The Voice: Spring 2001

The Voice

Judy Brueggeman says education is an exciting place to be

By Sally Jongsma

Judy Brueggeman spoke to students in chapel and alumni at a banquet during Homecoming week.As a high school student, Judy (Arends) Brueggeman ('72) says she thought more about where she wanted to go to college than what she wanted to do once she got there. Her brother had gone to Dordt and she was set on following him.

“In my mind the choices open to a woman then were to be a secretary, nurse, or teacher,” she says. Since Dordt only offered teacher training, the choice was easy. She decided to teach. Thirty years later, she's never been sorry about her choice of either career or college.

“My years at Dordt were four of the most important of my life, years in which I formed the perspective upon which I've built my life and career.” The fact that God rules over everything and that we are called to help redeem our world for him, she says, has pushed her to do the best she can in whatever she does.

Listening to her colleagues speak appreciatively of her work and seeing the number of awards Brueggeman has earned in the last ten years testify to her commitment to do her best. Principal of Harris-Lake Park Community School in Harris, Iowa, since 1979, Brueggeman was named State of Iowa Elementary Principal of the Year and National Distinguished Principal in 1993. In 1998, she and her school earned a First in the Nation (FINE) Award in student achievement in reading with technology, and in the same year she earned the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award. She has served on Iowa's Board of Educational Examiners since 1993, chairing that board since 1997. The board licenses all teachers in Iowa.

In chapel during Homecoming week, Brueggeman told the Dordt community that she depends on God for each day's work, relying on him for strength to be a servant-leader. Working for Christ's kingdom must happen in public schools too, she says.

When her superintendent asked her to reflect on why teachers enjoy working for her, she says she realized it was largely because she works hard to help them be successful.

“I became more aware that leading by serving is what I needed to do. Leadership is an act of stewardship, not power,” she says. For her that means being available for her teachers and students, solving problems, offering them resources, developing trust, enabling them to do their best, walking in their shoes.

“I had to learn how to run the boiler for the janitor if he was sick and answer the phone for my secretary if she was busy,” she says.

It's easy to see that Brueggeman enjoys her work. Her eyes sparkle and she becomes animated as she talks about the joy of watching children learn and helping teachers teach. She is continually looking for new ways to encourage and promote learning. One of those ways, she believes, is through thoughtful use of tech-nology. Technology has, in many ways, helped change schools for the better by allowing teachers to teach more specifically to the needs of individual students, she says. She describes how using software programs can benefit both slower and advanced students.

“My students read an average of 157 books per year,” she says. The school participates in an accelerated reading program that offers comprehension tests to accompany thousands of books in the school library. A teacher couldn't get through a fraction of that many books if they were all taught in class with everyone reading the same books, she says. And while the program was geared to students who had trouble with reading, it has also been a boon for advanced students, she says, because it allows them to go on the next level of difficulty more quickly than a whole

“It's much easier today to teach to individual students,” she says. Teachers have more information at their fingertips. Work done on computers can be quickly analyzed to see students' progress as well as strengths and weaknesses, and teachers can plan accordingly.

But technology is only part of what makes education today exciting.

“We have so much research to help us be effective teachers,” she says. Teachers don't have to just follow the example of a favorite teacher from their past, even though they may well carry some valuable insights with them from good experiences. Research, she says, helps them know so much more about how children learn. For example, based on brain research, teachers today know that the first place a child's energy goes is to meet basic physical needs, then emotional needs, and finally cognitive needs. If a child comes to school hungry or distraught, a teacher will have little success getting him to think about school work, no matter how dynamic the classroom, she says.

But teachers today also face big challenges. “Many children today are hurting and need support; they need someone to believe in them. Teachers need to know much more than subject matter to be good teachers,” Brueggeman says. She finds that given the support and resources they need, teachers quickly develop the skills they need to be good teachers. And that's where she comes in--always ready to provide resources, lend a hand, give them information, and solve problems.

Brueggemann was quick to point out to the many future teachers she spoke to during Homecoming week that she was a “run-of-the-mill student” when she was at Dordt--although she joked that maybe that's near the top anywhere else. It is doing her best and trying to meet the needs of her students that has led her to where she is today.

“I did not consciously intend to become a principal--particularly in a community school. When I left Dordt I wanted to teach in a Christian school.” She did for several years. But gradually she realized she wanted to make a difference in more than her own classroom. She returned to school for a master's degree in administration, but there were few if any women principals in Iowa Christian schools in the late '70s and only three in Iowa. She took what she expected to be a short-term position to gain experience in Harris-Lake Park, fully expecting to move to a Christian school after a few years.

But then she met her husband, who runs his family farm. Because they committed to living on the farm, she never really even considered another school, even though many opportunities presented themselves.“You bloom where you're planted,” she says. And she has. She continues to bring her vision of education and servant leadership to students and teachers in the community school in Harris, Iowa.

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