Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

West Virginia: Letters to Future Educators

May 4, 2023

WV Forum Andrea Trio2

West Virginia’s Milken Educators have taken on the “Activating Milken Educators” (AME) challenge with enthusiasm, teaming up with the West Virginia Department of Education to tackle the state’s teacher shortage. Brian Allman (WV ’19) detailed the group’s efforts in “Milken Educators Work Together to Make a Difference in West Virginia” last summer.

This year, in April 2023, West Virginia Milken Educators convened in Charleston with Governor Jim Justice and First Lady Cathy Justice, state department leaders, and 40 students in the TeachWV Grow Your Own Pathway to Teaching, a statewide pilot program that supports high schoolers interested in pursuing careers in education. The Milken Educators shared their experiences in the profession and advice on career paths with the aspiring teachers. “Nurturing and inspiring new teachers is central to our vision, and West Virginia is a true representation of that vision and purpose,” notes Stephanie Bishop (VA ’01), vice president of the Milken Educator Awards, who helps lead Milken Educators’ state-level AME efforts and joined West Virginia’s Milken Educators for their meeting in Charleston.

What follows are the beautiful, inspirational West Virginia Milken Educators wrote to the Grow Your Own students, which were collected in a booklet and handed out at the April gathering. Click “Next” or “Single Page View” (above or below) to keep reading, and please share this priceless guidance with the aspiring educators in your own life.

WV Forum Milken Educators group
Milken Educators gather at the 2023 West Virginia Milken Educator Forum. Front row, from left: Beverly Hoffmaster (WV ’92); Michelle Wolfe (WV ’21); Tootie Black (WV ’08); Jennifer Reaves (WV ’18); Susan Barrett (WV ’98); Dr. Ernie Adkins (WV ’14); Dr. Erika Klose (WV ’17); and Stephanie Bishop (VA ’01), vice president of the Milken Educator Awards. Back row, from left: Dr. Kimberly S. Miller (WV ’02); Wayne Yonkelowitz (WV ’99); Heather Haught (WV ’21); Andrea Trio (WV ’22); Kelli Stanley (WV ’06); Brian Allman (WV ’19); Whitney Stead (WV ’12); and Dr. Vaughn G. Rhudy (WV ’03).

WV Forum David Roach quote

David Roach (WV ’93)
West Virginia Superintendent of Schools

Dear Future Teacher,

I chose the teaching profession to make a difference for the children of West Virginia. As I write this letter, I am proudly serving as West Virginia’s 33rd State Superintendent of Schools, but my desire to support and positively impact our students is unwavering. You are embarking on a journey that will have a profound effect on the lives of countless individuals.

Although I do not know you personally, I know that we are part of a profession that is driven by a purpose and passion to make a positive difference in West Virginia. You have chosen to dedicate your time, energy and resources to shaping the minds and hearts of the next generation, and for that I am truly grateful.

I know that you will be a teacher who sees beyond the surface and strives to understand and appreciate the unique qualities and strengths of each of your students. We need you to challenge and support each of your students to reach their fullest potential.

Being a teacher is not an easy task, and you will face many challenges along the way. You will encounter students who may seem distracted by things outside of your control. They may appear unmotivated, and that may cause you moments of self-doubt and frustration. However, stay encouraged, stay resilient, and persevere.

Your superpower is the ability to inspire and transform the lives of your students. You have been prepared to stand in this purpose, and that is an incredible responsibility and honor.

As you embark on this journey, I want you to know that you are not alone. You have a community of fellow educators who share your vision and commitment. You have access to resources, mentors and support systems that can help you navigate the ups and downs of this profession. And most importantly, you have your students, who will be your greatest source of inspiration and motivation.

So, dear future teacher, I want to thank you for choosing this noble profession. I wish you all the best as you embark on this journey, and I look forward to the lives you will touch and the impact you will have on West Virginia.

WV Forum Andrea Trio quote

Andrea Trio (WV ’22)
Principal, Madison Elementary | Wheeling

“You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so…get on your way!” — Dr. Seuss

This quote was on just about every graduation card I received back in May 2005. With my bachelor’s degree in hand, I was ready. I felt prepared. My years spent at West Virginia University had surely given me the tools and resources I needed to help me sail off into the world of education!

