Our Story: Val Brown and Leslie Polk

by | 05.3.16

Leslie Polk is a physical education teacher at Carol City Elementary in Miami-Dade County, Fla. She has been teaching for 33 years.

Val (Valeria) Brown is a coordinator of leadership pathways, which involves finding and supporting teacher leaders, for Seminole County Public Schools in Sanford, Fla.

Leslie is Val’s mother, and both women come from a long line of teachers.

Leslie: I think I got started in the teaching profession because both of my parents were educators. My mom was an elementary school teacher [for 25 years] and my father was a college professor for 30 years.

In the beginning, I felt like I was just being a PE teacher but then I realized [the] point of physical education—all students everywhere, adults, people from every walk of life are affected by physical education and fitness. My last 15 years have been the best teaching experience of my life. I really became a teacher. Not only was I a teacher, but I learned a lot from the students, and that’s what teaching is all about—learning as much as you can from your students.

Val: Learning was [always] a prominent feature in our home. [My mom] always had interactions with students that became family. We always had an opportunity to engage with other students and were able to visit the school when appropriate. I was honored that my mom was a teacher because I loved school. I saw it as a plus as a child. She was loved by everybody. She’s a physical education teacher—who doesn’t love their PE teacher?! I would have kids come up to me and say, “Your mom’s my teacher.” It made me kind of cool.

Leslie: We have so many educators in our family, and Valeria has always been very organized and studious, and she loves learning. I think she really loves learning to this day. She was valedictorian of her kindergarten graduating class and valedictorian of her high school graduating class. Valeria was the most studious and organized child I had. And she was creative on top of that and outgoing, and she wanted to be in everything and get involved. And that was from when she was little. I think she’s a natural teacher. The educators in our family are very extensive, and I think it was a natural thing for her to do.

Val: I always had a proclivity for [teaching] that I ignored. I knew I loved working with young people my whole life. We always played school. When I was in college, the work I wanted to do was volunteering with young people. I was a journalism major, that’s where I put my service efforts—I was adamant that I was not going to be a teacher because everyone in my family was a teacher. My mom, grandmas, one more generation. I was like, “No, I refuse to do that.”

When I graduated from college [and took a journalism job] they put me on the cops beat. It wasn’t my speed. I was missing a key part in what I wanted to add to the world. My mom and my aunt suggested, “Why don’t you try teaching? We think you’ll be great at it.” I was in love day one. I think that’s what I was afraid of—loving it so much. I saw what that meant as far as how much you gave of yourself all the time. [My mom] gave of herself constantly to wonderful kids for the past 30 years, [and] I was afraid of that.

It was the best decision I’ve ever made. It was the right decision.

Leslie: I admire [Val’s] commitment. She really enjoys what she’s doing—you can tell by the way she’s excelling. I have three children and I felt like when you have children, you have to nurture their gifts. Supporting Valeria in her education, supporting her in whatever she wanted to do, was the part of her I nurtured.

Val: [After I started teaching,] I needed to talk to [my mom] all the time. I would call her, “Here’s my situation—what do I do here? How do I start my year? What are some things I need to consider when working with this kind of kid?” She would really help me find different ways to reach people.

Personal relationships with your colleagues [where you share] your struggles in classroom, your dreams—you can have them but none [are] as close as a family relationship. I know my first year I wouldn’t have shared my struggles with anyone else [besides my mom]. I’d be afraid to say I didn’t know what I was doing.

[My mom is] committed to building relationships with people. She is extremely passionate about health and wellness for students and the staff. We’d [always] talk about the cool things she was doing for the staff to make sure they focused on health and wellness.

Leslie: From 2012-2015, my program was selected by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation [founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation to share] how we were teaching. I got a chance to not once, not twice, but three times meet in a small group with President Clinton. I don’t know if I would have ever been able to meet the President if I was doing anything else. When that happened, it told me I was doing the right thing. I’m making a difference, I’m not just out here playing and having a good time.

Val: I admire the fact that [my mom] is still so excited about work and what she’s doing. Every year is a new year.

I firmly believe we need the best and brightest in education—people who are passionate about people, whatever subject they want to teach. The impact we make on our young people is far more lasting than anything else we choose to do for our profession.

Leslie: My daughter is a phenomenal teacher. She loves, she absolutely loves, working with the kids, and they love her too.

Val: I teach because I believe every child deserves a really good teacher and that every kid deserves an opportunity. If I can do anything to provide an opportunity or access or some information so that people have a shot to do what they dream of doing, that’s what I’m committed to. I can’t imagine a better way to spend my waking hours. I can’t think of anyone who needs us more than students.

As a tween, I didn’t take as much pride in it, but I do now. I am extremely proud that I come from a family of educators and I hope people see that pride.

Leslie: I teach because it makes a difference and it has made a difference in my life, it has made a difference in my family’s life and it has made a difference in my students’ lives.

Val and Leslie’s tips for aspiring and new educators:

Val: Build your team, anyone who can support you on this journey. It’s a difficult job—difficult because there’s a lot of change and you’re dealing with people. Something that works on Monday [might] not work on Tuesday. You have to have the perseverance to make this work.

When you have a community of people who can support you on this, then you’re on your way. This is not work that should be isolated. That’s what I learned from my mother, too. I thought I was the only one dealing with these things and I’d call and she’d give me an example from [her own experience of] year 1 and year 29. I’d [think], “I’m not alone in this, there are teachers who feel the same way I do and we’re in this together.” Find a group of people who support you and you’re one step ahead of the game.

When I attended my first ECET2 [conference] in 2013, it really changed everything and got me in touch with other passionate educators. Because of that, I joined Twitter. Because of that, I’ve been connected with CTQ [Center for Teaching Quality].

Leslie: A true teacher will not allow any child to fail. If you have [it] in yourself to give that to children, then you will succeed in teaching.

Connect with Val on Twitter @valeriabrownedu and read her CTQ blog.

Connect with Leslie on Twitter @lifeisactivity.

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