It started out as an unusual school assembly at Eagle River High School on the morning of Feb. 1 as Alaska Commissioner of Education Michael Johnson, Anchorage School District’s Superintendent Deena Bishop, and CEO of the National Institute for Excellence Dr. Gary Stark arrived to speak.
They knew a tightly held secret.
Dr. Stark began his speech, but then shifted his focus by revealing that the purpose of the assembly was actually to announce the winner of the Milken Educator Award.
The Milken Educator Award is a rare honor for select teachers across the U.S. Only one educator from Alaska received it this year. The award comes with a $25,000 prize and numerous professional development opportunities.
Amid excited whispers, Dr. Stark invited Commissioner Johnson back to the podium. The auditorium fell silent as the commissioner announced, “This year’s Milken Educator Award recipient is… Val Baalerud.”
Valerie Baalerud, a World History teacher, sat in shock for a second but she walked down the bleacher steps to accept the award amidst the uproar of cheering from students and faculty.
To those who know Baalerud, the award did not come as a huge surprise. As a teacher’s daughter, she saw the behind-the-scenes struggles and joys of teaching, but it wasn’t her first choice as a profession.
“I hadn’t planned on it [becoming a teacher]. My dad being a teacher probably deterred me,” she laughed over coffee at Jitter’s Coffee House.
Nevertheless, she pursued teaching when she needed stable employment.
She understood kids, enjoyed public speaking and teaching but she didn’t know for sure that teaching high school was what she was supposed to do until she stood before a class for the first time and it felt completely natural.
That night, she called and dad and said, “I’m a teacher despite my best efforts not to be!”
Her first years in teaching came with their challenges and silver linings. It was especially challenging as a single mother at the time. Like all teachers, she found managing discipline in classrooms to be a big initial hurdle.
“I can remember the first time I used my ‘mom voice’ and they [students] all jerked to attention,” she said. With the aid of her “mom voice” she learned quickly how to establish order in the classroom. Once she established control, she found it easier to connect with her students.
As she immersed herself in coaching debate and track & field, she noted students who struggled in the classroom but excelled in other activities.
She used those activities to bridge the gap between their passions and their education.
She said, “Watching the kids excel, especially the kids not excelling in the classroom, at something else really gave me a new perspective and I think made me a better teacher.” She frequently found herself asking questions like, “‘This kid might not be great at world history but he loves to run so how can I make the content connect with him?’”
Citing a specific student, she said, “By talking with him about track and field, he gained a new level of respect for me because I had an interest in his life and he was more willing to perform in the classroom. So I think it [coaching] brought it full circle for me.”
These experiences shaped her teaching philosophy by motivating her to connect with her students and know them as people outside the classroom. The resulting trust provides her the opportunity to tap into their potential. She also strives to make the information relevant to them by incorporating hands-on projects like simulations and technology in small amounts.
Despite her successes, the hardest part of her work remains that she cannot redirect every troubled student.
Baalerud remembered interning in an economics class in which she struggled to connect with one particular student with an unruly reputation. Despite her best efforts, he came less and less, eventually stopping altogether.
She spoke with a security guard about the student and learned he had stopped attending his other classes a month before. Baalerud’s class, in the afternoon, was the only one he had attended at all for months.
Sighing, she said, “You can’t save them all. Some kids are not going to make that connection with teachers, as much as you try, and school is just not going to work right now for whatever reason. It has nothing to do with you and that was the thing I liked the least; not being able to make a connection [with a student]. That still bothers me to this day.”
“I have learned to accept that I won’t be able to connect with every student, but I’m still going to try,” she added.
Since receiving the Milken Educator Award, she has been overwhelmed by the outpouring from the community.
Many of her former students contacted her to thank her for taking an interest in their education and wellbeing.
Alaska Commissioner of Education Michael Johnson and Eagle River High School Principal Martin Lang added to their praise.
Commissioner Johnson said, “One of the things I heard about Val is her student-centeredness. She takes the value of what she’s teaching beyond the classroom. She’s organized conversations and ideas and gotten people together to talk about things like cell phones and how they impact learning. I love that it’s not just about the content but the meaning of what she’s teaching.”
Principal Lang added, “Her energy is infectious. She can take a subject like history that at first might not be the most interesting thing to a teenager and make it come alive. They can’t help but get excited because of her enthusiasm in the classroom!”
Looking ahead, Baalerud is not sure what lies in the future for her. Being a Milken Award recipient gives her access to influential networks but she has not decided how to utilize it.
“This [the Milken Award] has really made me reflect on what I want to do with education,” she said. “It’s been a reminder that I want to stay with education and I think that’s what Milken is trying to do.”
She continued, “This [the award] has really incentivized me and made me reflect about what I want to do specifically with education. I’m not sure what that is yet but I know I need to think about it.”
Jamin Goecker is a local writer who recently moved to Alaska. When he’s not writing about local events and personalities, he can be found hiking, running, skiing, or editing his manuscript for a novel. Email him at Jamin@echoak.com and follow him on Instagram at Jgoecker1 or Twitter at @jamin_goecker