Photos by Greg Schneider
Julie McGough (’91, M.A. ’94) has three goals for every student who walks through her classroom door — to love reading, to love math and to have strong character.
And though every year she has one or two students who promise to defy her claim that they will all love to read by the end of the year, one by one the reluctant students stop protesting as they begin flipping through the pages of such books as Eragon and The Secret School. As each student eventually sits engrossed in their most recent “Book Club” book, McGough smiles, knowing that, as she predicted, a good book is a powerful teacher.
In September, McGough, a fifth grade teacher at Hodge Elementary School in Azusa, Calif., was honored with a Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year award, becoming one of only 16 teachers in the county to receive the annual honor. Two months later, McGough went on to become one of six finalists for California Teacher of the Year, narrowly missing the honor.
“It’s a very humbling and odd experience to be in the spotlight in this way as a teacher,” McGough said. “I enjoy the work I do in my classroom, and I enjoy encouraging other teachers, but to be honored by my colleagues in this way has been affirming of my calling.”
McGough’s calling wasn’t always so clear. While studying Christian education at Biola, McGough specifically swore she would never teach fifth grade because it appeared completely exhausting. However, after a few years of teaching in the Azusa Unified School District, McGough was invited to teach fifth grade at Hodge. Now, 20 years after the start of her teaching career, more than 600 students have walked through her classroom door.
“Fifth graders are a lot of fun. They are at that stage in between being a little kid and becoming a young adolescent,” McGough said. “We spend a lot of time talking about what it means to be a learning community and what it looks like to be responsible and to show kindness and respect.”
In circle groups, McGough’s students discuss the friendships found in Because of Winn-Dixie and the themes of bravery and courage that are weaved into Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. McGough’s students learn that the “median is in the middle” and that “listening to others is the sincerest form of respect.” The book clubs, math games and character sketches all work together to move students toward the three goals McGough sets for every student that enters her classroom.
“Parents get very excited when I talk about these goals for their children,” McGough said. “Because every parent wants their child to love reading, to do well in math and to have a strong character.”
McGough said partnering with parents is the most effective way she has been able to be a positive influence in the lives of her students, and as a fluent Spanish speaker, she is able to connect with all her students and their parents. Centered in a predominantly Hispanic community, Hodge Elementary School is home to many Spanish-speaking students and families. And over the past 17 years McGough has spent teaching at Hodge Elementary School, she has built a reputation among parents as la maestra, or “the teacher.”
Ana Gonzalez, a mother to two of McGough’s former students, said she could visibly see the difference McGough made in the lives of her children. Gonzalez’s children are now in college and high school, but she said they still have a desire to ask questions, to read and to love learning.
“What she instilled in my kids, I can still see it. The love for reading, which my son did not have before he was in the fifth grade, and his love of math and wanting to learn more, I owe that all to her,” Gonzalez said. “She was a wonderful teacher and I’m very thankful for all the opportunities and encouragement she gave to my children.”
McGough’s linguistic skills have been invaluable tools for her as she has sought to build strong connections with her students’ families. Aware of the role she plays in students’ lives as their teacher, McGough doesn’t take her job as an educator lightly.
“These parents say in Spanish, ‘Le encargo a mi hijo,’ and there’s this real sense of, ‘I entrust my child to you. They are in your care now, teacher,’” McGough said.
McGough has continued to care for and educate students not only in the classroom but also through online resources that she built for students and parents. McGough partnered with Learnzillion to write mini math and language arts lessons for the second through 12th grades. And on her website, bitingintothecore.com, McGough has created a place where teachers can link to the best Common Core standards content from around the nation.
McGough’s influence is far-reaching, not just in the lives of her students but also in those of her fellow teachers. Between training all the kindergarten through fifth grade teachers in her district in math practice and acting as the fifth-grade level leader for Hodge Elementary, McGough still finds time to work as liaison for the school’s student-teaching program with Azusa Pacific University.
Many people perceive teaching to be a much less involved job than it truly is, McGough said.
“Teaching is not a nine-to-five job and so that can be very challenging, because you bring a lot of work home,” McGough said. “With my husband’s multiple sclerosis, the demands in my home are a little different than in most homes. Our family has really worked together as a team so that we’re really supporting each other.”
Having a strong support system at home is an important reason why McGough can be so invested in her classroom. And while she is grateful and honored by her recent award, McGough said it has also prompted her to reflect on her career as an educator and what she might consider pursuing in the future. McGough said wherever her career takes her next she still sees herself continuing to work with students, parents and teachers.
“I’m mid-career, so I’ve been thinking about where do I go from here,” McGough said. “I think my role in training teachers will continue to grow because that’s something that I enjoy doing, but I’m very open to what God has in store for me next.”