“To me teaching is really not just about what happens in the classroom. It’s about developing these personal relationships that last.”
Valerie Kibler has been teaching for 24 years and has been at Harrisonburg High School in Virginia for 14. She teaches AP English, freshman journalism, advanced journalism, and Journalism in the Digital age for the online Virtual High School. Her advanced journalism class is responsible for the publication of Newsstreak, Harrisonburg’s nationally award winning student newspaper. She is also the 2010 National High School Teacher of the Year.
On Becoming a Teacher
During our interview, Valerie spoke of a teacher who had an influence on her, “If I looked back to a teacher that made a difference, I had an English teacher in high school who pushed me real hard and I didn’t know she liked me until after I had finished her class.” After high school, Valerie went to Virginia Tech. Determined to become a teacher, but still undecided as to which subject, Valerie decided to take math classes.
But it wasn’t until meeting with an adviser who was concerned for her grades that Valerie decided to teach English. “You kind of know you’re doing the right thing when all of a sudden it’s not work anymore, it’s fun.”
In her fifth year of teaching, Valerie accepted a position in journalism when the principal at her first school asked her to take over the school newspaper. Valerie began reading books on journalism and attending conferences until she developed a thorough knowledge of the field. She has been teaching journalism ever since.
Valerie maintains an active role in her students’ lives. “I think the role that I've almost taken has become one similar to a parent.” Valerie spends a lot of time getting to know her students and their families to maintain a constant connection. “At the beginning of every year I ask the parents to write me a letter telling me things about their child that I'm not going to find out [in class]...parents [of high school students] haven't been contacted by teachers in a long time so when parents find out that teachers are still interested, there's a great relationship.” Valerie’s class sends newsletters to parents. She believes a successful student-teacher relationship involves a good relationship with the parents as well.
Newsstreak is an award winning student publication produced by Valerie’s very own journalism classes. Valerie’s students are responsible for writing, editing, and compiling the content (both online and in print) as part of their grade. The students are in charge of editing content, and their grades are based on participation. “The editors really call all the shots, but it's on a rotational basis. The kids try to post something every day.” She uses Newsstreak to introduce social media into the classroom. “[The students] have a Twitter account and we can source people at events that we were covering, like a huge football game.”
Valerie also teaches classes through the Virtual High School. “High schools can sign up to have one of their teachers train to teach a course for them. I taught the class [at Harrisonburg] and they enrolled 25 kids from around the world. I’ve had children who are military based or overseas. I’ve had them from China, Brazil and Columbia. I had a group of young girls who were trying to make the Olympic Ice Skating Team. One year I had a group of 13 or 14 inner city kids from Cincinnati where the school hadn’t hired a teacher and this was their way of giving those kids English.”
On Technology in the Classroom
As the facilitator for Newsstreak, Valerie is quite familiar with the incorporation of technology into education. With regards to social media, Valerie doesn’t shy away from bringing Facebook, Twitter, etc. into the classroom. “There’s so much we can do educationally with these things.” Valerie is friends with many of her students on Facebook, so she remains an active part of their lives outside the classroom, answering questions about assignments and helping with the newspaper. “I’m [an adult], you’re a teenager. I want to go to bed at 9:30, so if I don’t answer your question at 11:00, I’ll answer it at 4:30 in the morning when I get up. That’s an advantage for the child they’ve never had before.”
Responding to the argument that social media distracts students and keeps them from reading, Valerie thinks the opposite. “I think kids will write and read more now than they ever have before. These kids are reading and investing a lot of time and passion [into social media]. They'll go on Facebook and spend hours writing back and forth to people. We didn't put that much time and effort into writing when we were kids.”
On Impacting Students
Many of Valerie’s students keep in touch with her after they graduate. They visit, and they communicate through Facebook. Some go on to pursue careers in journalism or teaching, all because of the experiences they had in her classroom. “To me teaching is really not just about what happens in the classroom. It’s about developing these personal relationships that last.”
She remembers one student who was one of the last students she ever expected to have an impact on. Valerie first met him as a freshman and was put off by his immaturity. “[But] by the time he was a senior, he had grown up. I had zero idea how much impact I had on him.” He is now a teacher himself and has just begun his first year teaching history--one of his passions in high school. “It’s kind of cool because he’s on Facebook and he comes by whenever he’s back in town and wants to go to dinner.”