totally sure that’s all sunken in yet.

Tim: Yeah.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Tim: That’s awesome.

Jonathan: Yeah. It’s been a wild ride, to say the least.

Tim: For sure. Then, one thing I wanted to ask you about, I guess when we talked before, one thing that I really appreciated was that you didn’t seem to care so much about actually winning the award. It wasn’t necessarily like one of those, “It’s just an honor to be nominated,” thing, but more of, “I just appreciate the other finalists so much.” Can you talk a little bit about those other finalists, how you got to know them, and maybe why you connected so well?

Jonathan: Yeah. I mean, this is crazy, but again, a year ago, I didn’t know all of these teachers from across the country, yet in January, we got this little file folder with everyone’s pictures from all of the other states, all 55 of them, their names, and what they taught. There’s English teachers, and kindergarten teachers, and English as a second language teachers, so you’re kind of looking to be like, “Oh, cool. Who is this? Who’s the teacher of the year from Idaho?” and trying to figure all that out.

Then, in January 31st, they flew all of us to Google’s headquarters, which in itself was amazing, but they flew us all there to meet for the first time, and have this induction. I am happy that I now have these 54 other really close friends from across the country, and you can talk about these deep, educational issues of equity, and inclusion. I mean, it’s incredible. And also just about your life.

While we were there, the very first night, I and the other three finalists had to do this small video shoot. We were kind of off to the side, and the four of us had to spend a lot of time getting to know each other. From that first night, we bonded.

What was amazing about it is that we’re all so different. Mandy Manning from Washington, who was named the National Teacher of the Year, she teaches English as a second language, or English language learners, to immigrant and refugee students. Kara, from the Department of Defense, is a STEM teacher. Then, Amy Andersen, from New Jersey, works with American Sign Language, and teaches American Sign Language.

We’re all so different, but we were realizing that night, all of the beautiful connections that connected us. That kind of became the theme of our friendship, and actually, some of the speeches, and talks, and panels we’ve done together is this idea of connections.  Actually, from that day, I would say that the four of us are on a group text together, and we text every single day. Today alone, I mean, it was ongoing.

It’s incredible, because even though we are all so different and unique, and I really appreciate that, we’ve got all these beautiful connections that run through it, and we’re friends. I am so honored and humbled to not only be a part of those incredible 55 state Teachers of the Year, but then also to be amongst those final four. Yeah. This is wild.

Tim: That’s awesome. I also wanted to ask you, though, along with those connections, you guys have gotten to do all of these great things. I know you got to go to the national award ceremony, you got to meet some important people. Can you tell us about the award ceremony, and everything that was involved in that? I think people, they like to hear those behind the scenes experiences.

I know that Mandy Manning, the ELL teacher that you mentioned, she won the National Teacher of the Year award, she got to share some letters from her students with Donald Trump, and help amplify her students’ voices. I guess my second part of that question there is what kind of a chance did you get to share your thoughts, to advocate for the arts, or do anything like that? Did you have a platform where you could say some things that you wanted to say?

Jonathan: Yeah. Well, this awards ceremony was actually part of a larger, longer week that we call Washington Week, where all 55 of us head to Washington D.C. with our family members, and there’s several different events that happen during that time, and some really incredible professional development with former National Teachers of the Year, and other organizations.

The one day we were all sitting there, the four of us, and we found out that the next day, which was going to be when we go to the White House, that not only were we going to the White House, but that we were going to be on a panel with the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and the Secretary of Labor, Secretary Acosta. It was going to be the four us, the two of them, and a moderator.

My jaw hit the floor, because a week ago, I was in my classroom, and I was cleaning brushes that someone had left in the sink, and here I am, going to sit on this panel with these not only three other incredibly engaging teachers, but then also these secretaries. It was just wild.

