When you pass the reserved and smiling Martha Hurlburt with her trusty nine year-old black lab, Finnegan, hiking through the Columbia Gorge, humming praise songs, do not be misled. This woman possesses the heart of a lion and the technical skills to produce a circus. In fact during the school year, that’s exactly what you’ll find this 23 year veteran teacher doing: taming and training 26 ten- and eleven year-old fifth graders at Illahee Elementary School in Vancouver, WA, running the school’s Raven News, and serving on the musical technology team at her church. But that’s not all.
Martha was born and grew up in southeast Portland, Ore., the younger daughter of Hugh and Clarene Hurlburt. Her father, Hugh, was born in the Congo in 1929 and lived as there as the son of missionaries for a bulk of his childhood, moving to the United States to attend college. Martha loved the classroom from the beginning. “I always loved school. I was valedictorian of my graduating class,” she reports. She graduated from David Douglas High School in 1978 and is a self-proclaimed history buff, favoring the colonial era and the Revolutionary War.
When talking about school, Martha isn’t just talking about academics. “I love basketball, and played in middle school and high school.” With a mischievous glint, she recounts a story: “My freshman year in high school, there was a basketball game and an orchestra concert on the same night. My teacher said I would not get an ‘A’ in class if I did not go to the concert, so I went to the concert because I valued my grades, and then I quit orchestra the next year.”
Martha continues, “I did not go back when he asked me to because I liked my basketball better. I went back and helped out a couple times because they were shrinking. But it’s like, ‘Nope. You made me choose, and I don’t choose you.’”
That tenacious conviction followed Martha into her career and was partly responsible for leading her back to education. Martha’s first career move after graduating with an accounting degree from Portland State University was a junior auditing position at then accounting giant Arthur Andersen. “This was before the Enron scandal,” she reports. An opportunity to work for a smaller local company opened up about the time she figured out that she didn’t like her supervisor under whom she would be tracking if she stayed with Arthur Andersen.
But Artline Printing, Inc. in Beaverton, Ore. was no stranger to scandal. After being asked to cook the books by her supervisor, Martha refused and was moved elsewhere in the company. When a more successful printing company out of Salem came in to buy the company, she was asked to come back in and clean up the books in preparation for the sale. Having had enough of accounting, she soon left the company and decided to return to her Christian roots in a more substantial way. Martha Hurlburt, female valedictorian, accountant, and grand-daughter of missionaries decided to go to seminary.
“I didn’t go straight from accounting into education. I made a brief stop in seminary,” Martha recalls. I loved it, but I realized that even though I was in seminary, my church wouldn’t allow me to work with youth because I was a woman. It made me mad.”
“You made me choose and I don’t choose you,” Martha had said once before to her high school orchestra teacher. This time, instead of basketball over orchestra, Martha chose education over seminary, returning to Portland State University to complete her post-baccalaureate teaching work. Her graduate work was completed at Washington State University.
Martha’s first teaching job was a two-year stint back in her home David Douglas district. She said she felt at ease during her first interview when she walked into a room of district principals and the one who had been Activities Director when she was in high school stood up and gave her a hug.
After two years at David Douglas and then a year of ‘inbetween,’ Martha landed a teaching position in Evergreen School District in Vancouver, Washington. 2013 marks her 20th year with the district. A co-teacher enters the room and asks if Martha saw a post it note – an invitation to lunch. She spends a few minutes sorting through piles trying to find it. After a few moments, she makes a sweeping gesture with her left hand, illustrating the piles of piles that line the flat surfaces of her room. “It’s possible I have too much going on,” she laughs.
In addition to teaching full-time and being part of her church’s technical sound team, Martha (with a co-teacher) is advisor for student council. She also oversees Raven News, the school’s student-run video news program and is a vocal advocate for Junior Achievement’s BizTown simulation that is in its fifth year at Illahee. “My desire to have my students be financially literate probably stems back to my accounting days.”
And Then There’s Slovakia.
Martha attends New Heights Church in Vancouver, Wash. The church has a robust global outreach program, supporting missionaries “directly in places like Indonesia and Japan” and it partners with the Christian mission organizations Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) in Papua, Indonesia and The Center for Christian Education in Slovakia. Seven years ago, the director of the Slovakia program was unable to attend the program and Martha’s natural heart for outreach, teaching, serving, and leading made her the ideal candidate. She has returned every year since.
“Every year, I incorporate an art project with a theme. This year, our church did a study on joy. It was very powerful,” Martha says. “I really want to find a way to connect joy in my students’ lives that is tangible. Real.” Making meaningful soul connections is what motivates her. When offered the opportunity to ask any person contemporary or historical any question, Martha pauses and mutters that she hates those kinds of questions.
She thinks for another few moments and then hops up from her chair, rummages through a pile on her desk, and brings back a book her Slovakia team has been reading in preparation for this year’s trip. It is the book “Love Does” by Bob Goff and Don Miller. Martha summarizes it as a book about love that shows the power of putting action behind words. That theme resonates with her. “This is the guy I would like to talk to. Listen to this story:”
Leaning forward with elbows on knees in the familiar teacher-to-an-enraptured-classroom voice, Martha shares a powerful story of a mom, and dad and three kids who travel around the world after 9/11, making friends of world leaders and asking them what their goals are, thinking that if people know each other’s common goals, they can find ways to connect better. The children send letters inviting each of the world’s leaders they can find using the CIA’s database to sit down and talk. Of the hundreds of invitations they send, only 29 heads of state respond favorably. Their family pays a visit to each of those 29; after making friends, the children offer a key to their house in America and an open-ended invitation to visit. They meet leaders in Hungary, Switzerland, and Russia. A prince accepts their invitation and reciprocates a visit.
When asked what it is about the story that resonates with Martha and what she would ask its author, Bob Goff, she replies, “I just like how it is so in the present. I want to know about how he does what he does.” She is referring to his ability to connect meaningfully and simply.
Shelly Johnson, women’s minister of New Heights Church serves with Martha on the Slovakia team and recognizes this same disarming emotional intelligence in Martha, “I would say that (her) sensitivity to the culture is invaluable. She’s found a way to bridge a gap between the two cultures. She does a great job identifying and utilizing the gifts and talents of the people on her team. She uses the things she knows are of interest to our Slovak students - technology, music, drama, art - to draw them out and keep them interested in what they’re learning. Her classroom is always fun!”
Shelly continues in an email, “We have students who come back every year, many of whom should move up to the next level. But, they so enjoy Martha and her teaching, they choose to stay with her…”
One of those students is, Alexandra Menzlova. Alexandra and her sister, Monika were in Martha’s very first class in Martin, Slovakia in 2007. Just last September Alexandra, who is about to start pre-medicine study at university came to visit Martha in Vancouver. Monika was studying languages in Vienna and was unable to join her sister. Martha has become good friends with the Menzlova family and plans on tagging an extra week on to her trip to Slovakia this summer. Martha wants to visit the Bonijce Castle. They may travel to Spain.
When asked what it is about Slovakia that keeps her going back, Martha pauses a minute to consider. “Honestly, it’s the people. They love nature and are always outdoors. They are active. They walk everywhere. It is a simpler life.”