Outgoing Teacher of the Year: ‘This will change your life’
So there Shelly Vroegh was, standing with the country’s other state Teachers of the Year, being honored for their work at the College Football Playoff National Championship in Atlanta. And that’s when it hit her.
“In that moment, I realized I was representing all teachers from Iowa, all the students and all the incredible things we are doing,” Vroegh (pronounced Vah-roo) said. “It was incredible to have 70,000 fans cheering and showing appreciation for what we are doing.”
And in that very moment in time, Vroegh said, she wished every teacher could feel those accolades.
The outgoing 2017 Teacher of the Year is ending her tenure May 31 – a tenure that involved driving up to 10,000 miles over Iowa’s roads, meeting some 5,000 people along the way, delivering 50 keynote speeches. All without a hitch.
Well, OK, almost without a hitch. There was that time when she hit an icy patch on Interstate 35 enroute to a speaking engagement, and ended up in the ditch.
“Right after I had gone in – my parents don’t know this – a state trooper came along and said, ‘I think I can get you out,’” she said. “He was trying to tell me what to do, but I was nervous, so he offered to drive it out himself. And he did.”
Such hiccups can hardly keep Vroegh down, whose engaging persona seems suited for the stage. In fact, that’s where it started.
“My parents took me to the mall in Dubuque when I was 4 years old, and there was some sort of show going on,” she said. “Next thing they know, I was gone, and then they saw me up on the stage mimicking the performers.”
Years later, she was the lead in Little Shop of Horrors.
Her stage experiences don’t so much inform you about her teaching as much as about the person: Passionate, engaged and fun. But it is those very attributes that describe her as an educator.
“The skills and attributes I gained in music and drama have really helped shape who I am as an educator,” she said. “I try to bring passion and motivate others.”
She took that passion on the road, where she talked about two subjects close to her heart: teacher leadership and attracting, recruiting and retaining teachers.
“The message from people I met was loud and clear – people cannot imagine doing the work that they are doing without teacher leadership,” Vroegh said. “I think we are making progress because it has really given educators the avenues to really collaborate more than ever before. I firmly believe that many heads are better than one. Having that ability to share, and build upon one another’s ideas, we are able to synergize our ideas to make them even better.”
As for attracting, recruiting and retaining teachers, she said, “my main message is really simple: Teaching is important, teaching matters, and we need high-quality teachers in the classroom because our students deserve it.”
One of Vroegh’s favorite assignments was talking to preservice teachers, or students who are studying to be educators.
“They are the future of our education,” she said. “I loved sharing my stories with them so they could solidify their choice of becoming teachers. A couple times after speaking, students would come up to me and say they were initially questioning their career choice, ‘but after hearing you speak, I know I have made the right decision.’ The power of the words and actions I was conveying to the kids really had an impact on me.”
One anecdote Vroegh used with preservice teachers was a metaphor created by author Jennifer Gonzalez, in which she compares people to either marigolds or walnut trees. The message is that if you are a garden, which would you rather surround yourself with – marigolds or walnut trees? Marigolds are known for protecting plants, whereas walnut trees give off toxins that can be harmful.
“You have to surround yourself with positive supportive teachers,” Vroegh said. “Or marigolds, which are border flowers. Something to avoid are walnut trees, because they kill off everything underneath them. This profession attracts those, too. Teaching is something you can’t do in isolation. You have to be willing to collaborate and find your marigolds.”
Vroegh eventually used the metaphor on instructional coaches.
“I had a few instructional coaches who ended up inviting me to their schools, saying, ‘this is something our staff needs to hear,’” she said. “It was advice for new teachers, but it’s great advice for all of us. When you are in a challenging environment, it is easy to sometimes get down. You have to recognize when you’re being the walnut tree. If you’re struggling with strategies, go find your marigolds who always have a great strategy.”
In her travels throughout the state, one thing that stood out to Vroegh was the quality of educators.
“There are excellent teachers everywhere who are making sure students are prepared for college and careers,” she said. “It was really inspiring to me to meet these educators.”
Vroegh is looking forward to returning to Norwalk Community School District, where she will be the kindergarten-through-fifth grade curriculum and assessment instructional coach at two schools.
“I’m eager to put down roots again,” she said. “I’m looking forward to my marigolds, having them catch me up on everything I missed in the year I was gone. I’m also a bit apprehensive. They’ve been doing incredible work while I was gone, and I’m going to have to try to navigate back into the waters.”
She’s also returning a different person.
“I think that’s where the apprehension comes in a bit,” she said. “I’m more passionate than ever about education. I am different because this opportunity gave me a renewed sense of passion – it unleashed my passion.”
While her passion may be unleashed, her ego remains firmly in check.
“I didn’t become the Teacher of the Year by myself,” she said. “It is a group effort – I have been mentored throughout my career.”
Any advice for Aileen Sullivan, the Ames chemistry teacher who takes the Iowa Teacher of the Year reins on June 1?
“This is an opportunity to spread your wings and fly,” Vroegh said. “You’ll meet incredible people and see their commitment. It will give you a renewed spark in your work. It will change your life.”