So they gave us some proposed questions, of which none were asked. We get to the White House that day, and have to go through all the security, and we’re in the Eisenhower Executive Building. The six of us and the moderator are brought out onto a stage in front of all the other Teachers of the Year and their families, and a bunch of important educational leaders, and we just have these incredible discussions back and forth, building off of one another.

Again, the theme was all about connections. It wasn’t like we planned it, it just happened. I got to talk, myself personally, I got to talk about how the visual arts connect all of us, and I was able to reference even Washington D.C. itself, with its monuments, and how people travel so far to see these beautiful works of art that connect us. It was a really awesome moment to talk about the importance of arts education as well.

I also talked about school safety, and about how, as an elementary school teacher, what I’m working with my students as far as school safety. Again, I was sitting right next to Secretary Betsy DeVos during the whole thing, which is wild.

Then, from that moment, we headed into the White House, where there was great snacks.

Tim: Wait, wait, wait. This is important. What kind of snack were there?

Jonathan: Oh, my gosh. Chilled soup. One of the Teachers of the Year, I guess … I mean, I’m a vegan, but there was great bacon, I heard. Someone took and put a bunch of the bacon in their purse to save for later on. Amazing. I won’t call her out on this, but it was amazing.

Yeah, so then, we were, after this period of time where we’re all hanging out together, we went into one of the rooms, and Mandy Manning got to give her speech about her students, and what she does, and what she hopes. Then, they took a brief intermission, and the four finalists were lined up, and we walked into a room, and there was Donald Trump standing in the middle of a room. I was put on one side, and my wife was put on the other, and they said, “Smile,” and took a picture.

At that moment, it was a photo op. I was told, “Okay, thank you,” and was starting to be pushed out of the room, and I said, “Wait! My name is Jonathan Juravich. I’m the 2018 Ohio Teacher of the Year, and what I teach my students about is respect and empathy, and how we, as the adults need to model those behaviors for our students.” Then, he said, “That’s great. I like that.” Then, I was taken out of the room, and I was happy I took that moment to talk about something that is so important to me.

Character education is a huge part of what I teach in my classroom. Respect and empathy are the root of everything. That is something that I believe we, as the adults in these situations, really need to focus on, is this idea. I talk to my students all the time about how I hope those are the things that I’m showing them in my relationships with other people. It’s from me, up to the president, to the secretaries, these are things that we all should be focusing on.

I had got to talk about that a little bit on the panel … Not a little bit, a lot a bit, on that panel discussion as well, with the two secretaries, about how these are things that I find so important. They’re not just these soft skills. They’re things that we really need to focus on.

So, that was amazing.

Tim: No, that sounds amazing. I actually want to dive into that a little bit more. Like you said, one of your biggest passions is fostering empathy, and building relationships with your kids, and everything that goes along with that. You kind of talked about why you think that’s so important, but can you maybe give some advice to people? If people are interested in trying to do that a little bit more, do you have some advice on how they can do that in their own classrooms?

Jonathan: Yeah. This is something actually, as a building, we kind of struggled with over the past couple years, is we knew that we wanted to address these topics with our students, but it’s hard to come up with the words. When you say, “Let’s be respectful,” does a first grader know what that actually means?

So, I created this list in my room of what does respect look like, and what does respect sound like, and how do we respect ourselves, and our art supplies, and our classroom, and each other. Slowly, that began to be adopted building-wide, where we really had these charts in each room about, “These are some ways that you can actually show respect,” so it wasn’t as abstract.

Then, we started talking about, “Okay, so what do we really want our students to learn?” We talked about respect, empathy, awareness, and perseverance, which are huge topics, but they’re things that even kindergartners can wrap their brains around with discussion exploration. One of those that’s the hardest is we throw around the word empathy all the time. It’s almost now like an educational buzzword. But do our students, or do we even fully know what it means? The go-to is, “Well, you walk in someone else’s shoes.” That is super creepy to a kindergartner, because they’re like, “Why? Why am I in someone else’s shoes? It’s weird!”

