Jonathan Juravich uses art to teach children about emotions and empathy.

You could say that art teacher Jonathan Juravich left college thinking he was destined for high school.

“I thought that I wanted to be a high school art teacher,” says Juravich, a Pittsburgh native who graduated from Otterbein University in Westerville. “That’s what all my field placements were in college; those are the types of jobs I was looking for.”

Instead, he accepted a position teaching elementary school in the Olentangy Local School District in 2005; he joined Liberty Tree Elementary School in 2007. “I said, ‘This is where I belong,’ ” says Juravich, who, 13 years later, was named the 2018 Ohio Teacher of the Year.

So much for his plan to work with high schoolers.

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Juravich, 37, isn’t your average K-5 art teacher. He was among four finalists for the 2018 National Teacher of the Year, has given a widely viewed TED-Ed talk on teaching empathy and hosts a WOSU Classroom video series called “Drawing with Mr. J,” in which he uses simple means (think sticky notes) to express big ideas.

“He’s the next Mr. Rogers,” says Terri Caton, principal of Liberty Tree. “I think he has that ability to connect with kids.”

As Juravich explains it, he’s not just teaching his students about making and appreciating art, but also about using it to express their feelings and empathize with others. “I’ve learned that one of my main passions in life is social/emotional learning,” he says. “The visual arts are just this amazing vehicle that I’m able to have to talk to students about how they feel.”

The eldest of two sons born to graphic designers, Juravich grew up in a household where art-making was a given. “I had a magical childhood,” he says. “My mom and dad would help move the furniture out of the living room and we would make giant murals on the floor.”

While in high school, Juravich traveled to Jamaica with a group volunteering in an orphanage camp. “There were 50 kids at a time, and being there and seeing the joy in their eyes from the really simple things we were doing, or using the stapler—even the staples,” Juravich says. “I realized at that moment, ‘There is something here that I can do and give to the world.’ ”

Ohio beckoned only after Juravich was accepted at several different schools, but none felt as comfortable as Otterbein. “I met two professors specifically in the art department,” he says. “When we left, I said, ‘I want to work with them.’ ”

After serving as a student teacher in New Mexico, Juravich returned to Ohio to start his career. “It’s such an amazing community for the arts,” he says. “Our schools are very well-supported in the arts.”

At Liberty Tree, Juravich sees his students for about 50 minutes once a week. Colleagues praise his engaging techniques in the classroom, which he likens to a variety show with singing, dancing and puppets standing in for artists—even the great Vincent van Gogh.

Juravich believes children who study art learn collaborative skills that are beneficial outside the classroom. “They have to share space with one another,” he says. “They have to learn what it’s like to share supplies with one another.” Although most students won’t pursue careers as artists, he hopes to instill in them a sense of appreciation for all types of art.

Each year on his first day with fifth-graders, he tells them that someday they may encounter an abstract painting in a gallery consisting of nothing but a giant red square. “I don’t want you to immediately dismiss it,” he tells them. “I want you to try to get out your phone, seek information, see how you feel about looking at the work.”

Juravich, who has a master’s in art education from the Art Academy of Cincinnati, is a working artist himself. He lives in Clintonville with his wife, WOSU host Amy Juravich, and their two children, 7-year-old Josie and 3-year-old Ari.

When Ohio schools shut down in March due to the pandemic, Juravich pivoted to online learning (so far this school year, Olentangy is using a hybrid model). He encourages families with children stuck at home to find inexpensive, practical ways to keep creativity flowing. “In our house, we ended up doing a lot of origami, doing a lot of drawing,” he says. “We started playing Pictionary online with my parents.”

Amy Palermo, chief content director of education at WOSU Public Media, says the popularity of “Drawing with Mr. J” soared during this time, both locally and nationally. “There was this outcry of teachers saying, “Give me more, we need these!’ ” Palermo says.

Juravich advises parents never to assume what a child’s drawing depicts and to instead ask questions. “Even I have been guilty of that with my young children,” he says. “I’ll say, ‘Oh, my gosh—that’s an adorable cat.’ ‘That’s not a cat. That’s grandma!’ ”

He offers this pro tip: “Take time [to say], ‘Tell me about your work.’ ”

Keeping an open mind, after all, is what led Juravich away from his initial goal of teaching high school and toward his dream job bringing art to children.

“We’re hoping to grow kids that are going to turn into adults that are respectful and empathetic and aware,” he says.