A passion for sewing places BHS alum at the forefront of a future fashion pathway for students
An entrepreneur at heart and expert seamstress, Julie West, Burnsville High School and Nicollet Middle School alumna, didn’t expect to find herself teaching at her former schools some 30 years later.
The driving force behind West’s return to her alma mater was, of course, her passion for teaching. But, it was also because she wanted to share a piece of her creative self with others and inspire them to pursue their own passions, just like she had done for herself over the years.
Whether it was teaching swim lessons out of her parents’ backyard pool as a teenager, participating in beauty pageants in high school, running a sewing school for young children as a stay-at-home mom, managing home-based businesses, supervising student teachers, doing preschool screenings or teaching students how to cook, she explored opportunities where she could thrive as an educator, entrepreneur and artist. All these experiences have helped shape her into the innovator that she truly is.
West began her journey in One91 at Harriet Bishop Elementary, where she taught fourth through sixth grades for eight years. She also taught at Vista View Elementary for five years. In 2020, West was one of the teachers selected to pilot the new K-5 math curriculum, part of the implementation of Elementary Pathways that launched that year.
At the end of the 2021-22 school year, it came as no surprise to West when Nicollet Middle School Principal Frannie Becquer and Burnsville High School Associate Principal Sarah Noble asked her to take up teaching Family and Consumer Science (FACS) classes at their schools the following school year. Both principals were familiar with her experience, specifically her sewing abilities, and were in need of a teacher who knew how to sew.
“They thought they had a seamstress who was willing to teach FACS,” said West. “I don’t think they knew what I brought. How could they have? This is my dream. Of my peers, no one else can do what I do. I just love it. It’s so creative. I can take anything, add to it and make it creative.”
The transition from teaching elementary and college students to teaching middle and high school students was easy for West to make. However, since she was teaching outside her license area, which is K-6, West was granted an out-of-field permission to teach FACS and would need to do some additional training to show that she was proficient in certain skills.
Sewing is West’s passion and heritage. Her mother and grandmother taught her how to sew at a young age and instilled that passion in her. As she got older, her sewing skills flourished. She believes one reason for that was because she was so tall.
“Fashion didn’t fit me when I was in high school,” said West. “I can remember thinking, if I’m going to wear something, I’d rather either make it so it fits or alter it so it looks pretty.”
She remembers as a young girl attending horse camp with a friend. West recalls all the girls at the camp were wearing Umbro shorts and t-shirts, and she was wearing purple, pleated shorts – all Forenza – a blouse, sweater vest and matching, wooden-beaded earrings and necklace.
“In high school, I’d always dress up,” said West. “I remember Tom Mraz, former beloved teacher and theater director at Burnsville High School, stopping class and pointing out to everyone that I was wearing jeans! So, it’s really special that I can really share my passion with kids.”
This year, fashion design classes at the high school are at capacity for enrollment. West said that there just weren’t enough teachers available to meet the need, which is one of the reasons why she was asked to come aboard. With support from District 191 administration, West hopes to build a fashion and merchandising pathway for students.
“All you have to do is stand outside the lunchroom between lunches to know that the way a kid looks is very important to them,” said West. “Build this pathway, and they will come. We’ve got to be able to connect what we’re doing with the community.”
West, who is a lifelong learner and self-proclaimed perpetual student, understands the need for alternatives to a traditional academic path.
“As a mom of a child who didn’t do traditional college, it took me a minute to understand,” West said. “I have my undergraduate, master’s, plus. To really understand that these associate degrees are a niche for some of these kids — that they are going to get them that speciality, that hands-on learning — it’s going to be a perfect fit for them. And those kids are probably going to be my students. Just like my son.”
The passion she has for her craft, the expertise she has in her field and the innovative ways she uses her skills place her at the beginnings of this idea for a new pathway.
Even though the cooking and hospitality piece of the FACS program, which is her focus right now, doesn’t come as natural as the fashion part for West, she knows enough about her craft – teaching, in this case – to get students excited and engaged in their learning.
“I’ve never taught cooking, but good teaching is good teaching,” added West. One of her goals as a teacher has always been to get kids involved in their learning. She is very uncomfortable on the days when she is lecturing and kids take a passive role in the classroom.
“I have 15 years left of my career. What I didn’t expect is being here, being an alumni, being at my first school assembly as a teacher and realizing how emotional it made me. I didn’t expect that,” said West. “That school pride, 30 years later? And then really thinking like, how am I gonna really dig in to make sure I leave something here at Burnsville High School that means something? What do I get to leave behind here at this high school that really sent me on a pretty good trajectory. I’ve got some time left here to leave the ladder down for others.”
West says that when she takes on something new, she doesn’t look back. She is committed and goes all in.
“I want my students to see that they, too, can take their passions and turn them into a business for themselves, even if it's not sewing or crafting,” said West. “These students are our future leaders.”