In the community

Vale educator named regional teacher of the year

Erstrom, a teacher for over 30 years, ‘has a way with kids’ said fellow educator Theresa Meiwald. (The Enterprise/Carolyn Agrimis)

 VALE – Rhonda Erstrom, a second grade teacher at Vale Elementary School, was “totally shocked” when she was recently selected as the region’s top educator.

Erstrom, who is quick with a warm smile or to speak words of encouragement to one of her students, has been teaching for 33 years. She’s been a teacher at Vale since 1997, and was selected for the regional honor by the Oregon Department of Education.

Erstrom said she always wanted to be a teacher.

“My dad was a teacher and I just wanted to follow in his footsteps,” Erstrom said. “I saw the joy that it brought him and I really never thought about doing anything else.”

In her classroom of 18 students, Erstrom tries to foster an environment of growth, where the kids aren’t afraid to try new things. When asked what is special about teaching the second grade, Erstrom said that the students are “just so eager to learn about everything and they still love their teacher.”

“She has a way with kids,” said Theresa Meiwald, another second grade teacher at Vale Elementary. “I don’t know how to explain it. Magic is the word that comes to mind.” 

Part of what makes teaching in Vale so fun for Erstrom is getting to know the kids and their families. 

With some recent students, “I’ve taught their mom and their dad,” she said with a laugh.

Erstrom said that “times have changed in our society” and as a result her students “have changed a lot.” She has noticed kids coming to class “a lot less prepared than they used to” and noted the lack of funding in schools. 

Her commitment to her students, though, has never wavered.

“Often, I feel I see some of my kids more than their own parents do,” she said. “I try to be that go-to person for them, be their cheerleader, and all of those things that you can to support them.”

That effort has paid off, reflected in testimonials and letters of support from her school colleagues included in her application for the regional award. 

Erstrom also was assessed on qualities such as leadership, instructional expertise, and community involvement.

“Mrs. Erstrom is a phenomenal teacher,” said Alisha McBride, superintendent of Vale School District. “She is such an advocate for all students in our district, in our county, and across the state because of her work on the Dyslexia Advisory Committee. We are very fortunate to have someone like Mrs. Erstrom in our district.” 

Estrom also is certified in the Davis method, a strategy for helping students with dyslexia learn.

Darlene McConnell, a retired school administrator, has known Erstrom for 28 years and said that Erstrom’s work with students who have dyslexia is when “she came into her own.”

“She truly has a gift as an educator. Her connection with students and families as she goes through this process is amazing to watch,” said McConnell. “The students finally have someone who can understand them and parents have answers for the kids who have been struggling.” 

Erstrom won $500 with the regional honor and is now in the running to be named teacher of the year for the state. 

The 2019 Oregon Teacher of the Year will be announced in September.

“It’s nice to know that maybe you’ve made a difference for someone,” Erstrom said about what the award means to her. “I love what I’m doing and hopefully with that those kids will remember their second grade teacher.”

Erstrom plans on using the award money for her classroom and preparing for the new school year. Projects include her ongoing “hero” unit in which she has students study American heroes, choose a hero in their life and present that hero to the class.

“What is so neat about it is the simplest things make a hero to those kids – ‘My mom reads to me,’ ‘My mom washes my clothes,’ ‘She gets me ready for school.’ They don’t have to buy them some big toy or anything like that,” said Erstrom.

While Erstrom has been modest when it comes to speaking about the award, her friends and colleagues have seen it as an opportunity to express their admiration for her work.

“She’s not one to toot her own horn but she should be,” said Meiwald. “She needs a symphony because she’s just that good.” 

When asked what advice she has for other teachers, Erstrom paused before a wide smile spread across her face. 

“Every student, every person, has a gift of some type,” she said. “Find that gift and run with it.”

Carolyn Agrimis: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.