Bishop’s Quarterly Citizen Award was presented to a beloved, local teacher in the very same City Hall room in which she began her teaching career 50 years ago.
Friends and family from far and near gathered at the Feb. 11 City Council meeting to surprise Bishop Elementary School kindergarten teacher Valerie Needham. They included four generations of family; out-of-town friends; current and former colleagues, aides and classroom volunteers; and many former students – notably, Ira Bradley, who was a student in Needham’s first class in 1963.
Bishop Unified School District Barry Simpson introduced Needham, saying, “She started right here in this building in 1963. She made $4,680 a year. She makes twice that, maybe three times that now,” he said smiling broadly.
Simpson said that not only is it “an absolute pleasure and honor to serve as Valerie Needham’s superintendent, I loved being in her class back in 1974.” He pulled out his own yellow, old-school kindergartner report card and shared excerpts, eliciting laughter from the audience.
Simpson attributed Needham’s exceptional relationship with her students, marvelous control, warmth and affection to creating a classroom that continues to be “a wonderful place to be. She is growing responsible citizens here … We are very proud of Valerie. She is an inspiration to all of us.”
Mayor Laura Smith presented Needham with Bishop’s Quarterly Citizen honor, saying that everyone has had teachers around whom many of the “best memories of childhood revolve.
“Subconsciously, we emulate them as we pass on our knowledge to the next generation,” Smith continued. “Thus a great teacher’s influence can last for many generations.”
Plaque in hand, Needham addressed the audience, merely saying, “Thank you, everybody, for letting me do what I love.” Later that week, in her natural environment, the classroom, Needham added, “It was special, special, special. I felt very special.”
What she loves to do started early on for Needham. “I have wanted to be a teacher since I was a little girl.” Then, in 1963, with two years of college under her belt, she taught swimming at Keough’s and the City Park until Principal Fred Patterson invited her to volunteer in the classroom. “After a week, he asked me to be a paid aide. In November, he asked me to teach.” She took summer college courses to finish her bachelor’s degree.
Needham attributes her success as an educator to her teaching style. “I don’t believe it has changed (since 1963). I’m still the same person, just with gray hair. My style is positive. I call it ‘a quiet way.’” Needham also believes in calling parents about children’s accomplishments, not only about problems. “I don’t like to do that.” Her students are rewarded for extra special things they do, not what they are obligated to do. “They get stars on their hand if they help a friend up or pick up something someone dropped. If they push in chairs or say something kind or help a friend with their paper.” In Needham’s view, her students are friends with one another.
“I want to do the best for each child and each child is different, to discover the best way to help each child and let them know that they are important,” Needham said. She said children rise to expectations. “I expect them to do their best and each child has a different best. It’s my job to help them discover that.” And to her, “they are all precious.”
While Needham’s teaching style hasn’t changed in 50 years, times certainly have. In the beginning, she explained, there were about 35 students, two teachers, two aides and a student-teacher per class. Children were taught “social skills, like negotiating, through play.” Now there are less than 20 children, one teacher and the occasional aide. “We teach them to read in kindergarten,” she said.
“The children are sharing, loving and want to please; that’s still the same,” Needham said. And that’s a big part of why she keeps coming back each year. “They give … They get in little groups and talk and visit and they are glad to see each other.”
Her biggest reward, Needham said, is “when their eyes light up and they say, ‘I know how to do it’ when they put letters together to read their first word” and other accomplishments. The children teach her “how to be happy. And they always come up with different answers, better answers than I would have.” As she scanned the room, Needham said, “School is a wonderful place.”
Perhaps it’s a wonderful place because Needham is a “child whisperer.” That’s how Bishop Elementary School Principal Betsy McDonald refers to Needham. “I’ve never heard her raise her voice and when a child misbehaves, she will lower her voice. She’s part of the foundation of our peace-builder philosophy. She treats children with respect, dignity, high expectations and love,” McDonald said.
Many of Needham’s former students have met those high expectations, Needham said. She has taught three generations of her own family members, some of whom have gone into eduction. Other former pupils and aides have gone into education, too, “and that makes me very happy.” Among them are current BUDS teachers Deeann Boyd, Trish Johnson, Tracy Lawrence, Kelly Willy, Susie Dillard and Elaina Stoll; Palisade Glacier High School Principal Randy Cooke; Bishop Union High School Vice-principal David Kalk; and of course, Simpson.
In her leisure time, Needham said she enjoys reading, quilting, arts and crafts and gardening. She bowls “two nights a week, sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not, but it’s fun.”
As to retirement plans, Needham has none. Maybe “when that day comes when I don’t enjoy getting up and coming to school.”
To the next generation of new and aspiring educators, Needham says: “Love children. Love what you’re doing. I felt my job was a gift, always.”