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ODU Graduate Kathy Galford Named Virginia Teacher of the Year

By Steve Daniel

When Kathy Galford talks about the joys and rewards of teaching, it soon becomes apparent why she was an excellent choice to represent the commonwealth of Virginia as its Teacher of the Year for 2013.

Galford, who has taught for 24 years since earning a bachelor's degree from Old Dominion in 1984, clearly knows what it takes to be a good teacher, and she excels at her job. She is as passionate today about her chosen profession as she was when she started out. Maybe more so.

Currently in her ninth year as a sixth-grade English teacher at Greenbrier Middle School in Chesapeake, Galford was named earlier this month as Virginia's Teacher of the Year by the state Department of Education, following her selections as Chesapeake Teacher of the Year and Region 2 Teacher of the Year. She will now represent Virginia in the 2013 National Teacher of the Year competition.

"After meeting the other regional finalists, who are phenomenal teachers, I was completely amazed and honored to represent so many outstanding teachers in our state," Galford said.

Michael Mustain, principal at Greenbrier Middle, refers to her as Wonder Woman when it comes to teaching. She cares about her kids, doing everything possible to help them in the learning process, and she has the respect of her faculty colleagues, he said.

Galford, who grew up in Virginia Beach and attended Kempsville schools, was leaning toward a teaching degree when she entered ODU as a freshman. After taking a career exploration course her first semester, her career path was set. "Every survey and questionnaire I completed pointed straight to teaching," she said.

"I thoroughly enjoyed my classes and professors and felt that I was well prepared for the classroom upon graduation," added Galford, who commuted to the campus from her home in Virginia Beach. Her first practicum experience was at Norfolk's Campostella Middle School.

After more than two decades on the job, Galford still wakes up each morning feeling hopeful and excited about the day ahead.

"My students keep me motivated," she said. "Each year, I get a whole new group of wonderful individuals with different needs, personalities and backgrounds. In 24 years of teaching, I have never had two days that were alike. Each day is new and exciting, especially when I'm trying to improve myself as a teacher by trying new strategies and activities."

Her philosophy of teaching has always been "Make it relevant!"

"It is my job to show my students how everything they learn in school relates to the world in which we live," she explained. "Our true purpose in education is to prepare children for life in an unknown future. I try to make my lessons relevant to their world, learning styles and skills they will needed in the future - communicating, collaborating, problem solving, critical thinking, global awareness, etc."

She relishes the moments when she sees the proverbial light go on above a student's head. "It validates all of my efforts and reminds me that I am making a difference, one 'aha!' moment at a time," she said.

Galford, who previously taught fifth grade at both Greenbrier Intermediate (1990-2004) and Greenbrier Elementary (1988-19990), clearly loves teaching English to her sixth graders.

"Sixth graders are wonderful. They are old enough to work independently and explore on their own, but they are young enough that they still want to please the adults in their lives - for the most part," she adds with a smile. "They are at that quirky, hormonal stage of development that I find so much fun. They really crack me up and keep me young at heart.

"I love teaching English because I feel like it is a subject that has so much flexibility. I can choose fiction and nonfiction selections on a variety of topics and themes that I can relate to their world. I can also easily integrate many other core subjects into my lessons. It's also wonderful to teach them how to communicate through their writing as well as face to face with others, a skill that is lacking these days with all of the texting."

In addition to her love of the subject matter, Galford enjoys the highly personal nature of what she gets to do each day. For example, she appreciates having the unique opportunity to get to know her students better by reading their writing, even though grading essays is a time-consuming process. "It's like getting a look inside their life and heart," she said. "A science or math teacher might not get that chance."

Galford also feels fortunate to be in a position to reach out to a diverse group of students year after year.

"Over the past 24 years, I have been blessed to work with students of all levels and backgrounds. I've taught students with learning differences, students who are considered gifted, affluent students, homeless students, foster children, students with physical, behavioral or academic challenges, students with autism, and students new to America who are just learning to speak English. Each one of them has been a precious gift to me, and it is my duty and honor to get to know them as individuals and help them to reach their highest potential."

Galford also seeks the same for herself. She considers the desire to improve - never being satisfied - to be her strongest suit as a teacher. "Once we, as teachers, get set in our ways, our students really suffer," she said.

Young teachers would do well to follow Galford's example. One who has learned a great deal from her is Dani-Nicole Crawford, a seventh-grade English teacher at Greenbrier Middle. Crawford, who earned both a B.A. in English and master's in secondary education from ODU, had Galford as her cooperating teacher during her student teaching experience in 2008

Kathy Galford, teacher of the year

"I honestly can't think of another person more deserving," Crawford said after learning Galford had won the Virginia Teacher of the Year award. "I consider myself so fortunate to not only currently work with her, but to have been in her classroom during my student teaching experience.

"I entered her classroom nervous and unsure. After only the first day of observing her, I went home knowing one thing for certain: I wanted to be just like her. Through that time in her classroom, she gave me confidence and encouragement, much like she did with her own students.

"Even though I am not in her classroom anymore, she still inspires me to be a better teacher and a better person. My first year teaching in 2008, Kathy was my 'mentor teacher,' the person that I was assigned to that would help me through my beginning year. Even though that was five years ago, I still call Kathy my mentor, and I mean it. I still have so much to learn from her, both in the classroom and in everyday life."

Just as she encourages her students to be lifelong learners, Galford says she is evolving as a teacher by collaborating with colleagues to develop new strategies, connecting with other teachers across the country through Internet forums, reading literature on instruction, attending workshops and learning about new technology. Galford, who also earned a master's degree from ODU in 1991, is currently taking classes toward a gifted endorsement through the University of Virginia.

The non-classroom demands of a teacher, such as the grading of tests and essays at night and on weekends, and taking part in extracurricular activities, can take its toll (Galford also serves as the after-school study hall coordinator and tutor, member of the Bully Advisory Committee and co-sponsor of the Kiwanis Builders Club, a student-led community service organization), so it helps that Galford's husband supports her fully. In fact, he knows firsthand what she goes through as a teacher. He literally works right down the hall from her, teaching sixth-grade science.

"It's nice to be married to someone who gets it!" Galford says.

Like his wife, Steve Galford is an ODU graduate (1987 bachelor's degree and 1991 master's). While they first met at the university and had some classes together, it was years later before they started dating. They have two children: Mindy, a nursing student at James Madison University, and Michael, a senior at Hickory High School in Chesapeake.

Between the rewards she receives in the classroom and the support from home, Galford feels like she's in a pretty good place.

"I get affirmations every day in this career, which is why I love it. It happens every time a student lights up because he or she 'gets it,' when I see joy in learning in their eyes, when I try a new strategy and it really works, when a struggling student shows progress, when I run into former students who have grown into successful adults.

"One cool thing this year was that one of my former fifth graders joined the staff at our school as a technology integration specialist. We are now colleagues, and I am learning from him, as he helps me integrate the latest technology in my lessons. It kind of completes the circle. Having him tell me I was one of the teachers who inspired him to work in this amazing career just makes it all worthwhile."

Galford is the second ODU graduate to win Virginia Teacher of the Year honors over the past five years. Tommy Smigiel '00, currently an assistant principal at Norfolk's Granby High School and a Norfolk city councilman, was named the state's top educator for 2008 and was one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year honors.

As the 2013 Virginia Teacher of the Year, Galford received a $5,000 award and a ring from the Apple Federal Credit Union Education Foundation, a $2,500 award from Richmond law firm Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen, and a classroom technology package from Smart Technologies ULC.

She is currently working on her National Teacher of the Year application. The national winner will be announced at the White House in the spring.