Teacher embraces challenge in Mississippi
When Indiana University of Pennsylvania graduate Teddi Valeski applied for Teach For America, she didn’t know where she would be placed — or what she would be teaching.
“I just wanted to teach kids that need it the most, and I wanted to go where I was most needed,” said Valeski, 23, of Indiana. “I wanted a challenge, to go somewhere new.”
A graduate of IUP’s social studies education program, Valeski now teaches 11th-grade United States history at Holly Springs High School in northern Mississippi. For most of her students, this is their first U.S. history class in high school because they focus heavily on English and improving their reading levels.
“Back in Pennsylvania, we had three years of history,” Valeski said. “The whole purpose is to try to put leaders into schools that are lower-performing. They’re trying to close achievement gaps.”
Teach for America is a national corps of college graduates committed to teaching for two years and raising student achievement in low-income public schools. Valeski joined the corps in March and received summer training at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss.
She was first assigned to teach English and had to earn her certification to teach it, but she was later asked to teach social studies. Valeski noted a difference between teaching history in Mississippi and the North, where the South’s history “seems neglected.”
“Being down here definitely gives me a greater appreciation for the history here, and the students appreciate their history,” she said. “Most of the civil rights events happened in Alabama or Mississippi, which is something that we talk about in northern history classes for maybe a week. Down here I talked about it for four or five weeks.”
Though she’s had to adjust to “culture shock” from living and working in the South, Valeski has a good support system through the two-year Teach For America program. She is employed by the area school district but was trained and placed through Teach For America, which provides her with mentors and training. She also has help from a handful of Teach for America corps members who also work at Holly Springs High School.
“They set their teachers to really high standards and want us to do more than the average teacher,” she said. “We’re really involved in the communities, not just teaching about history but making it relevant to their lives.”
But it hasn’t been an easy experience. Valeski puts in long hours at the school and manages gaps in students’ academic skills and behavioral problems.
“It is challenging,” she said. “Lots of late nights, you know. It takes a lot of devotion to try to do the best by the kids and see them grow.”
Though she enjoys teaching high school history, she plans to pursue educational technology or educational policy.
She has been working with students in preparation for Mississippi’s implementation of the Common Core State Standards, a new set of educational targets attempting to standardize diverse state curricula. She teaches an Advanced Reading seminar to try to bring students up to the English level required in the new standards.
“It’s a step in the right direction” she said of the new standards. “But I would also want to see teachers better trained and higher standards for teachers and students.”
While she’s looking forward to Mississippi’s adoption of the higher standards, the Common Core comes with additional pressure, too.
“It’s another set of standards that teachers have to know in addition to their subject standards,” she said.
Valeski’s first experience teaching social studies was in 2012 when she was a student teacher at Blairsville High School teaching eighth-grade U.S. history and 10th-grade world cultures.
She is a co-recipient of the Student Teacher of the Year award from the Pennsylvania Council for the Social Studies, an honor for which she was nominated by IUP history professor Soo Chun Lu. She’ll be honored this Thursday at the council’s annual award presentation.
Valeski has also served on the board of the Indiana County Historical Society, where she assisted with community outreach programs, fundraising and volunteer recruitment.