Ohio’s Teacher of the Year puts a quote by Helen Keller at the end of his emails: “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.”
Jonathan Juravich, an art teacher at Liberty Tree Elementary in Powell (Olentangy Local Schools), discussed how small actions can make a great impact in a person’s life to an audience of education students, teachers, and alumni who gathered Monday to hear Juravich speak at Otterbein University in Westerville, his alma mater.
Known to six grades of students as “Mr. J,” the enthusiastic and animated Juravich said the first time he realized the importance of those small tasks was when visiting a young girl in the hospital, playing Chutes and Ladders with her, making her laugh, and seeing her recover from a devastating illness.
“I just showed up,” Juravich said. “It’s not about big things, it’s about small things and showing up.”
Juravich and his fellow staff at Liberty Tree determined the things they want from their students is respect, empathy, awareness and perseverance. For example, after Hurricane Harvey, students asked how they could help, which was repeated after Puerto Rico was hit.
“I’m not just teaching (state) standards, but I’m also teaching small people,” he said. “I take small steps to make art come alive for our students.”
Those small steps include teaching about living artists like polka-dot house painter Tyree Guyton; having students create self-portraits in the manner of Kehinde Wiley (who painted the official portrait of former U.S. President Barack Obama); and using found objects in innovative ways. An example of the latter, a turtle made from trash fished out of the Scioto River, hangs at the Columbus Zoo.
A zoo resident, Cecil the Turtle, collaborated with students on one project by walking on a painting, taking small steps.
“It was so bizarre, and so beautiful,” Juravich said.
Small steps extend to what Juravich wears. He noticed his students were imitating his wearing of plaid shirts, and they would be visibly disappointed if he didn’t wear plaid on the day of their class.
“Now, it’s my uniform for life,” Juravich said.
Another thing Juravich often wears is a vest of buttons he’s made, whether it’s the faces of the cross country athletes he coaches, teachers or Liberty Tree staff; or the state trees that he would hand out to the 53 other teachers of the year.
“It was something to talk about,” he said. “People asked, who is the weird little guy with the buttons?”
Other small touches include greeting students on the bus; saying he’s proud of his students and explaining why; and during assignments, pointing to his coffee mug that says, “You can do it.”
“They roll their eyes, but I know it means you’re ridiculous, but you’re our ridiculous teacher,” he said.
Originally from Pittsburgh, Juravich, a 2005 Otterbein alum, is one of four finalists for the 2018 National Teacher of the Year award.
Gary Budzak may be reached at 740-413-0906 or on Twitter @GaryBudzak.