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Wake County’s Diane Kent-Parker First-Year Teacher of the Year Valerie Ahrens ’20MAT Recognized for Building Connections, Focus on Strengths-based Perspective

It would have been easy for Valerie Ahrens ’20MAT to feel frustrated by remote learning. A first-year, cross-categorical kindergarten teacher, she began her education career at Green Hope Elementary School without even being able to meet any of her colleagues in person. But for Ahrens, virtual learning became an opportunity for her to find new ways to connect with the Green Hope community.

“I think starting the year like that was actually beneficial,” Ahrens said. “Connecting with the students’ families and what they do at home has been really helpful. I have a student who loves blocks, and I would see him every day learning, but he had to be holding those blocks. So then when we went back to the classroom, I could use what I know about how he best learns.”

Ahren’s ability to build connections and her focus on a strengths-based perspective led her to find success as a first-year teacher, so much so that she was named one of the Wake County Public School System’s 2020-2021 Diane Kent-Parker First-Year Teachers of the Year.

“We have such a team at this school, and I think that has helped me be successful in my first year of teaching,” Ahrens said. “And they have been so supportive. I feel like every day I come in, someone’s bringing me flowers or something to congratulate me. It’s been a tough year, but it’s been worth it. We’re just making it work this year with virtual and in-person.”

Ahrens first had the opportunity to experience the advantages of virtual instruction while earning her Master of Arts in Teaching from the NC State College of Education.

“Being a stay-at-home mom for a while, NC State’s graduate degree program offered that flexibility to be in-person and virtual, like how I’m teaching right now,” Ahrens said. “Being able to do a lot of my classes from home allowed me, as an older graduate student, to finish my degree while also taking care of my son.”

Ahrens appreciated her professors’ support and flexibility as she took on the challenge of being a full-time student and a full-time mom. In her classes, she was exposed to a variety of unique teaching styles, and she was inspired by the emphasis on building relationships. 

“I have made so many amazing connections with my students, and that trickles down to their learning,” Ahrens said. “The things I’ve learned at NC State I’m definitely utilizing in my classroom every day.”

Ahrens said she will miss the kindergartners who made up her first classroom. Despite beginning her teaching career during a pandemic, the relationships she made with her colleagues, her students and their families made it all worth it.

“You never forget your first year, but this year is unlike any year, so I don’t think any teacher will ever forget this year because we all made it through together,” Ahrens said.