FARGO — A Fargo teacher is a top 10 finalist for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher prize for 2020.

Leah Juelke, an English Learner-Language Arts teacher at Fargo South High School, was chosen from more than 12,000 nominations from over 140 countries to continue in the running for this $1 million prize.

"It's just kind of been a whirlwind," Juelke said.

Juelke's journey to this top 10 honor started over a year ago. She was nominated by one of her friends, who has done a lot of work with the Varkey Foundation as one of the former Top Global Teachers. After some thought, Juelke completed the application and was notified in February that she had been chosen as a top 50 finalist.

"I remember the day they called and told me I was in the top 50," she said. "It was a snow day, so we were actually all home and, um, I literally, I think I remember like, I literally (covered my mouth with my hand). And my daughter thought, you know, somebody had died (or) something was wrong. I couldn't even speak."

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Juelke said the top 50 finalists chat weekly, sharing stories and ideas from their own classrooms with each other. When it came to the top 10 announcement, she said it was a complete shock.

"I wouldn't have wanted to be on the panel to decide (top 10) either," she said. "It's just too hard. But I am honored."

She learned of her top 10 position through a video released by the foundation that sponsors the award.

"I think it took me a while to realize what was happening," Juelke said. "They did a Zoom call and they showed me a video and it had footage of my students in it, and I think that's where I got (the message)."

Global educator

Juelke is a Fargo native, graduating from the school where she now works. However, her experience spans far beyond the Midwest.

"I've always kind of had a passion for learning about different cultures and traveling," Juelke said. "My first job was in Taiwan. I worked at a boarding school, and then I worked in Ecuador for three years at a private school as an English and social studies teacher."

She is the 2018 North Dakota Teacher of the Year and holds certification in the world of English learners programs, formerly known as the English as a second language program, that accommodates students who don't speak English as their first language to help them learn their curriculum with English.

Students in the English learner track at Fargo South attend their core classes with these accommodations and attend elective classes with the general population of the school.

Juelke is an English teacher working with students in the English Learner program at Fargo South High School. She originally graduated from Fargo South, and has taught in over 20 different countries. Submitted photo
Juelke is an English teacher working with students in the English Learner program at Fargo South High School. She originally graduated from Fargo South, and has taught in over 20 different countries. Submitted photo

"My specialty is working with refugee and immigrant students," she said. "I've also done trauma training and storytelling. With storytelling comes the aspects of trauma and social-emotional learning and some of those categories. For me, I'm definitely into a community-based education."

In Juelke's classes, learning and community go hand-in-hand. She said she doesn't see walls or doors when it comes to her classroom. Rather, it's an open environment for students to learn and feel part of their new community while opening their minds to Fargo to learn that they have a place here.

"One thing that's really important with my project is sharing these stories helps my students," Juelke said. "With coming to terms with what's happened to them. Also one of the most important things is it also helps our community understand who their new neighbors are.

"I think there's a lot of misconception, especially nowadays, about certain people who come into our community from certain places. There's a lot of stereotypes and judgement on that, and so it's important that they share their stories to say, you know, this is my story, this is what happened to me and this is why I ended up here. And every story is so different and unique."

Juelke is the second teacher to be announced as a top 10 finalist for the Global Teacher Award, with the first being a teacher from South Korea. The Varkey Foundation will be naming a new finalist every week for the next eight weeks until the 10 finalists have been announced.

"So nobody knows," Juelke said. "It's completely a surprise."

The winner of the Global Teacher Award will be announced virtually later this year, with the winning teacher receiving $1 million.

Juelke said applicants had to outline plans for the prize money upon application. Her plans include creating a foundation for refugee and immigrant students to receive scholarships to attend college for teaching.

Upon seeing the video announcing her as a top 10 finalist for the Global Teacher Award, Juelke said, "Hnestly, what really got to me was like seeing my my students and the footage of them and just remembering all the things we did together. My classroom is very cohesive, because we get to know each other very well. And, you know, I attend students, cultural celebrations, I've never even attended weddings and been there and seen my students have children after they graduate, and then I have their siblings. It's just really building that relationship with my students." Submitted photo
Upon seeing the video announcing her as a top 10 finalist for the Global Teacher Award, Juelke said, "Hnestly, what really got to me was like seeing my my students and the footage of them and just remembering all the things we did together. My classroom is very cohesive, because we get to know each other very well. And, you know, I attend students, cultural celebrations, I've never even attended weddings and been there and seen my students have children after they graduate, and then I have their siblings. It's just really building that relationship with my students." Submitted photo

To learn more about the Varkey Foundation's Global Teacher Prize, Juelke and her passion for teaching or to see the Top 50 finalists, visit www.globalteacherprize.org. For more on Juelke's work with immigrant and refugee students in the English Learner program at Fargo South High School, visit her website at ellfargosouth.weebly.com.