I would soon take on my first job in music education just months after graduating. Truly, I was more than ready, but I don’t believe that anything could have prepared me for some of the moments that would lie ahead. Sure, the textbooks had prepared me. I knew the content well and understood the curriculum. I had taken multiple courses in child psychology. I knew the importance of integrating cross-curricular content. But if I could rewind and rewrite my first chapter, it might sound a lot like this:

Dear Younger Me,

You are about to embark on a journey where every page doesn’t need to be written ahead of time. Thankfully, there will be no ink involved, so be ready to erase and rewrite as needed. Take each day in stride and learn from your yesterdays. Prepare yourself for tomorrow, but also be ready for the curveballs that will come your way. There will be days when your plans will look beautiful, but it might not be what your students need. Be ready to readjust. Be ready to take criticism. Dive into opportunities. Strive to make your tomorrows better. Be ready to learn from your colleagues. And be ready to learn from not what, but WHO, is most important: the children.

You have been designed for this great purpose. Being called into education is a gift, and each day you’ll get the opportunity to unwrap something beautiful. It won’t always look that way to you, but with each day comes the good, the bad and the ugly. Don’t you dare give up. Remember, you will have colleagues you can turn to for help and guidance. You’ll soon see that even on your hardest days, you’ll find the beauty that lies somewhere within. Your teaching will get stronger. You’ll find the best practices. You’ll learn the tricks of the trade and your class management will fall into place with great structure and routine. When it seems like you’ll never get caught up, I promise you will.

So let’s set all that aside and focus on what’s most important: Relationships. Relationships. Relationships. You GET to wake up every day and build those with children. Some will be easy to build, while others may take more work, but never forget: you GET to do this. You GET to be a champion for a child. Take hold of Rita Pearson’s wise words, post them everywhere you need to be reminded: “Every child deserves a champion — an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.” Go be the champion. This isn’t going to be found on the lesson plan, but let this live in your heart and those mountains that were once waiting for you will be moved.

WV Forum Brian Allman quote

Brian Allman (WV ’19)
Social studies teacher, Buckhannon-Upshur High School | Buckhannon

Dear Future Educator,

“Thank you for investing in the future.” Always remember that phrase. You won’t hear it enough but remember it when you get overwhelmed and discouraged. We’ve all been there. This job is hard — so incredibly hard — but our students need you. The future of our communities, our state and our nation is in your hands. The importance of that can’t be stated enough. Thank you.

“You make a difference.” Always remember that phrase. There will be lesson plans that don’t go as expected. There will be sleepless nights and stress. There will be times when your heart wants to break. It can be easy to dwell on everything that can and will go wrong, but don’t let that overshadow the joy and importance of our profession. Our students need you. Relationships that you build with them can last a lifetime. When a former student writes you a letter, visits you years later, or invites you to an important event, remember — you made a difference.

“Don’t take it personally.” Always remember that phrase. There is always a cause for unwanted or negative behavior, and it is almost never you. Know that your content is important, but it is only a small part of being an effective educator. Don’t compare yourself to others. The best teacher in the building was at one time a first-year teacher. Know your students. Care about your students. Be there for your students and remember — don’t take it personally.

“Be intentional.” Always remember that phrase. Boundaries matter and you can’t let your role as an educator consume you. Education is your job, but it isn’t your identity. Bring “yourself” to the classroom every day. You are unique, special and talented in your own way. Embrace that. The work is endless, and you’ll need to accept that. Routine, structure, and the amazing teacher down the hallway will often save you. If you aren’t having fun, you are doing this job the wrong way. Many worthwhile opportunities will come your way but remember — be intentional with all decisions you make.

“Fail forward.” Mistakes, many mistakes, will happen. Learn from them. Embrace them. Realize that before anyone succeeds, they sometimes fail. There is beauty in the journey, and no one becomes a world-class teacher overnight. The best educators understand that learning never stops, and they continuously strive to be better. They learn from their mistakes — they fail forward.

Future educator, thank you for being you. It takes a special person to enter this profession. Our students need you. Our students will thrive because of you. You are the future.

WV Forum Cindy Woods quote2

Cindy Woods (WV ’02)
Retired library and media specialist

Dear Future Teacher,

What an exciting career path you have chosen! I am retired from a 38-year career in the education field. I can truly say that you will experience joys and frustrations along the way, but it will all be rewarding.

My first piece of advice is to keep learning and growing in your professional life. Take the extra professional development, write the grant for your classroom, apply for fellowships. All of these things help you and definitely impact your students. I was fortunate to visit both the Philippines and Japan as part of educational exchange programs which reaped multiple benefits for my students and me.

