Spotlight: Vanessa Thomson (MO '22)March 10, 2023
Vanessa Thomson (MO ’22) dedicates her practice to reaching every student, both quiet and loud, confident and struggling: “Every day, I work to make them feel seen, valued, and like they can be anything in this world.” The second grade teacher received her Milken Educator Award at Chapel Hill Elementary in Gladstone on January 19, 2023.
Milken Family Foundation: How did you end up in education?
Vanessa Thomson (MO ’22): When I was younger I was a shy, reserved child. I loved learning, but I was often too anxious to participate in class or attempt to make friends. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Hattey, was the type of teacher who had a magical way of reaching every student. She found the best in every child and lifted them up to their highest potential. She could see something in me that even I was unsure of. I wanted to be a teacher just like her, one who could reach all students — the quiet children, the loud children, the smartest students, the students who struggled, and everyone in between.
Maya Angelou’s quote says it best: “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.” I brought the way Mrs. Hattey made me feel directly into my own teaching career. She made me feel like I was the most important student in her class.
I put this into action in my own classroom in many ways. I look for the good in every student — what makes them unique and special — and capitalize on that good. I work hard every day to help students see their positive traits and potential, so much so that they start to internalize it and believe in their worth without needing my help. Every day, I work to make all my students feel seen, valued, and like they can be anything in this world.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Vanessa: My role models consist of former teachers and colleagues. I am lucky that I had so many fantastic teachers who shaped who I am today.
My favorite former teachers include my elementary teachers, including Mrs. Hattey, Mrs. Harris, Mrs. Rains, and Mrs. Ebert. They were the ones who shaped me as a young child and gave me confidence in myself. Another favorite teacher was Mrs. Shull-Christenson, my high school child development/childcare teacher. She set the foundation for me to become a teacher. Her love for teaching was contagious and inspiring.
As I attended William Jewell College, Dr. Jeanine Hastings and Dr. Alison Wenhart trained me on the realities of becoming a teacher. They showed me how to love teaching, and to inspire and educate children.
As for my colleagues, I work with the best team of teachers, each of whom inspires me in a different way. My administration team (past and present) has always been supportive and encouraged me to be myself and believe in my abilities.
MFF: What do you like about working with elementary students?
Vanessa: I love the mixture of their self-love and excitement for learning. Elementary students are generally happy to be themselves — I feel like I get to see them show their real personalities on a daily basis. Each child is truly unique, so teaching is always a fun challenge as I get to know what inspires each child. They are still generally passionate about learning and easy to entertain, and they give enthusiasm generously. You can’t take yourself too seriously as an elementary teacher, and I love that about the job.
MFF: How was your first year?
Vanessa: My first year of teaching was magical! I didn’t have the typical rough first year that so many others experience. I was hired into an amazing, helpful team that held me up through every struggle so I could truly enjoy the year. Quite honestly, it was a dream come true that was a long time in the works. All I ever wanted was to be a teacher, and every moment from setting up my room to connecting with my first class of students felt like such a blessing. The hardest moments were probably those connected to classroom management — learning how to manage a classroom and be strict in some ways but still relate to the kids and help them feel loved and seen.
MFF: Your students make great strides in reading and writing. What’s the secret to getting second graders excited about writing stories and poetry?
Vanessa: As a writing demonstration teacher for my district, I have a deep passion for teaching writing. My goal is to turn reluctant writers into enthusiastic writers.
From the very beginning, I teach students that they have quite a bit of choice as a writer. Students have choice in their writing topics, which allows them to naturally share many important parts of their lives such as their interests and cultures. Giving choice to the students causes them to become more interested and invested in their writing. This is usually the key to unlocking their interest in writing. I also learn about my students as individual writers and tailor my conferring to each student, meeting them where they are academically to help encourage interest and writing level.
At the end of every lesson, students share their progress with their classmates. I strategically choose students who might not typically get to share. Allowing struggling writers to share their writing with the class helps lift their status and makes them feel more confident. When students feel more confident in their writing, they work harder on it. These struggling writers begin to see themselves as experts. I often pull in these student experts to help me teach lessons and assist with conferences.
At the end of each writing unit, I plan an intentional celebration where my class shares their writing with students in other classes. Other teachers and staff members are also invited to these celebrations. This helps my students see the worth and purpose in their writing. At the beginning of a school year, I may have a handful of students who love writing and who would define themselves as good writers. By the end of the year, all of my students can tell me what they are experts on, and most students will express a love for writing! This individualized approach to teaching writing results in engaged, excited writers on many different ability levels.
MFF: Community service is a big part of your classroom. Why is this important for young learners?
Vanessa: Community service is a way that everyone can leave an impact on our world. It is so important that young learners grasp this concept at a young age, so they too can make an impact. I hope their takeaway is that no one is too little or too young to make a difference in the world. I want them to understand the true joy of helping and giving back to others.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Vanessa: I was extremely surprised — shocked! None of us knew what the assembly was about, so the entire time I was trying to figure out what was going on. Honestly, when we realized it was an award for a teacher, I started racking my mind thinking which of my colleagues would be the winner. When I heard my name, I was so shocked I didn’t even move. It took me a minute to process what was going on! I work with such amazing colleagues that the way they were describing me could have been the way they described so many of them.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Vanessa: My students were thrilled! When I was first reunited with them after the assembly, they ran and hugged me, and they were cheering. Many of my students told me afterward they cried during the assembly, which was touching! I think earning the Award in their presence will make a lasting impact on them. Many of my students expressed an interest in becoming a teacher when asked during the assembly. It’s a great experience for kids to see a teacher being rewarded for their hard work.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Vanessa: Success to me means accomplishing a goal, which can look different for everyone. It means setting out to do something with an end result in mind and making active steps to progress towards that goal. For my students, that can look very different from kid to kid. Some may take more steps to achieve success than others, but meeting that end result means success for everyone.
MFF: What do you hope students remember from their time with you?
Vanessa: I hope they remember me as the teacher who allowed them not only to be themselves, but to be proud of themselves. I want my students to come back and visit me not to make me feel good, but because I changed their life in a positive way. I want to be remembered as a teacher who taught many things but still allowed them to enjoy their time in school, laugh and play, celebrate accomplishments, and be a kid. If my students can see their value in this world because of me, I have accomplished what I have set out to do as an educator.
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