Eagle River teacher wins ‘Oscar’ for educators
Eagle River High School teacher Valerie Baalerud uses many different tools for capturing her students' attention.
Like quotes. Today’s is a quote written on the board: “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising after we fall,” by Confucius.
Her Advanced Placement world history class will be assigned to mull that one, consult their iPhones — yes, cellphones. And write a short essay on their interpretations.
Given the many innovative ways Baalerud approaches her subjects — world history, ancient civilization, economics and social studies — her classroom successes gained her nationwide notice Feb. 1.
Baalerud was named a 2017-18 recipient of the Milken Educator Award, the only Alaskan and one of 44 teachers to earn the award across the country.
It comes with an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize that she can use in any way she wishes. On the top of her list is going for ear surgery. Baalerud has a condition that left her deaf in one ear for the past 10 years.
She’s also planning classroom spending and partial expenses for a summer RV trip with her family.
Eagle River High School Principal Martin Yang and Alaska Education Commissioner Michael Johnson, who won the Milken Award in 2008, helped keep her award a secret before a special assembly on the morning of Feb. 1. Baalerud was in tears of astonishment while her students cheered her on.
“We kept this pretty well under wraps,” Lang said. He had known since early January that Baalerud was the recipient of the award, also known as “the teacher’s Oscar.”
Lowell Milken and his foundation devised the award to inspire excellence in the world of education by honoring top teachers. It targets early or mid-career education professionals for the “promise of what they will accomplish in the future.”
Her AP World History students score at the national average on the AP exam, and her overall student failure rate is zero.
Secrecy first, then in presenting the awards in big public assemblies, is meant as part of the glitz, according to the Milken Family Foundation.
Baalerud’s students immediately wanted to know what she intends to do with all the cash. When they returned to class, television news crews and the Milken Foundation were there to film Baalerud in action.
“I think the students were proud of having great teaching. Then their next thoughts were on getting a good selfie with the news people,” she said.
But she quickly got the students back on track. This week one of her history classes will be debating current events. Their topic challenges them to consider the statement: “It is the responsibility of developed nations to host refugees fleeing from violence.”
Debating the pros and cons of that and other hot seat topics helps students gain a broader perspective, Baalerud said. Students react well to the challenge of debating.
Outside the classroom, she leads the school and Anchorage School District in her work on curriculum development and policy for teenagers’ use of smart phones. They are powerful tools students are eager to incorporate in a classroom challenge, she said.
Nonetheless, use is limited to specific assignments announced days ahead of time.
“I think cell phones are often one of biggest challenges facing this generation and something that we are struggling to deal with at many levels,” she said. “My AP World History students are allowed to use their phones to research their quote of the day.”
In the Confucius assignment, phones access quick references to the ancient philosopher and pop culture icons. That, too, likely gets worked into how a man’s words from 500 B.C. might deserve a broad analysis, she said.
Another tool that is important — and helped gain her accolades — is her work instilling high school writing standards. Near daily, students are given an opportunity to work on their grammar and writing fluency in her courses.
“When I arrived, the writing level was what most surprised me,” Baalerud said. “How low-level it was. Many were freshmen who might have had not had a lot of writing. I believed they needed to be writing everyday.”
She teaches social studies and history, not English, but believes “we’re all carrying the weight when it comes to writing,” by offering the practice other classes as well.
Baalerud was lauded for keeping lessons relevant, mentoring staff, devising numerous academic events such the debates and overall for her high standards.
“Every day, Ms. Baalerud makes her classroom a place where students want to be,” said Anchorage School District Superintendent Dr. Deena Bishop. “A historian herself, she shapes her students to use research wisely and to share their beliefs and positions.”
Baalerud found her own affinity for history growing up in a small historic town in Pennsylvania.
“I remember walking the country side with my dad. We would see the foundations of old houses in farm country, borders between properties built of stone,” she said. “We walked the lines to find the old house (sites) and speculated, who were they and what was their lives like?”
Baalerud began teaching at Eagle River High in 2011 after earning a bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in economics and a master’s degree in teaching from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Her husband, Andy Baalerud, teaches math and French at the same school. Their two teen daughters, Kali and Sadie, also attend the school. Jacey, 12, is a sixth grader at Alpenglow Elementary. Their youngest child is two.
“It’s been a busy, crazy but wonderful week,” Baalerud said.
And this isn’t the end of it. Along with the recognition and award comes access to networking and development tools throughout the rest of her career, courtesy of the Milken Family Foundation.
Naomi Klouda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.