Julie Nawrocki teaches math, typically college-level courses, at Skyline High School in Idaho Falls. She grew up in St. Petersburg, FL and graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in electrical engineering. She and her husband, Peter, met at USF and began careers as engineers. They moved to Idaho in 2000, and she ultimately transitioned to a career as an educator, which she loves.
Julie has been very active in the Idaho Falls Education Association, serving on the negotiations team and as a representative at Delegate Assembly 10 times. This year Julie has been an important voice in pushing back against insults and dangerous policies from the legislature. We asked her about that activism, as well as her background, and the challenges and opportunities that come with being an educator.
Q-What gives you the greatest sense of satisfaction in your work?
A-When I hear from students after they graduate, and they thank me. There aren’t a ton of people that like high school math. I do try to make it fun, but I am also a realist. Kids that take my classes are typically heading into the medical field or other STEM fields and math is an integral part of that. Students sometimes earn their first “B” from me, or my class is one of the first classes where they have to buckle down and work hard. So, when they come back and tell me that I truly helped them prepare for college, that makes me feel like it’s all worth it. I am passionate about everything I teach, and I care deeply about each and every student.
Q-Teaching is a second career path for you. How did the change come about and what prompted it?
A-When I was in high school, I wanted to be a social studies teacher. I loved history and I thought that would be my path. My mother was a band teacher, but music was never my thing. My father was an engineer, but I also couldn’t see myself being an engineer. Math and science had always been pretty easy for me, but I never really thought I was good at them.
At the senior awards ceremony my math teacher, Mr. Oescher presented me with Lakewood’s Math Student of the Year Award. When he handed it to me, he said, “You would make a great engineer and the world needs more female engineers, but if you want to really make a difference, become a math teacher!”. I had already accepted a full-ride scholarship at a private liberal arts college for education. But within one week I had changed my major, applied, and was accepted to the University of South Florida for electrical engineering. I was one of two women to graduate in our electrical engineering class, and I worked for several years as an engineer for Long & Associates Engineering and Architecture.
I loved my work; building schools, retrofitting schools for technology, designing lighting layouts for classrooms, and making sure student and teacher spaces flowed, had proper electrical layouts, etc. I spent a lot of time on-site at schools while we were working on them, and something just felt like I wasn’t doing the right job.
Fast forward several years and my family relocated to Idaho where my husband (also an engineer) took a job at INL. There was no way that we both could work out in the desert so far from the kids, so I stayed home for a few years.
When I applied to be a resource room math paraprofessional, the Idaho Falls High School principal called me and said he had been given my application and resume from the district office. He had a math teacher that needed to take medical leave and asked if I would take those classes for 6-8 weeks. I spent eight weeks at Idaho Falls High School and I have been a teacher ever since. I met with Superintendent Murdoch and Asst. Superintendent Boland a few weeks later and they offered me a conditional contract if I would be willing to get an alternative certification. I enrolled in Idaho State University’s alternative certification program and spent that summer taking the required classes at ISU. Over the next two years, I completed both my alternative certification and my master’s in education for secondary mathematics.
Q-Who are some of the people who have inspired or influenced you?
A-My grandmother was an elementary school teacher during segregation in Florida and she taught me to fight for people who can’t fight for themselves. Nights with her growing up were always full of stories with a life lesson; love and kindness should be freely given to everyone, no exceptions.
My high school math teacher, Mr. Oescher. His belief in me changed my path twice! It’s amazing what one teacher can influence with a simple statement of belief!
My first mentor, Suzanne Wisner, taught me what it meant to be an educator. She was more than a mentor, more than a colleague; she was a truly kind and compassionate person. Her passion for teaching, her professionalism, her love of mathematics were inspiring. She carried herself with grace and compassion always!
Perhaps the most important influencer I had was Kelle Martin. Kelle was an English teacher at Skyline High School when I started, and I looked up to her in every way. She was professional, compassionate, high energy, and so positive. She taught me about advocacy and she taught me how important it was to be active in the IEA. She taught me that “WE” are the association. If we need to make a change, be involved; if we need to stand up for something, stand up. She always said that we are stronger together, and she backed it up with her actions!
Q-What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?
A-Time & Politics! I had no idea that teaching would mean working 10-12 hour days. I know I do that to myself, but I teach 4-5 college-level math classes a day and I need to get feedback to my students in a timely fashion. My goal is to help my students discover how smart they are and explore their potential to help them find the right fit for post-secondary directions. Balancing my family and my students has always been a struggle. Fortunately, I have the most amazing family and they are very understanding.
