9:40 a.m. PDT September 24, 2015
Valeria Luukinen never wanted to be anything other than an educator.
Since she was in the first grade, she knew she wanted to teach others.
And after 34 years of working with students, Luukinen received recognition for her work by being named the 2016 Oregon Substitute Teacher of the Year.
Luukinen received the honor earlier in September and already has a list of ideas for how to improve the system of substitute teaching in the state.
Luukinen said her approach to teaching is about caring and excitement.
“I made a commitment to myself when I started teaching that I would never be boring,” she said. “I would be engaging and interactive.”
When teaching, Luukinen is nothing if not engaging and interactive.
The moment she stepped in to see the students of Melissa Miller’s seventh grade class at Straub Middle School on Wednesday, the kids lit up and cheered that Mrs. Luukinen was there.
“They were not surprised at all,” Miller said, regarding the students’ reaction to hearing about Luukinen’s recent honor.
Luukinen talked with the students about a new book she wants them to read, she talked about important lessons to remember, and she checked in with different students.
“Do I get to come back?” she asked the class.
The whole class loudly cheered, “Yeah!”
Luukinen recently substituted for a few days while Miller had surgery.
“I told (the school), ‘I’m not having surgery if Val can’t be my sub,'” Miller said.
As Substitute Teacher of the Year, Luukinen will be recognized at the annual state-wide Oregon Substitute Teacher Association conference in October, she will be honored later this year at a school board meeting, and she will be introduced on both the floor of the House and on the floor of the Oregon Senate on Oregon Substitute Teacher Appreciation Day in May.
It’s estimated that 10 percent of student time is spent with a substitute teacher.
But these teachers are commonly thought of as external employees to the education system and the team of educators that work every day to teach, empower and guide the young minds in our community.
“Substitute teachers provide glue that keeps the educational process on track,” said Sally Sue Cellers, a member of the Oregon Substitute Teachers Association board. “A substitute teacher fills in during times of crises; their services allow for the continuation of classroom time.”
According to Cellers, Luukinen was enthusiastically endorsed by multiple Straub Middle School teachers.
Luukinen held her last class as a full-time teacher in June of 2011 and by August of that year she was keeping busy with requests to substitute. By December, she was asked to be an academic advisor for seniors at a rural area high school.
“What began as a voluntary position developed into a five month, daily interaction preparing them to graduate,” she said.
Luukinen said her substitute position allowed her to be actively involved with the students, but the new advisory position presented her with new, unique challenges.
“The diverse student population included those transitioning from the Oregon Youth Authority, parents who refused to sign FAFSA’s, students living on their own, cultural limitations and expectations, (all the way) to a Ford scholarship recipient,” she said.
Over the course of a few months with these students, she said she was beginning to make an impact which brought student and parent acknowledgement and respect.
Though she didn’t know them in January, she had a unique bond with each of the students by the time they graduated in May. Her five month tenure culminated not just with strong, meaningful relationships, but with 100 percent student graduation.
“One of the highlights was the salutatorian’s recognition speech,” she said. “She acknowledged the impact I had on her in such a short time and that I had been one of the most important people in her life.
“I felt as if I had successfully completed an educational challenge and made a difference in the student lives and my own.”
No matter if she is working with students for months or hours, her approach is the same – show them she cares from the first moment they meet.
“(Students) don’t want to know how much I know,” she said. “They want to know how much I care.”