Spotlight: 10 Questions for Valerie Baalerud (AK '17)March 6, 2018
At the end of her first year of teaching, social studies teacher Valerie Baalerud (AK ‘17) learned that her position was being eliminated. Her students lobbied the school board, ferociously and successfully: “It’s a reminder of the power students have when they raise their voices.” Valerie won Alaska’s 2017-18 Milken Award at Eagle River High School in Anchorage on February 1, 2018.
1. What went through your mind when you heard your name called at your surprise notification?
Valerie Baalerud: Just before the announcement, I was sitting at the top of our gym bleachers chatting with students about who we thought they were about to call. I was certain it was our amazing art teacher and my very good friend, Jacob Bera. As I listened to the kids, I probably heard the names of at least 10 colleagues they felt deserved the Award. I was thinking how cool it was that so many different teachers at our school were so deserving. Then the student sitting next to me—I’d had him in class the year before—said, “Ms. Baalerud, I think it’s going to be you.” I laughed and said, “No way, but I could find something to do with that check!”
And then they called my name and I went into total shock. I thought there was some kind of mistake. I just sat there while all heads turned my way. I’m not sure how I got down the bleachers. It wasn’t until one of my students reached out to high-five me and said, “Way to go, Ms. Baalerud!” that I snapped out of it and tried to compose myself. It was an out-of-body experience.
2. How did your students respond to your Milken Award? What impact has it had on them?
Valerie: My students have been awesome! When I finally made it back to class that afternoon, they all cheered and clapped. So many of them said, “I knew it would be you.” At lunch there were even more kids in my room than usual, one of whom wanted to let me know that I was “trending.” I asked if that was a good thing and they assured me that it was.
Since my Award, students who were already interested in teaching have become even more enthusiastic about the profession. Seeing a teacher recognized and appreciated really made an impact on those students, and likely on many more who watched the ceremony that day. Many past students have contacted me to congratulate me and tell me about the impact I have had on their life. I can’t even explain that feeling. Knowing that I have made a difference in the lives of my students is incredible.
3. How did you end up in education?
Valerie: Growing up, I never considered education as a career. My dad had been a teacher, and one of my siblings was a teacher, but it was never something that had interested me.
Eight years ago, I was married to an Army military police officer who was deploying at least every other year for 12 to 18 months at a time. I was home with our children during these deployments—very rewarding in its own way, but I longed to do something more. I took inventory of my skills, needs, and limitations. I have always enjoyed working with youth, I love history, and I enjoy public speaking. I also needed something that would be “portable” given my husband’s career. At the same time, the multiple deployments (seven in a decade) were stressing my marriage. I feared what it might mean to lack a degree and a skill set necessary to join the workforce should my marriage not work out.
All signs pointed toward teaching. I visited the military base career counselor and asked what would be the fastest way to make this happen. I learned that in Alaska you had to have a master’s degree to teach in high school; I was a semester short of my bachelor’s. The counselor showed me how to finish up my B.A. and also knock out some credits for my M.A. more quickly by testing out of some classes and taking summer courses. She said the process would take a minimum of two years. A year and a half later, MAT in hand, I returned to her office to thank her for her guidance. She said no one had ever done that before—that normally she just gave out advice and never heard back. I do not remember her name, but I will never forget her assistance and her kindness.
Throughout my own educational process, I didn’t know if I really wanted to be a teacher or if I would be any good at it—and I didn’t find out until the first time I taught a lesson in front of students. From almost the first words out of my mouth in that economics class, I knew. It felt so natural and was almost instantly rewarding. I called my dad that night to tell him, “Dad, perhaps despite my own best efforts to avoid it, I’m a teacher!”
During my internship, I became involved in as many school activities as possible, including sports, DDF (Drama Debate, and Forensics), and Student Government. I sang with the staff band during the talent show and chaperoned homecoming and prom. I was a single mom with three little girls; they lived at the school with me, and through it all, they were my rock. I have always been keenly aware that my girls are watching me, and I want to do the best I can to be a positive role model in their lives.
At the end of my internship a history position opened up at the very school where I had interned. After nearly seven years, I am still at Eagle River High School and so glad that I decided to become a teacher!
4. Who are your role models as an educator?
Valerie: My amazing colleagues. In particular, our art teacher and cross-country coach Jacob Bera, our science teacher and robotics coach Matthew Prnka, our counselor Sarah Lahn, and my husband Andy Baalerud, who teaches French and math.
Jacob is a father of three and still finds time to make a difference in the lives of so many students. He has grown our cross-country team from a few dozen to nearly a hundred. (There are only 900 kids in our school). He has also helped put together “Maddy’s Run” in memory of a local sixth-grader who lost her life to cancer. This year Jacob participated in “The Memory Project,” in which our Eagle River students and staff drew portraits of Syrian refugees that will be sent back to a refugee camp and presented to the children. Jacob inspires me to be a better teacher and person.
I suspect Matthew Prnka lives at our school. He puts countless hours into our robotics club and his classes. This weekend one of his robotics teams won the state tournament. He gets kids inspired about learning and applying their skills. He creates a place where students feel safe, creative, and happy.
Sarah Lahn is the best counselor I have ever seen. She makes birthday cards for students and recognizes both colleagues and students when she knows they are going through an exciting time or have had a recent challenge. She opens her door not only to those on her roster, but to many who are not. She is literally saving lives through her interactions with students. She is a burst of personality and exerts an energy I aspire to have.
