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MOUNT WASHINGTON - When one of her students was having trouble grasping certain concepts, Old Mill Elementary School special education teacher Julie Skeens took the boy’s love for NASCAR and turned it into a learning tool.
She incorporated NASCAR into everything she taught him, from mathematics to reading. Her method may have been considered unusual by many, but it worked.
When information was presented in the right context, he began to understand.
“I’m a bit eccentric,” Skeens said. “I’m not afraid to use unconventional techniques to make my students succeed.”
Her “unconventional” teaching methods are just a small part of what has earned her a reputation for educational excellence and the honor of being named Bullitt County Public Schools’ elementary Teacher of the Year.
Skeens said she was surprised when she was told she had been chosen.
“It was one of those once in a lifetime emotions,” Skeens said. “I was completely speechless. All I could say was thank you.”
Skeens was selected out of 11 elementary teachers nominated from around the county.
Old Mill kindergarten teacher Patricia Stevens, who has worked with Skeens for five years, nominated her for the award.
“I just think she’s an awesome teacher all around,” Stevens said. “Anytime there’s a question about anything that needs to be done in the school you ask Julie, and if she can’t answer it she’ll find the answer.”
Stevens said Skeens contributions to Old Mill were invaluable.
“She does a lot for our school in general. She’s a real go getter”
Stevens said Skeens has made enormous contributions to the school, which include her service on site base council and innumerable committees, emceeing the school’s annual talent show, coordinating the Old Mill science fair, and advising the school’s academic team, just to name a few.
Stevens said her colleague really deserved the award because she genuinely cared about her students and she had high expectations of them, which made them succeed.
“She loves her students and she pushes them,” Stevens said. “She expects the same out of the kids with disabilities as the kids with no disabilities.”
Stevens added that Skeens’ kind, caring, lovable personality were what made her an award winning teacher.
“She’s willing to help everyone. She’s mentored teachers at all levels of education. She’s just a great person,” Stevens said. “I’m proud to call her my friend.”
Old Mill Principal Leslie McIntosh said Skeen’s involvement and dedication made her an asset to the school, and her work and recognition was a reflection on the school as a whole.
McIntosh said parents of functionally and mentally disabled children have noticed how well she worked with their children, and many from both in and out of the BCPS district wanted their children in Skeens’ class.
“She does amazing work with her kids,” McIntosh said. “We’re lucky to have her.”
The principal also said that Skeens was seen as a leader at Old Mill because of her extraordinary teaching skills and her devotion to the school.
“This school is kind of her life, McIntosh said. “Every time we have something at the school she’s always here.”
McIntosh said though he has only been at Old Mill for two years, Skeens has made a lasting impression on him.
“She’s a master teacher,” he said.
Skeens said one of the most rewarding parts of teaching FMD students was the challenge and motivation they gave her to help them learn and find themselves.
“Whenever you crack through whatever shells they have you find that they’re awesome,” Skeens said. “They have a lot of potential and I think a lot of people miss that.”
Her philosophy on what makes a good teacher is simple. She said good teachers must like people, they should have the ability to change on the fly and to modify their teaching methods to fit their student’s needs, and finally, good teachers have to have a passion for education.
“You have to be a learner yourself to makes sure the kids are getting what they need,” Skeens said.
Skeens’ career has been influenced by many people, but she considered her mother and her 7th and 8th grade language arts teacher her biggest inspirations.
Her language arts teacher pushed her to become better and her mother, who was also a teacher, always encouraged her.
Skeens said the best part of being a teacher was getting through to a student who didn‘t understand something.
“The best thing about being a teacher is when you finally get that kid to get it - when it clicks,” Skeens said. “You have some kids that you wonder if they’re ever going to get there, then they do. It brings a tear to your eye.”
Skeens said the worst thing about teaching was dealing with the changes politicians impose on education because their decisions weren’t always in the best interest of the schools.
“You never know what’s going to come from the state or federal government,” Skeens said.
Skeens is regarded as one of the best teachers in the district, but when she was growing up she had no intention of being a teacher, and when she first became a teacher she questioned her career path.
She wanted to go into medicine right up until she went to college.
After graduating from Larue County High School in 1994, Skeens attended Elizabethtown Community College before transferring to Western Kentucky University.
After toying with the idea of working in medicine, Skeens decided to get her bachelor’s degree in family and consumer science education like her mother.
Jan Wright, who influenced her daughter to go into education, had been a family and consumer science teacher since 1970, teaching in Meade, Hardin and Larue Counties.
During her sophomore year at WKU Skeens began substitute teaching in Larue County where her mother was teaching at the time.
One of the places she substituted was Life Connection, an institution that catered to students with moderate to severe mental and physical disabilities.
There Skeens began feeling pulled toward special education.
“It was a different situation and I absolutely loved it. It was challenging and rewarding,” Skeens said
Skeens earned her bachelor’s degree in 1997 and got her first job teaching family and consumer science at North Hardin High School.
After just a year at North Hardin, Skeens said she was dissatisfied with her career path, so she quit her job and went to work for Bank One (now Chase Bank) in Louisville.
Skeens said she made the move into corporate banking because her grandfather had always told her she should be a banker.
Eventually she became dissatisfied with banking, so she thought she would give teaching another try after her mother and others had encouraged her to make the move.
Skeens remembered how much she enjoyed working with functionally and mentally disabled children when she subbed at Life Connection, so she sought a job in Special Education.
In 2000 she spoke to the assistant superintendent of BCPS about positions in the county. She then had an interview with then principal Rod Furquin about a FMD teaching position at Old Mill.
She got the job and began teaching at Old Mill on Aug. 16, 2000 in the same position she has now.
“When I discovered that it was where I was meant to be it felt like home,“ Skeens said. “It’s felt like home ever since.”
Skeens will be recognized at the March 16 meeting of the Bullitt County Board of Education where she will receive a certificate of recognition, $100 from Publishers Printing Company which sponsors the program, and a year membership to Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest.
Skeens will also be invited to a recognition ceremony in May sponsored by Campbellsville University.