Penny Valek has learned a few things about motivating students.
For more than 45 years, the elementary and middle school teacher presented the lessons of the classroom, and of life, to students across Lexington and Richland counties. And after retiring this past fall to care for her mother, Valek recently returned for a visit to CrossRoads Middle School, where she spent the last 15 years teaching math.
Valek was honored earlier this year as one of the longest-serving teachers in Lexington-Richland 5 during a school board meeting. She talked recently about her passion for teaching and her newfound life of retirement.
What do you consider one of the most successful keys to teaching?
“Kids have to like coming to your class for whatever reason … the technology, the trivia questions, your personality or a love of the subject. I told them I loved them. I looked them in the eyes and listened to them. I learned that if they knew I loved them and I could get them to want to come to my classroom, then I could teach them something. And they would learn.”
What has been the biggest adjustment to being out of the classroom?
“It’s hard not being with middle school kids every day. They have a special quality about them that warms my heart. Their energy for life, the little things we often take for granted, is exhilarating. They kept me young, for sure.”
What was one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching?
“Being surrounded by energetic 11-year-olds that gave you their heart if you connected with them. Maybe it sounds odd but I never had a problem connecting with the kids. They want your attention, your support, encouragement and structure that, as teachers, we are able to provide them. They were and always will be pure joy.”
And the most challenging?
“Reaching the child that brought with them a lot of baggage. Folks outside the education realm may often overlook the fact that teachers only have them for seven hours. They have families and support systems ‑ or lack thereof ‑ that we cannot control. Kids face a host of challenges outside the classroom that they absolutely bring with them to school. I can tell which kids had breakfast and are ready to learn versus those that just woke up and are hungry. While we may not be able to control those outside influences, the kids definitely bring those life experiences into the classroom.”
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned yourself from your 45 years in education?
“Be able to monitor and adjust to a new situation within minutes. If you want to teach, I can guarantee you that before 7:30 a.m., you will have made 50 decisions. You can’t be wishy-washy, especially not with 11-year-olds. I have learned how to make decisions, to monitor and to adapt. It’s important to be flexible. If a lesson isn’t working, you try a new tactic on the fly. Whatever it takes to educate, foster, encourage and engage the student ... that’s what’s demanded of a teacher.”
So how have you been occupying your newfound free time?
“I spend my days caring for a 5-month-old grandson and my 96-year-old mother. I also have the pleasure of helping one of my mother’s caregivers study for the GED. We mainly focus on math, which is my love and her nemesis. It’s a very heartwarming experience to be given the opportunity to teach an adult who wants to get her high school diploma. I also enjoy spending time with my husband of 46 years, who is a retired (Lexington-Richland 5) administrator.
So could you ever see yourself back in the classroom?
“Well, my teaching license doesn’t expire for another few years, so we’ll see. I just love the students. I love building them up and making them feel good about themselves … and about school. Teaching is what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s my way of making a difference in the world.”