A Diamond in Coal Country
In 2019, County 17 is embarking on a new endeavor to spotlight those in our community who go above and beyond to make a difference; those shining stars, or diamonds in the rough that aren’t just surviving, but working to help themselves and others thrive in Campbell County.
The last Sunday of each month, we will bring you one of these stories. If you know someone who stands out in a crowd, feel free to send us their name and contact information at email@example.com.
It’s been a big year for Valerie Bruce.
Just before leaving on maternity leave this fall, the 33-year-old Rozet Elementary first-grade teacher was surprised by an all-school assembly to let her know she had been named the National Teacher of the Year Award for the state of Wyoming.
She remembers the surprise of seeing so many school board, Wyoming Department of Education, and community members in the audience that day – including her husband – and what an incredible moment that was for her.
“It’s one I will always remember,” she said. “Truly a humbling experience to receive such love from my school family, district, and state.”
Now, on top on being a new mother to baby Quinn and 3-year-old Cormack, she’s now about to embark on what, no doubt, will be the busiest – and most exciting – year of her life.
And she couldn’t be happier.
“Boy, howdy,” she said with her trademark grin. “It’s going to be an amazing year.”
Today is her first day back from maternity leave, and she’s struggling a bit to acclimate to her former environment while leaving her newborn with a friend. Her emotions are roiling, too, with the prospect of the year in front of her.
Along with being a mother of two and full-time working mom, Bruce will also be representing the state as part of her award. Unlike other awards that have no strings attached, Bruce will have the opportunity to carry the flag for other teachers and celebrate and support teachers and education throughout the state.
What this means is a series of conferences throughout the country with the other 56 winners, beginning with the National Teacher of the Year program induction in California later this month, which is hosted by Google for Education. The focus of this first meeting, according to Bruce, will be to gain a greater understanding of teaching practices nationwide, the power of personal narrative in advocacy, and the systemic implications of policy on educational equity.
She’s already brimming with ideas, which include highlighting teacher accomplishments and best teaching practices and improving ways for sharing ideas across multiple platforms.
It’s a heady pursuit, but she looks forward to learning more about technology and using social media to share the message.
Getting out of her comfort zone is just the tip of the iceberg in her new capacity as educational ambassador for the state.
It’s a role she plans to take seriously as she contemplates all the things she’ll potentially be able to do as a leader and change agent.
“It’s such an honor to have this platform,” she said, explaining that she also plans to highlight teachers’ positive accomplishments and elevate the profession, while collaborating across state lines with other educators as a means for sharing resources and new ideas.
A big part of her teaching philosophy revolves around having a positive attitude toward her students, colleagues, and every aspect of her job. She refers to this as being each other’s “marigold,” or focusing on the “bright and sunny alliance.”
This holds true when it comes to creating a positive climate and culture in her classroom, too, and as a pivotal figure in the students’ lives.
She likes getting to know the students and parents outside of the classroom, and when one asks her to attend their basketball game or piano recital, Bruce is typically in the front row, balancing her own family life and duties in between soccer goals or after games.
This shows the students that she’s invested in their lives outside of their education, which goes a long way in building a healthy rapport.
Having started her teaching career at Rozet Elementary, she’s now been there for a decade, which also has helped her build relationships as she watches her former students grow up and move on.
Animated with a patient, kind smile, she immediately puts her students at ease with her positive, affirmative teaching style, which also goes a long way in reaching those students who might be struggling.
“We don’t say we can’t do something,” she said. “We say, we might not be able to do it today, but one day we’ll be able to.”
It’s this positive approach to learning that makes her a big hit with her students, like her former student Austin, and his mother, who nominated Bruce for the teacher of the year award.
More than winning the award, is the notion that one of her students took the time to nominate her, which hits her in the heart.
Being able to reach children is one thing, but taking the time to publicly thank her was a powerful moment. Particularly, when it comes to Austin, a boy she’ll always remember.
He was in her class last year, and when introduced by his mother on the first day of school, she explained that her son could be a bit of a handful.
“Austin is this wonderful little boy with a contagious grin with a twinkle of mischief,” she said, smiling at the memory.
His mother was going to nursing school at the time, and Austin was proud that both he and his mother were going to school and he liked to brag that he got to do his homework with his mom.
Just like watching Austin’s progress, Bruce was equally thrilled when his mother graduated, and the teacher had the chance to see the nurse in action on the OB floor during her own delivery.
This feeling of connectedness between her students and their families is something that means a lot to Bruce, which is just one thing she likes about being a teacher in rural Wyoming.
Growing up in Polson, Montana, there was never a moment in her life where she wanted to be anything but a teacher. She remembers a guidance counselor suggesting she try something else out just in case, so when pressed to job shadow someone in another profession, she chose physical therapy, just as a default. But her love of reading, coupled with her enjoyment working with young minds in classroom, won out in the end. She graduated from University of Montana in May 2009, with a degree in elementary education and began looking for work. She’d hoped to find a job in Wyoming, where her grandmother, a teacher and a huge inspiration in her life, found they paid teachers well and invested heavily in education.
Bruce drove from Montana for the first round of interviews, which could have been done over the phone, and made it to the in-person interview stage of the process, and from there was hired. Since then, she has earneded her Masters in Educational Administration from Chadron State College-Nebraska, graduating in May 2017.
Eventually, she hopes to go into public school administration and be a principal at a school, but for now, she’s content to be at the head of the class.
“I have found a wonderful home teaching in the Rozet community,” she said.
After a decade, she thinks she just might finally know what she’s doing, but then that feeling quickly dissipates when another student surprises her, and she realizes just how much she doesn’t know.
“I am continually surprised and inspired by my students, and that is what makes teaching and learning such a wonderful profession,” she said. “Every class and year seems to throw something at you that’s entirely new.”
But that’s okay, too.
Just like her students, she still has a lot of learning to do.