Politics: I had no idea how political education was until I was in it. The Luna Laws was a dark time for Idaho, and we lost a lot of good educators. In the end, the public supported us, and we defeated the Luna Laws and started fighting for the schools and education our students deserve. I joined our negotiations team shortly after that and started trying to repair the damage done by the Luna Laws.
It has been an uphill battle, and then we hit a deep hole this session. Legislators attacked and demeaned our teachers this year. We went from “heroes” to the “enemy” in a matter of months. All because we were fighting for safe conditions for our students and our educators in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic. Educators know without essential needs being met no learning can take place. That is why every teacher has a stash of food that can feed our hungry students and extra clothes and supplies for those emergency situations for our kids. We have to take care of their needs so they can learn. One of those needs is the sense of safety and security. But we found ourselves being told to work in conditions that were not safe for our students or ourselves.
Q-You have been vocal during the legislative session about the lack of respect some elected officials seem to have for educators. What caused you to speak up and share your insight with legislators and the media?
A-Our students and their educations should not be pawns for legislator’s personal agendas or political aspirations. They deserve better. Teachers have worked harder these past 12 months than anyone could ever have imagined. They have had to work in different modalities, often at the same time, using technology they are unfamiliar with, adapting curriculum to both online and in-person teaching, and switching things up at the drop of a hat. They have often put their health and their family’s health at risk to make sure their students’ educational needs were met. Regardless of which modality a teacher’s district was using, educators dropped everything to make sure our students’ needs were met; that they would be prepared for the next course, the next grade level, the next mandated test.
To hear a legislator degrade and disparage educators was absolutely my last straw! I have watched some amazing teachers leave our profession this year because they weren’t sure they could take care of their children, or their aging parents, or their spouses struggling with the pandemic. I have watched many others struggle with teaching online and in person. I have held the hands of an educator as she cried over the loss of a loved one due to COVID-19. I have spent hours upon hours on the phone listening to teachers who are worn down to the bone, exhausted with the extra duties that have come with teaching during a pandemic.
So, when Rep. Ehardt said our students were struggling in classrooms because their teachers didn’t want to be teaching, I had to stand up for our teachers! Public education in Idaho is funded 51st in this nation…there is no going lower. What the legislature should have focused on was passing bills to expedite funding to our schools, bills that target any learning losses due to the COVID-19 shutdown, bills that might help mental health concerns in our students, bills that address early childhood learning; basically, any bill that might help fund education and give our students the schools and educations they deserve. Instead, our legislators put on a full-force attack on public education by trying to pass bills that removed teacher certification protocols, eliminated bargaining for educational associations, allowed guns to be concealed carry on school campuses, gave public education funding to private schools, and disallowed federal grant money for early childhood education because of social justice concerns. Every single taxpayer should be appalled and angry.
Q-What could our state do better to help students have opportunities to succeed?
A-Fund Education! Our students need to be able to compete on a national level. They need to have access to the same resources and educational opportunities as students in other states. They need to have competitive SAT/ACT scores. They need schools that don’t’ have leaking roofs. They deserve the most qualified teachers, access to the best curriculum, and technology that moves them to the next level. All of this comes with funding. Funding that attracts and retains the most qualified educators. Funding that allows for early childhood education. Funding that allows us to have programs to fill the gaps left by the COVID-19 shutdown. Funding that allows students to receive the services they need, including mental health services.
Q-What do you wish more people knew about professional educators?
A-Professional Educators make every other career possible! We foster lifelong learning in our students and teach them to problem-solve, to become the best possible “them “they can be. We do all of this with unselfish hearts that only want what is best for each and every one of them! We lose sleep every single night over our students. We feel every tear, every heartbreak, every failure, and every success.
Q-What else should IEA members know about you? What makes you tick? Family, hobbies, etc.?
A-We have three children. David (23) is in graduate school at USF for Electrical Engineering in Wireless and Antennae design, Steven (21) is in the nursing program at Idaho State University, and Katie (19) is at the University of Tampa in Florida in the nursing program and is in the Army ROTC program. My husband works for Walsh Engineering in Idaho Falls, and we have two Goldendoodles (Sam and Belle) and we can usually be found running them or walking them around town when we have a little spare time. I am a huge STEM advocate. I think more students would go into STEM if they had a little more belief in their own abilities.
I have been on the IFEA Negotiations team for six years and was the spokesperson last year. It has definitely been one of the best professional experiences of my career. It has taught me a lot about advocacy, and speaking up for others, but also teaching others how to self-advocate. I was an IFEA building representative for eight years. I have been elected to the IEA Delegate Assembly for 10 years. I was the high school representative for our Executive Board with the IFEA last year and was elected as the IFEA President-elect for the 2020-2022 term to take over as President 2022-2024.