As a middle-level teacher at Pine Valley Central School, I have had many life-changing and exceptional experiences. Because of my role as class advisor to the Class of 2011 for six years, last year’s graduating seniors voted me as the “most influential person in education” — an honor especially dear to me as my son was among the class. This honor has not been taken lightly and I believe it is based on my approach to teaching and my community.
I have had students return to me years after they’ve graduated and remind me of their favorite book they read in class or an afternoon in the computer class working on the newsletter, or perhaps the way I read a book with inflection to create a better understanding for the characters. Whatever the reason, I always enjoy the return of students years later and welcome a chance to see how they’ve grown.
I also live in the district in which I teach, much to the awe of some co-workers. Rather than seeing this as an invasion, I look at it as a way to better serve and get to know my students. I understand when a student is sleepy in class because I know they have a baby sister at home. I also can better sympathize with a family when I have attended grandpa’s funeral service. Seeing a child in the grocery store is an opportunity to connect with them in a neutral environment and briefly catch up with the parents.
I have been an active member of the Pine Valley Teachers’ Association for more than 12 years and have served as both president and vice president as well as have held multiple committee positions. Because of my active involvement in both my union and my school, we are able to provide our students with an invaluable and unique opportunity.
Three years ago, I worked with my superintendent and began a four-week Summer Enrichment Program for students in grades 1-8. This program provides students in a rural area a safe, supervised place to be and a way to build positive relationships with teachers they may otherwise not meet for years to come. Despite budget cutbacks across the state and nation, our board of education sees the value of this program and continues to fund it and provide the staff needed to be successful. This year we are able to provide 47 courses to students in grades 1-12, employing 25 teachers, teaching assistants, community service volunteers and utilizing a summer feed program as well as an after camp wrap around program though the community.
Because of the union’s relationship with the administration and the community, our students have a more enriched and varied education and I have a district I can be proud of. I am happy to be one of the few among my family and friends who can honestly say, “I love my job.”
(Sonja VanSlambrouck teaches in the Pine Valley Central School District.)