My husband Andy is also a role model. He teaches a split math/French position at our school and gives of his time in countless other ways (adventure club, after school supervision, DDF, etc). But I am most inspired by my husband’s support and dedication to our family. He works with our 12-year-old with patience while she struggles through math homework. He comes up with new and creative ways of learning that are always reminding me that there’s more than one way. Andy helps me believe in my own power and ability to teach.
I am inspired by the teachers who do more than just teach. I could write pages about my peers. My role models are those reaching out and changing lives beyond the classroom—the ones who work to support the whole child. But my students are also my role models, reminding me that there is always something new to learn and new ways to teach it. Their energy and curiosity remind me why I do what I do.
5. What memories stand out from your first year of teaching?
Valerie: I had mostly freshmen and was in the worst room at the school (a small center room with no windows). I had more students than chairs. Nearly half of my students had an IEP or a 504. In one class I had four students with specific educational needs that would require more of my attention than most experienced teachers would know how to give. After reading through their accommodations, I decided to seat them in the four corners of the room in an attempt to get to know them each individually and learn how to best meet their needs. I was also a single mom of three daughters making barely enough money to pay for the morning sitter who would watch my girls before they had to be at school.
Despite the challenges and the late nights of lesson-planning and grading, I remember that year fondly. I remember those students as well as or better than many of the classes to come. Everything was a happy experiment—some things worked, some didn’t, but I never got discouraged.
In May of that year I was told by my union representatives that I would be losing my job due to budget cuts. I was told they would replace me with a sub the next Friday afternoon, and that someone would “walk me through the process.” My students found out. In that first year I also became the freshman class advisor, head DDF coach, assistant flag football coach, assistant track and field coach, Model United Nations advisor, and probably a few other things I have since forgotten about. I was busy. My girls each had a closet in my room that they turned into a play cubby with toys and snuggies because we spent so much time at school.
Anyway, my students found out and flooded the school board with emails and phone calls. They went to board meetings. They got involved! Friday afternoon came, but the union rep and substitute did not. The principal came to see me at the end of the day and said that those teachers being cut had already left the building with the union reps. I asked if the rep would be back and he told me they wouldn’t. I asked what had happened. He said he wasn’t sure, but he was happy that I would be staying at Eagle River. Then, as he started toward the door, he said that it would be a good idea to ask my students to lay off the school board a little now that their teacher was staying … and he smiled.
To this day I don’t know how much influence my students had on my keeping my job, but I believe they are the reason I am still at Eagle River today and a reminder of the power students have when they raise their voices.
6. What are students most likely to remember about their time in your class?
Valerie: Former students have told me what they remember most about my classes is that they were fun, and they learned so much. They enjoy the hands-on activities and simulations most. Many have also told me how much they have used what they learned in my class in the real world and how happy that made them. They have shared that what they remember most is my energy and how positive I was. I do my best to remember this when I am having a down day. I hope they also remember how much I care, and how much I believe in them.
7. What’s your biggest challenge in the classroom?
Valerie: Cell phones and social media. Our students never get a break from each other: They are caught in a social web 24/7, and I’m not sure what to do about that. I see it as both a teacher and a parent.
I think this is one of the greatest issues facing our youngest generation and one that I think we should be doing more about. None of us knows what the healthy balance is between the benefits of technology and the negative emotional fallout. I hate seeing my students simultaneously connected and disconnected from each other. They worry about Snapchat streaks but fail to look up at each other in the hallways. I am most concerned about the interpersonal relationships and social skills that are eroding under the crush of cell phones and social media. I have always considered myself to be tech-savvy and love learning new tech skills and tools to implement in the classroom, but when it comes to phones I’m not sure we are doing the right thing—nor what “the right thing” even is.
8. How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Valerie: Because of money, I’ve been putting off a medical procedure that will help restore the hearing in my left ear; I’m having that in May. Beyond that, my family and I have not yet decided about the rest of the money. I want to make sure we use it wisely.
9. What would you say to a student who expresses interest in a career in education?
Valerie: When students first express interest in teaching I often respond with a joke regarding money or ask if they’re looking for extra credit points! After that, I talk to them about what it takes to be a teacher—not just the educational or financial process, but the skill set it demands. We talk about patience, caring, and dedication. I also encourage them to observe a class prior to college or volunteer at a local school. Education is one of the most important career fields; teachers prepare every other profession. They are often underpaid and underappreciated. Teachers need to be passionate about what they do and resilient enough to keep doing it even when it gets tough. We need excellent, energetic, new teachers to become leaders in the profession—to bring fresh ideas and excitement to the career.
10. What’s your definition of success?
Valerie: Success is an ongoing process, a series of accomplishment points on an upward-sloping, infinite curve. It’s also the small moments that we sometimes don’t even know happened. It’s watching “Sarah” open her college response letter in front of you and finding out she’s gotten in. But it’s also getting “Johnny” to turn in a paper with his name on it.
Success is being able to balance my work life with my personal life so that I can see my students’ success curves while not missing out on my children’s. It’s also self-defined. No one person can tell another what they get to put on their curve, nor what they think should be there. For me, I want it to be a messy, exciting mix of everything life throws my way.
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