Julie Underwood is the essence of the self-made, do-it-all educator. Classroom teacher? Check. Debate coach? Check. Motivated by student success? Check. Adaptable to the changes brought about by COVID-19? Check. A strong proponent of the value of the IEA and her local education association? Check.
She is teaching ninth-grade English at Kimberly High School this year after a long run as the school’s competitive forensics teacher and debate coach. But the back story on how Julie got to this point and what motivates and empowers her goes much deeper than roles or job descriptions.
Julie grew up in Twin Falls and graduated from Twin Falls High School. She jokes that she has attended every college in Idaho at some point in her education, with her undergraduate degree from the College of Idaho, her teaching certificate through Boise State University, her Master’s degree from Northwest Nazarene University, and various credits from the alphabet soup of CSI, ISU, and NIC. She started her career as a special education teacher in Emmett, then moved to Kimberly in 2005 and started her “dream job” teaching English and competitive forensics in 2006.
She points to the satisfaction of seeing students grow into their potential as an important motivation for the long hours that come with the profession, especially those under her tutelage in forensics, speech, and debate. “I have seen students who were terrified to give their first speech grow to become state champion debaters,” she says. “That personal growth and evolution are so rewarding to witness and to participate as a catalyst to such growth in any way is my greatest reward. Those ‘aha’ moments of understanding make it all worthwhile.”
Helping students gain confidence and essential skills have taken on added significance during the COVID-19 pandemic. With school buildings closed or hybrid models in place in recent months, teachers and students have both had to adjust, but Underwood sees a silver lining. “To be successful beyond high school students will need exactly the skills they are required to cultivate during remote learning—managing their own schedules, setting realistic goals, cultivating and curating the resources they need to achieve those goals,” she says. “If we can scaffold those skills for students both within and outside our classrooms, they will have the skills they need to achieve their dreams for any type of success.”
Julie also believes that the move to remote learning has forced educators to embrace the innovations in technology they have been reluctant to consider up to this point. While certainly not an ideal transition, educators, along with students and parents, are growing in their comfort level with online platforms and alternative instruction methods. The self-proclaimed “Queen of the Handouts” has even set a goal to be one hundred percent handout free to help prevent the spread of the virus and to ensure that online students have access to important materials.
Underwood has been an IEA member since before she even taught her first class, signing on with the Gem County Education Association at her first teacher orientation. “It was the best decision I have made in my entire teaching career,” she says. “Being a member has provided me with all the support that is essential to helping me succeed in the profession.” One of the drivers of her decision to step down as her school’s debate coach was a desire to take a more active role in the Kimberly Education Association. She has emerged as an insightful and eloquent spokesperson for educators, appearing as a guest on televised town hall panels and in stories about back to school plans.
The clout that comes with a collective voice is an important aspect of the Association’s role for Underwood. “Educators should be consulted, and their voices highly regarded in the development of education policy,” she says. “Teachers are highly motivated professionals who give hours and hours of their personal time as well as their personal resources to the performance of their duties. They should have the strongest voice in matters of policy development.”
She also shares the frustrations that many educators in Idaho feel regarding ever-increasing demands. “Expectations grow and change on teachers every year, but we are never given more time or resources to meet the additional expectations,” Underwood notes. “People need to recognize that schools do far more than educate—we feed students, provide their social and emotional support systems, keep them safe, and provide necessary routines and discipline. The lack of respect for all that work in disappointing.”
Julie Underwood is a great example of the dedication and passion of Idaho’s professional educators. Her district, her state, and especially her students are very fortunate to have her in their corner.