Elizabeth “Liz” Vallaire, TEAM High School’s Math and Science Teacher, was selected as Teacher of the Year for the state of Washington by the Washington Association for Learning Alternatives (WALA).
TEAM High School, Woodland Public Schools’ alternative high school, offers students an alternative to the traditional high school experience. “For some students, the rigid schedule of traditional school feels oppressive which can lead to issues with truancy, discipline or behavior,” explained Vallaire. “At TEAM, students can be and feel independent by making their own schedules while still having support from teachers and staff when they need it.”
Vallaire enjoys the school’s small enrollment (a maximum of 100 students can enroll at a time). She feels the small class size enables the program to take on a different atmosphere than larger schools. “We feel like a family since we all get to know each other really well, building trusting relationships through all the one-on-one time we have with each student,” she said. “I believe those relationships are part of what keeps a lot of students motivated to succeed; they know that their families, their teachers, and their peers are also invested in their success.”
Vallaire's coworkers surprised her by not telling her she had won the award and arranging for her family to attend the event without her knowledge.
Although her coworkers knew Vallaire had been selected as the Teacher of the Year by WALA, they kept it secret until the announcement during the award banquet. “Kim Gustainis, my executive secretary, coordinated the entire surprise, ensuring Liz’s husband and two girls would attend the banquet and come out to greet her when the award was announced,” said Jake Hall, Woodland Public Schools’ Executive Director of Learning Supports and Alternatives. “The whole room was touched and there were many proud tears from her colleagues around the state, ecstatic to see her accept the award.”
Hall believes Vallaire’s passion for education and empathy for her students makes her an excellent teacher and students see that passion in her. “Liz holds a steadfast commitment to every student’s academic and behavioral growth – she’s a kid magnet,” he said. “Kids are drawn to Liz because they know she cares deeply about their best interests not only during their time in school but also in life after they graduate.”
Hall points Vallaire’s dedication to her craft as one of the reasons TEAM High School’s four-year graduation rate more than doubled from the 2017 to 2018 school years. “Some of our students develop ‘learned helplessness’ from years of not being successful in school, however, Liz actively works with these students to show them that success can build upon success,” he said. “Every student who works with Liz develops self-confidence, knowing that she wants them to be successful, especially our most discouraged students.”
Vallaire constantly learns and hones her craft, currently working toward earning a Master’s Degree of Education as certification to teach Special Education. “Liz is inspirational in terms of what it means to be a ‘life-long learner’ and she exemplifies a mindset of continuous professional growth,” said Hall. “In addition to the extraordinary work she does each day, Liz consistently demonstrates a conscientious, problem-solving approach and earns the respect of her colleagues and administration through her outstanding work ethic and positive attitude about students and staff.”
Many of Vallaire's coworkers attended the event to see her receive the award, a testament to the supportive culture cultivated at TEAM High School.
Vallaire’s teaching partner, Jillian Domingo, nominated her for the award, and Hall, who also serves as TEAM High School’s current principal, points to his predecessor, Dan Uhlenkott, who also serves as Assistant Principal of Woodland High School, as the reason for the supportive environment at TEAM. “The great culture at TEAM is a result of Dan’s cultivation of the program from its inception; the staff at TEAM dedicates themselves to the success of each other as well as the students,” said Hall. “That kind of incredible positive professionalism doesn’t just happen randomly in organizations; Dan built and developed a solid alternative school which is now frequently pointed to as a model for all of Washington State.”
While principal of TEAM High School, Uhlenkott encouraged Vallaire, then a substitute, to apply for the math and science teaching position when it became available. “She had been a long-term substitute at Woodland High School so I had seen first-hand how students loved her even though she emphasized personal accountability,” he said. “Liz has a calming demeanor in the classroom and takes care of classroom disruptions effectively, so I knew she would be a perfect fit for TEAM.”
Once Vallaire started teaching at TEAM, Uhlenkott knew he made the right choice. “Liz brought all her strengths with her to TEAM, cultivating student relationships at an even deeper level,” he said. “She has a true heart for students – caring about their lives outside the classroom as much as she cares about them inside the classroom, and that care leads to student success – we are all so proud of her.”
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