So, we scrapped that idea, and talked more about, again, these connections and relationships, and really trying to understand what it’s like to be someone else, and their experiences. I feel like in the art room, we have so many opportunities to explore artists, and cultures, and open up their eyes. That idea of awareness is huge. Just our visual culture that we’re all a part of.

Through that, I’ve had a lot of discussions this year. After Hurricane Harvey happened, we partnered with a school in Texas, and my students created this beautiful house that we covered in polka dots. It’s a three dimensional house. It’s five feet tall. Every student that brought in an art supply to donate to a school that had been affected by the hurricane, they got to decorate a polka dot, and add it onto the house.

It was beautiful when it was done. It was super cool. And yet, we also had these amazing conversations about how art making could also benefit other people. Then, we were able to ship off these supplies to this school, and build a connection between those students in another school. It was crazy, because when you have those conversations about natural disasters, or these big events that happen, it can seem so abstract, but then once my students started to put themselves into the idea of, “Well, what would happen to our classroom? What would happen to all these supplies? How would we actually make art?” it became very real for them.

That’s what I want. I want to offer my students these opportunities to really engage with other people around them. Yeah.

Tim: No, that’s really well-said. I think that’s a lot of good advice for people to … how to approach it, and how to think about it.

It’s probably time for us to go. I have just one last question for you, which is, now what? You’ve had this whirlwind year. Like you said, you’ve lived five lifetimes in the last year. I’m sure it’s been exhilarating. I’m sure it’s been exhausting. You have all these obligations. Now, moving forward, do you still have a chance to speak, to promote the arts, to promote empathy, or is it time for you now to kind of sit back and relax, and get back to normal life, get back to how things were before?

Jonathan: A, I don’t think I ever had a normal life. But, no. I mean, I have grown so much as an educator and a person in the past couple years. I don’t know how I would ever just go back to the way things were. All of these amazing experiences that I have been so incredibly fortunate to have …

Yes. It has been exhilarating and exhausting. I’ve been teaching in the classroom while being pulled out to go to different events, and to speak. The same day that I had my school art show, that morning I spoke to 1,000 people, but I wasn’t nervous, because I had my art show on my mind.

So, yes, there are some exciting things ahead, and so now I can actually speak about it, because it’s been announced, but next school year, I am going to be a teacher in residence for the Ohio Department of Education, and I’m going to be working for the next year on teacher voice, and being a teacher voice in the room, teacher recognition, and professional development. That is really exciting, and also really terrifying, because it’s so unlike what I normally have done in my classroom, and yet I’m also trailblazing it for the department. But I’m so excited to be able to make a broader impact, and at the same point, offering professional development to classroom teachers, and art teachers. I have several speaking engagements coming up.

Then, a year from now, back in my classroom, and then also to see what other opportunities are out there. So, yeah. It’s been a wild ride, and it’s just going to keep getting wild, I guess.

Tim: No, that’s awesome, though. Amongst that whirlwind, I really appreciate you taking some time to sit down and talk to me. Thank you so much. Hopefully we can talk to you again soon.

Jonathan: Yeah. Thank you so much. This has been a real joy.

Tim: Thanks to Jonathan for coming on. I really appreciate him taking some time and sharing his story. Perhaps most importantly, we now know what kind of snacks the White House serves at their receptions. That is the kind of hard-hitting news that Art Ed Radio brings to you, and that’s why you tune in, right?

Honestly, though, I think Jonathan is a spectacular advocate for the arts. It’s awesome to see an art teacher honored with this type of national recognition. I also love the idea that he’s going to take the next school year to bring ideas all over his state, which means more art for kids and better art teaching, which is something that we can all definitely get behind.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. If you missed Abby’s interview with Jen Stark last week, make sure you go back and give it a listen. Jen will be the featured presenter at the Art Ed Now summer online conference on August 2nd. You can learn more about that conference, see all of the other presentations, at Hopefully we will see you there.

Thanks for listening, and we will talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.