Secondly, don’t be afraid to make a change. One advantage of being in education is that every five to six years you can change grades, subject areas, or schools. This helps you stay motivated. Over my career I taught language arts and reading, was a librarian, and worked at an elementary school, intermediate school, and middle school. This change will keep you from getting bored or stale in your teaching.

Develop a relationship with an experienced, positive teacher/mentor that you respect. He or she can be a wealth of knowledge and help you navigate the teaching life of students, parents, administrators, and colleagues. I cherish the friendships that developed over my teaching career — they helped keep me focused and boosted my spirits when I got discouraged.

You will never be bored with your career! Each day brings something new in engaging with your students. There is no monotony of an assembly line job where you know what to expect every day. I am so happy you have chosen teaching as your profession. You are definitely touching the future.

WV Forum Erika Klose quote

Dr. Erika Klose (WV ’17)
Computer Science and STEM Coordinator for Middle and Secondary Learning, West Virginia Department of Education

Dear Future Educator,

I’ve been in education for 15 years, and before that, I worked as a scientist. Choosing education was the best choice I ever made. Congratulations on your decision!

Being a teacher gave me many gifts. Every year, I was gifted a new group of students. Each group brought a wide variety of personalities to my classroom, and each student gave me a new opportunity to hone my craft and learn how to teach that particular student. I was also gifted with science. Science is my favorite subject and I got to do science (not just teach science) every day, with students. I was gifted with amazing co-workers. When you teach with other teachers, you get to know them very well, and you can develop very strong friendships. And I was gifted with mentors who poured into me to make me a better teacher. My student teaching mentors are still active participants in my life today.

Each of the gifts I received became gifts I could give, and I believe the same will be said of you. You can give students love, compassion, and attention to support them as they navigate life. You can give students the content you are passionate about. You will be both friend and family to your co-workers and enjoy doing life alongside your fellow teachers. And you can help those new teachers who come behind you develop into the educators you know they are designed to be.

As a science teacher, my goal was to give students time and opportunity to wonder about the world and how it works. When I created wonder in my classroom, I knew that I had achieved my goal. Don’t forget to wonder. Whatever content you end up teaching, there is always room for wonder — to imagine why, and to imagine what could be.

You are launching your career as an educator and the opportunities ahead of you are many. As you launch, take time each day to look for the gifts that each day brings. Spend time at the end of the day thinking about the gifts you received and the gifts you gave. Each day brings those gifts. You just need to have the educator eyes to recognize them.

WV Forum Ernie Adkins quote

Dr. Ernie Adkins (WV ’14)
Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education, Mercer County Schools | Princeton

Dear Future Teacher,

I want to start with an anonymous quote: “Teaching is the one profession that creates all other professions.” To me, that means teaching is the most important profession that exists. I assume my story is much like yours. I grew up in southern West Virginia and am a first-generation college graduate. I understood from a very early age that education is the great equalizer and with hard work I could become anything I wanted to be. I always enjoyed learning, liked my teachers and loved the school experience.

In my junior high and high school years, I realized that I loved all things science, from geology to biology. I had wonderful science teachers during those years, and several inspired me to become one myself. I knew that I had definitely chosen the right profession when I was given my first opportunity to teach a “mini-lesson” in one of my earliest education courses at Concord University. I enjoyed the process of planning only second to delivering the lesson to my classmates. I loved it! My love for teaching only grew when I was able to actually go into classrooms to observe and eventually teach lessons and work with students.

This is where you, as a student in the “Grow Your Own” program, have an advantage over all of us who came before you. You get to experience these things as juniors and seniors in high school and carry your experiences with you as you as you complete your degree at a cooperating university. I have observed students much like yourself fall in love with teaching when they get to work with students in the classroom. I encourage you to take full advantage of this wonderful opportunity you have been given to get a jump start on your degree and future career as an educator.

I would like to share one of my favorite quotes about teaching from Scott Hayden: “Teachers have three loves: love of learning, love of learners, and the love of bringing the first two loves together.” As a teacher, you have the opportunity to be the one person who makes a difference in a child’s future. Not just for today or tomorrow, but for the rest of their lives. My teachers and education made a difference for me, and I am forever grateful. I can only hope that I have been able to do the same for some of my students. You can be that difference-maker too!

