Q-and-A with 2017 Iowa Teacher of the Year Shelly Vroegh
Shelly Vroegh, 43, a 20-year veteran of teaching, traces her love of education to childhood. She would play school with her recalcitrant younger sister. It was there, Vroegh said, she got her first taste of classroom management.
Vroegh’s passion for teaching hasn’t waned over the years. Indeed, has become even more passionate, owing to her rock-hard determination that every one of her students will succeed.
Vroegh has taught in the Norwalk Community School District since 1997.
She and her husband, Troy, live in Norwalk with their two children, Mitch and Connor.
In addition to teaching, Vroegh is active in the Norwalk community, from being a “football mom” to working the Special Olympics.
What led you to the teaching profession?
I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a teacher. My earliest memories take me back to our upstairs playroom where my parents provided desks and materials for me to practice my future craft on my younger sister. Many hours were spent in that playroom making lesson plans and trying to keep my sister in line. The latter task proved to be the most daunting and may be why classroom management is one of my biggest strengths today. She sure did test my patience during those playroom lessons.
Although the days in our homeschool classroom were a preview of what was to come in the future, probably the biggest influence on me becoming a teacher is my Aunt Susie. Susie is just three years older than I and we were thick as thieves when we were kids. She is absolutely my favorite person, and when we were younger I loved going to my grandparents’ house and spending time with her. Susie taught me about perseverance, patience and positive attitudes. She taught me that life is what you make it and that determination and hard work will always pay off. Susie was and still is one of the most stubborn yet optimistic people I know and if it weren’t for having her in my life, I may have chosen a completely different career path. You may be wondering what it is about Susie that made me want to be a teacher. You see, Susie has Down Syndrome and growing up with her by my side made me realize that I had an innate desire to work with kids no matter their abilities. I didn’t see Susie as different from me. Rather, I saw her as someone who needed support, guidance and encouragement to be the best she could be each day.
As I entered college at the University of Northern Iowa, my experiences with Susie led me to decide that not only did I want to be an elementary teacher, but I also wanted to work with students with special needs. I never forgot the feeling of accomplishment I had when Susie learned something new from me or conquered one of her goals. I knew that I wanted that feeling to continue as I moved toward my career path, so I decided to also pursue a minor degree in special education. Even though Susie will never fully understand the impact she’s had on my career, I can’t tell you how proud I am to be her niece and how thankful I am each day that she’s in my life.
How has education evolved in Iowa from the time you were a student to today?
As I reflect, I feel some of the biggest changes in education compared to when I was a student involve collaboration and critical thinking skills. When I was a student, much of the work I did required me to memorize facts, formulas and procedures. Often, that work was done in isolation. Rarely did I have the opportunity to work in groups with my classmates nor was I asked to apply the knowledge I gained in class. Much of my day was spent filling in blanks on worksheets, meeting in ability level reading groups or completing rote math problems. While I was extremely fortunate to have many outstanding teachers, my education looked vastly different from the way we ask students to learn now. Today, we want our students to learn from and with one another. We want them to ask questions, make hypotheses and evaluate problems and solutions. We want to provide them with rigorous tasks and encourage them to persevere in solving problems in a variety of ways. We ask them to use technology to enhance learning experiences and we encourage them to make mistakes, but then use those mistakes as opportunities to learn something new. We teach students how to work with others, engage in conversations with peers as well as to apply content knowledge through project-based learning. As teachers, we strive to provide them with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed as 21st Century Learners. Our world is ever-changing and just as my teachers worked to provide me with the best possible education I, in turn, strive to do the same for my students.
As a veteran teacher, how do you keep your lessons – and your mindset – fresh and engaging?
I think I keep my mindset fresh by reminding myself every day that I’m a lifelong learner. During each meeting or professional development session I attend, I try to walk away with at least one new thing I can try in my classroom. Recently, I’ve been involved in professional development with Dr. Emily Calhoun. Through these sessions, I’ve learned how to incorporate more non-fiction text into my lessons using a cross-curricular approach. This experience has allowed me to re-think and re-invigorate the types of reading and writing tasks my students are involved in throughout the day. Along with this, talking and collaborating with other teachers during our PLC time allows me to gather fresh ideas for my classroom. When planning lessons, I work to use a variety of teaching and engagement strategies each day. My students often work with partners or in groups. This allows them to not only learn from one other, but also practice the critical skills of both listening and speaking. They are encouraged to question one another and critique one another’s thoughts and ideas. Along with this, in the past several years I’ve worked to bring more technology into my lessons in order to keep students engaged. I use both explicit strategy instruction as well as inquiry-based approaches in my lessons. Staying in tune with current best practices along with observing and collaborating with other teachers helps me keep ideas for students motivating and fresh.
Have your lessons or approach to teaching changed over the years? How so?
Most definitely! When I was a new teacher, I think I thought the teacher was the most critical part of lessons, but now I feel like this couldn’t be farther from reality. Now, students are the most important part of the puzzle when I approach each unit or lesson. As I plan and deliver lessons, I am constantly monitoring and evaluating every move my students make as they engage in the content that is being delivered to them. I use formative assessment data to determine next moves when progressing through content and/or lessons. In the past, I created small reading groups that didn’t change much throughout the course of the school year. Today, my groups are based on assessment data and need. They are fluid and involve not only short mini-lessons, but also conferences with my students to gain insight into their thinking. In math, I used to be the person who did most of the talking during lessons. Now, I spend a lot of time sitting back and listening to my students explain the strategies they use when solving problems. I watch as they persevere to solve difficult problems in a variety of ways. This is just a small glimpse into how I’ve changed as a teacher during my career. It’s an ongoing process that will never be finished. I will continue to learn and grow just as I encourage students to do the same.
What is your philosophy about teaching?
Every child has the ability to learn and achieve at high levels. This is my core belief and I remind my students and myself of this belief each day. If you were to come into my classroom, you would hear me encouraging students to take risks and reminding them that it’s acceptable to make mistakes. In our classroom we have conversations about mistakes being the stepping stones to true learning opportunities. It’s my belief that if children become comfortable in knowing that mistakes are valued as a part of the learning process that they will be more willing to take risks and learn from them. In turn, I believe they’ll learn and achieve at higher levels. It’s amazing what kids can and will do when they realize you believe in them and their abilities.
What advice would you give an entry-level teacher?
Be sure to start and end each day with a smile. Although many days can be difficult for myriad reasons, I would tell a new teacher to take time every day to find the good in one student. When things get difficult and you feel like you can’t possibly grade one more assessment or attend one meeting, stop and think about the impact you have on children. Along with this, I would tell entry-level teachers not to be afraid to ask for help or admit when they don’t know or understand something. Teachers are learners just like their students and no one expects new teachers to have all the answers. Ask questions, take risks and collaborate with your colleagues. Most likely, they have all experienced the same feelings you are feeling. Lastly, be sure to take time for yourself. It’s OK to walk away and leave the work until tomorrow. Take care of yourself and enjoy life. Your students will thank you.