The OPTIMISTIC TEACHER
BY DONNA CRARY
Jessica Urbay’s journey in education has come full circle. Becoming a teacher has been a lifelong dream since she was a child in the gifted program at Felix Williams Elementary School in Stuart. And now, she feels incredibly lucky to be teaching third grade gifted students at the very school that she attended years before.
“Kids are my people,” she says. “I gravitate to children and I feel that I understand them and get how they think and how they work. I have a bit of Peter Pan syndrome myself. I’m half old lady and half a little kid who wants to have fun and enjoy life and try to help people do the same.”
Urbay’s special talent as a teacher has caught the attention of local school officials. In December, she was recognized as Martin County’s Teacher of the Year by the Martin County Education Foundation.
Born in Stuart, Urbay began her schooling at Sun Grove Montessori School in Fort Pierce where she received hands-on learning in early education. She later attended Felix Williams Elementary, Stuart Middle and Jensen Beach High School in Martin County. Having her sights set on teaching, she graduated from the University of Central Florida where she received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in teacher leadership. She is certified in reading, English for speakers of other languages and gifted education.
“I really love teachers, and I’ve had many great ones, as well,” she says. “I think they’re the most amazing people and that’s what really made me want to be a teacher.”
Urbay’s approach to teaching involves starting with a core curriculum and modifying it so it’s flexible and customized to her students’ interests and needs. She develops cross-curricular lessons by infusing multiple subjects so that her class gets a well-rounded understanding of a topic.
“It’s getting the kids to see that everything connects,” she says. “I try to integrate as many opportunities as possible for students to be creative, to use their voice and have choice, and to integrate the arts so that they are engaged and excited about learning.”
One of Urbay’s classroom goals is to prepare her students to become civic leaders and problem solvers in an ever changing global society. To open young minds, she assigns the children projects where they’re given real-world problems to consider and solve. Such issues include poverty, the problems with plastics, lack of clean water, animals in captivity, gender equality and quality education for all children.
“It’s getting the students to see beyond themselves and helping them to understand the basics of improving our world and our communities and helping them to see that they can make a difference,” she says. “If you want to make a difference, you don’t have to wait. As a little person, there are things you can do to make small differences. The little things add up. I love getting them to see that.”
Urbay inspires her students to be difference makers in their communities by helping them organize group projects so they can understand the value of giving back. By teaching them to lend a helping hand, she empowers her students to coordinate donation drives of clothing, create Thanksgiving baskets for needy families and blessing bags for the homeless, make and donate pinecone bird feeders to Busch Wildlife Sanctuary, conduct beach cleanups and send cards to the elderly.
Urbay is also a big supporter of STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics] education. A former band student, she plays multiple instruments including the oboe, piano, clarinet, ukulele, mallet percussion instruments and marching drums. She understands firsthand the importance of arts in the schools.
“The arts teaches so many things that people don’t realize like working hard, creativity, acceptance and inclusion,” she notes. “Art allows you freedom of expression in multiple ways. And for some kids, that’s their space where they feel good, happy and accomplished, and that’s where they can say what they want to say.”
Urbay is completely in her element working in the classroom and inspiring students to reach their full potential. It’s no surprise that she’s Martin County’s Teacher of the Year. As an educator, she says she’s the ultimate optimist who plants seeds of learning that builds students’ minds and characters and impacts them to have brighter futures.
“I never wonder if my work matters, because I know it does – in big ways and in small ways,” she says. “It’s fun to be creative. It’s fun to watch them learn in the little light bulb moments and watch them overcome challenges and improve their social skills and their work ethic and their willingness to take risks. Those kinds of things – they are life changing. So when you see those things happening throughout the year, you feel great about the work you’re doing.”
JESSICA URBAYAge: 31
School: Felix Williams Elementary
Family: Husband, Gabriel Urbay; children, Juniper, 6, and August, 1
Education: Studied music education for a year at Florida State University; bachelor’s degree in elementary education and master’s degree in teacher leadership from the University of Central Florida; and certified in reading, ESOL and gifted education
How I got into teaching: “When I was a senior in high school, I interned at Felix Williams Elementary. I worked for two amazing kindergarten teachers who are still there – Ms. Robinson and Ms. Boogaart. That was my first experience in teaching and I was so inspired by them. I am really a collection of a lot of amazing people who I’ve watched and admired and continue to watch and admire, every day.”
What I like best about teaching: “I like being able to impact the root of our society. These kids are the future. When we think of the problems that we’re facing and we need to solve, it’s going to start with them. They’re going to be the difference makers and the world changers. I feel that I’m in a position where I can lift them up and open their eyes to what they can do and how they can use their voice and make a difference.”
Something my students probably don’t know about me: “I’ve had a few other fun jobs besides teaching, like making skateboards, teaching dance classes, and designing and selling jewelry.”