Although the pandemic has raised concerns and caused difficult conversations about the return to school, Garrett Vandervalk said he was filled with excitement for Wednesday’s first day.
The day also marked the start of his career.
The 22-year-old, now a third-grade teacher at Friendship Valley Elementary School, said through all the discussions about masks, he’s focused on the kids. And his experience as a student-teacher, as well as his role model who was also a male educator, prepared him for the job.
As a student, the Carroll County native attended Robert Moton Elementary, East Middle and Westminster High schools. Even for college, Vandervalk stayed in the county when he attended McDaniel College. He said he wanted to stay near family, but the college’s wrestling team was also a big reason.
Vandervalk graduated from McDaniel this past May but knew back in middle school he wanted to be a teacher.
“I had a teacher that made a really big impact on me,” he said.
Denny Snyder, now a physical education teacher at Winters Mill, used to teach Vandervalk when he attended East Middle.
“He always made it a priority to go out and asks how his students were,” Vandervalk said.
He added that Snyder’s teaching style was the “defining factor” in his career choice. Another factor, however, was the lack of male role models on the elementary level.
Vandervalk said his dad died when he was seven, and although he was lucky to eventually have a stepdad, he didn’t want other young students to be without a male role model at that age.
“I just want to be there for kids and make sure they are loved and cared for,” he said.
Snyder, in his 32nd year teaching, called Vandervalk “one of my most elite students I ever had.” He said Vandervalk would attend the school’s intramural activities program and may have participated in every single activity they had. Snyder not only complimented Vandervalk’s athletic abilities but his leadership skills.
“I’m so glad he chose teaching because we definitely need young adults like Garrett,” he said. “He’s going to be a huge addition to the teaching profession.”
Like Vandervalk, Snyder said he also had male role models that took him under their wing, and as a male teacher, he tries to pass on that torch. Snyder said he’s sure Vandervalk will do the same.
“It makes you feel good to see you might have had a little bit of an influence on these young kids,” Snyder said.
There are few male teachers on the elementary level in the school system. Vandervalk said he was the only man who graduated from McDaniel College’s elementary education program.
“I’ve been alone for a while in that sense,” he said.
But it doesn’t bother him. All his co-workers at Friendship Valley have taken him in, shown him the ropes and answered his questions, he said.
The school held an open house Sept. 3. At first, Vandervalk was nervous. However, seeing the kids’ excitement made him excited as well.
“I asked every single one of them if they were excited and they said, ‘extremely,’” Vandervalk said.
As a brand new teacher, Vandervalk first experienced the pandemic as a college student. He said the professors never dealt with teaching under those circumstances, yet they continued to be supportive. He did his student teaching at Mount Airy Elementary. And when his mentor went on maternity leave, he became a long-term substitute teacher.
He said there were times that school year he doubted himself as a student-teacher and questioned whether the students understood his lessons. However, the next day, Vandervalk said the kids would bring back up his lesson.
“Wow, they really are retaining knowledge,” he recalled thinking. “It’s really affirming, especially as a first-year teacher.”
With that under his belt, Vandervalk enters his first year as a professional teacher with the experience of running a classroom on his own. The only difficulty he faced was setting up his classroom.
At this time last year, the debate circling the start of school was whether students should be in the classroom. This year it’s about whether they should wear masks. Vandervalk, who described himself as a “go with the flow” type of person, said his focus is on his students and their excitement is what’s exciting him.
“I just want the kids to have a great year this year,” he said.