Alexandra Van Valkenburg
Teach For America South Carolina 2013
Second-Grade Teacher, Meeting Street Academy
“I truly believe in the transforming power of a good teacher.”
Alexandra Roberts Van Valkenburg knows personally how much a good teacher matters. Raised in rural Summertown, Tennessee by parents who did not attend college, she found herself awakened to the possibility of higher education by her middle school/high school band director, Michael Hester.
“He had the highest expectations for every student in band class,” said Van Valkenburg. “He taught me how to stay committed to goals and be disciplined, and to believe that a person can always get better.”
Her notable music teacher even helped Van Valkenburg fill out the bewildering applications for college admission and scholarships.
“Mr. Hester changed my life,” she said. “If it weren’t for him, I probably wouldn’t have gone to college at all.”
Small wonder, then, that Van Valkenburg chose education as her own calling.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Middle Tennessee State University in 2010, she started teaching math to third-graders in her hometown. She was good at it too; Van Valkenburg earned an exemplary score for teacher performance and student achievement in ratings from the State of Tennessee.
Still, she wanted more – “graduate school, an opportunity to grow, something different,” as she put it. She heard about Teach For America from friends.
“I applied on a whim,” she said. “Then, I was so excited when I was accepted. Leaving home was a big leap of faith.”
In August 2013, Van Valkenburg began a two-year commitment with Teach For America South Carolina (TFASC) teaching fourth-grade math and social studies at Spaulding Elementary School in Lamar, S.C. She was the first TFASC teacher to step into a classroom in the community.
“I stood out like a sore thumb,” she admitted. “I came in talking about how kids in Lamar might one day go to college and about opportunities outside of Lamar. I really ruffled a lot of feathers.”
Van Valkenburg felt pioneer pressure as the first TFASC teacher in Lamar. It took a second year, with another TFASC teacher joining the school, before she connected better with the community.
She tutored. She went to football games. She established herself as more than just an elementary school teacher. Her constant message: I’m here to encourage you in anything you want to do.
“I built bridges, and I didn’t feel like a foreigner anymore,” said Van Valkenburg. “I felt like part of my community.”
As Mr. Hester had done for her, the young teacher from Tennessee set high expectations for students.
“When you raise the bar really high, and you see kids progress as they meet learning goals and then rise above them, it’s so incredible,” she said.
In 2015, Van Valkenburg accepted a teaching position at Meeting Street Academy in Charleston. This year, her first students in Lamar will graduate from high school. Some have already taken college courses.
A good teacher named Alexandra Van Valkenburg has been a transforming power in their lives.
“You have to believe that all children can achieve,” she said. “If you don’t believe that, you should not be teaching.”