I wish you the best of luck and success in the best profession. You will be someone’s inspiration and someone’s favorite teacher. Enjoy every minute of it.

WV Forum Heather Haught quote

Heather Haught (WV ’21)
First grade teacher, McNinch Primary School | Moundsville

Dear Future Teacher,

Welcome to a rewarding career with the opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life every day. I am thrilled that you have chosen this exciting career path. As you begin your journey, I offer you some advice I have been given and learned over the last 13 years.

Don’t be scared to ask for help. Find other teachers who inspire you, celebrate with you, think like you, and pick you up on the tough days. When you have a difficult day — maybe a lesson didn’t go as planned or you had a tough interaction with a student — remember your why. Remind yourself why you started to teach. Remember all the good things that you have done and experience each day in your classroom. Make relationships with your students. Let them know that you care about them, believe in them, and trust in them. Your students will thrive when they know they are cared for and supported. Establish a routine that works for you and your classroom. Kids feel secure and safe when they know what to expect. Keep this routine most days, but remember to have fun with them. These fun moments will be some they never forget!

Finally, don’t forget to take care of yourself. You are important and deserve time to decompress and be away from the classroom and all the duties that come with the job. You will be a better teacher when you allow yourself time for the things that make you happy.

I wish you the best of luck and cannot wait to see how you change the lives of so many students!

WV Forum Kimberly Miller quote

Dr. Kimberly S. Miller (WV ’02)
Superintendent, Ohio County Schools | Wheeling

Dear Future Educator,

As I think about my 29 years in education, I think about the people who molded me into the leader I am today. I am grateful for the experiences and opportunities I have had throughout my career. Be a part of the educational community and be a part of making a positive impact, whether that be coaching, mentoring, chaperoning an event, leading a discussion, etc.

I encourage you to begin each day being the best version of yourself. Listen carefully to what people say and do. Your actions do speak volumes. A quote by Maya Angelou has always resonated with me: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” As an educator, you will have a beneficial impact on your students, colleagues, parents, community members, and stakeholders.

You are beginning an endeavor that will lead to the most amazing career possible, with the ability to impact the lives of others. Personally, you have the opportunity to grow as an educator and be part of a community that will support you to achieve your personal and professional goals. You have chosen one of the most honorable professions and will mold future leaders, doctors, lawyers, welders, nurses, etc. I am very excited for you as you begin the most wonderful adventure!

WV Forum Michelle Wolfe quote

Michelle Wolfe (WV ’21)
English teacher, East Hardy High School | Baker

Dear Future Teacher,

If you are looking for a career that will give your life purpose, you have come to the right place. Mr. Rogers once said, “Love is the root of everything — all learning, all parenting, all relationships — love or the lack of it.” As you begin you career as a teacher, the best advice I can give you is to lead with love.

First, love what you teach. Let your passions be an important part of your instruction. My days as a teacher simultaneously feel like a marathon and a heartbeat. I work very hard, but I start my day, and I blink, and the buses carry my students away. I am never bored because I choose units and texts about which I feel passionate. I find ways to connect reading and writing skills to interests I share with my students. In my English class, we talk about poetry and football, Shakespeare and dirt bikes, essays and space exploration. I give students plenty of opportunities to explore the things they love. Rigor and joy are not mutually exclusive in a classroom.

Most importantly, love the people you teach. You will have to choose to love your students, even the difficult ones on the difficult days. Don’t let lack of love define their experience in your classroom. Learn all you can about your students and show genuine care for them. Think of them as both brains and whole beings.

Let the science of learning and human compassion guide your choices. Know that the most meaningful feedback you can give is positive. Dr. Peter Elbow claims that “the most instructive form of assessment we can do is liking…. [It] is not a mushy, subjective, sentimental means to promote self-esteem, but a precise tool for helping students internalize a set of standards.” When you are grading or assessing, you should make a point to say, “This is good; do more of this.” I have found over and over again that pointing out what you like or love is motivating to students, and not just academically. “Liking” promotes more positive behaviors as well. Teaching can sometimes be synonymous with praising. Research shows we see more brain development when a person feels confident and competent. When your students feel that they are loved, they will show you that they can be great.

There will be frustrating, heartbreaking days, too. If I’ve made any part of this job sound too easy or too blissful, I have done a great disservice. However, this work is meaningful, and it is interesting, and it is worth dedicating your life to. You will spend one-third of your life at work. Ken Robinson, an inspirational educator, said, “I meet all kinds of people who don’t enjoy what they do. They simply go through their lives getting on with it. They get no great pleasure from what they do. They endure it rather than enjoy it, and wait for the weekend.” This has not been my experience in education. I love teaching, and you will too. At least in this field, you will know that the work you do matters, and you will help to build confident, compassionate, and passionate young people who will go out and do all those other jobs we desperately need them to do. Lead with love, and you will find your way.

WV Forum Jennifer Reaves quote

Jennifer Reaves (WV ’18)
Technology integration specialist, Mylan Park Elementary | Morgantown

Dear Future Teacher,

First, congratulations on your decision to be a teacher! Whether you choose to stay in West Virginia or take your skills abroad, I applaud you. Being a teacher is one of the most exciting and rewarding careers, one that will not only enrich your life, but the lives of your students as well.

Twelve years ago, I walked into my very first classroom. To say I was overwhelmed was an understatement. Often, I felt like I was drowning under standards, lesson planning, prep, behaviors and more. Being a first-year teacher was definitely harder than I ever expected. Then I began to watch the veteran teachers I looked up to in my building. They made it look so easy! I found myself asking questions, asking for feedback, and asking for help. One of the biggest lessons I learned in my first years of teaching was how important it is to ask for help, take advice, and grow.

I have found over time that the best teachers work collaboratively with those they respect and admire. You can’t do it alone. These connections may even allow you to connect with educators outside of your school and even your state to help you grow and move your students forward in new and innovative ways.

I have grown so much as an educator, by learning from the amazing ones who have come before me. Education is a field that will never stay stagnant, and it is up to us, as educators, to continue to find strategies and new solutions to meet the needs of our students and the ever-changing educational landscape.

I challenge you to make mistakes, to fall down, to have a bad day. It’s okay! We’ve all been there! But remember, you can’t do this job alone. Find those who lift you up, challenge you, make you think, and push you to grow as an educator. Being a teacher is a job like no other, a job where we can shape the young minds of tomorrow. It is a huge responsibility, but with the right people around you, you’ve got this.

I wish you all the best now and in the future.

WV Forum Vaughn Rhudy quote

Dr. Vaughn G. Rhudy (WV ’03)
Director of Assessment, West Virginia Department of Education

Dear Future Teacher,

Congratulations on choosing to pursue a career in one of the most rewarding professions that has ever existed – teaching. As a teacher you will have the opportunity to help shape the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of students who are relying on you to guide them on their educational journey.

It is not always going to be easy. You will face numerous challenges and encounter a plethora of obstacles along the way. Each student you will have in your classes will be different. Some will come to you with different skills and background knowledge. Some will be highly motivated and eager to learn. Others will break your heart because of their deficits or their troublesome home environments. Some will be high achievers, while others will struggle with cognitive and/or physical disabilities. Regardless of the students you find in your class, you will be challenged with imparting to all of them the knowledge and skills they will need to be successful in their lives.

There may be times when you feel overwhelmed and want to give up. Just hang in there because undoubtedly there also will be times when you will feel the pure joy of teaching, especially when one of your students suddenly grasps a difficult concept or demonstrates success on a challenging problem or writes an astounding essay. No greater feeling exists as a teacher than when your students succeed. When that happens, all the challenges you had to overcome along your journey will be well worth it.

Before coming to the West Virginia Department of Education as a state-level administrator 15 years ago, I had the pleasure of being a classroom teacher for 21 years. I look back on my experiences during that time, and I cherish my memories. Teaching wasn’t just a job; it was my passion. I poured my heart and soul into trying to help my students discover the excitement of learning, and I loved every minute of every day, including those days when things did not always go as I planned.

I enjoyed teaching young people, and even to this day, I still hear from many former students who tell me how much they enjoyed my classes and how much I helped them achieve the success they have had. It’s those moments when I realize that I made the right choice to become a teacher. One day, you will experience the same feeling.

As you prepare to take this journey toward becoming a teacher, think back to your own teachers who inspired you and helped you along the way. Remember the ones who made a difference in your life and strive to make a difference in the lives of your students, regardless of what subject or grade level you teach.

Cherish each of your students. Embrace them for their differences and love them for who they are. But most of all, teach them, help them experience the true power of learning, and guide them to be the best they can be.


Don’t miss any new articles and updates from Milken Educator Awards:   Subscribe Now