She is one of those teachers students remember, keep in touch with, and stand ready to pay it forward whenever they get the call. It was their own work that earned the applause. It was their own determination that changed their stars. But it was “Mrs. V” who believed they could.
“You just see kids and you know they have potential. They just don’t see it in themselves,” said Michele Van Nieuwenhuyzen Thursday, standing just outside the Turlock High theater she uses as a speech and drama classroom.
Shouts and laughter interrupted her from a gleeful acting improvisation exercise going on onstage during the last day of class for that group. Seniors stopped by from graduation practice to say difficult goodbyes.
“I’ve never felt as at home as I have on stage with her,” said Teresita Orozco, a senior going on to Modesto Junior College with plans for a teaching career helping English learners.
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“She makes it a family ... She’s just your mom at school. She checks grades. She checks homework. She always knows what’s up – she looks at you and she knows,” Orozco said. “Without (Mrs.) V, I really truly wouldn’t be the person I am today.”
She always knows what’s up – she looks at you and she knows.
Warm words. Personal stories. Those are something of a theme in the classes of Mrs. V, an already award-winning teacher who has been named a 2017 Carlston Family Foundation Outstanding Teacher of America. The award, granted to five California teachers each year, comes with a $5,000 grant for the school and a $15,000 award for her. After careful consideration, she said, she plans to use it remodeling her kitchen.
What makes the Carlston award most meaningful, Van Nieuwenhuyzen said, is that the nomination has to come from a former student. She won’t find out who until the November 11 awards ceremony, but there is no shortage of candidates.
Former students submitted testimonials for Van Nieuwenhuyzen’s 2016 California League of High Schools Region 6 Teacher of the Year award.
“With her coaching, I was able to express and let go of my deepest hardships and feelings ... making me resilient to any challenges that came my way,” wrote Angelica Cardenas Ayala, who graduated from Turlock High in 2013 and the University of California at Santa Cruz in 2016.
“Every year, I have witnessed her take a shy student in drama class and somehow extract that student’s creativity and allow that student to shine on stage,” wrote former student Grace Cummings.
Unlocking that potential, helping a future lawyer hone his debate skills or convincing a potential dropout to stick it out, are the stories Van Nieuwenhuyzen points to with pride.
“This is not about me being the best teacher you’ve ever seen. This is about the connections I make with kids,” she said, explaining she tries to create a community – like she had decades ago as a THS drama student.
“You have to hone into their way of thinking and their language, their literacy. It’s all about developing a level of trust,” she said. Trust, mixed with higher expectations. “It isn’t just giving them a boost, it’s empowering them. You want them to keep going when the bolster isn’t there.”
Her favorite moments are when a student who keeps missing a note or forgetting a line gets it right, and the class erupts in cheers. “It’s those high-fives. It’s that unity I want for them,” Van Nieuwenhuyzen said. “It’s knowing that they’re a part of something bigger than (just going) class to class to class.”
This is a teacher who day in, day out changes lives.
Principal Marie Russell
Sitting in class Thursday, senior Elbra Younano said she was painfully shy in middle school. “She’s pushed me to be who I am,” Younano said. “I know it’s OK to embarrass yourself.”
“I can always go to V if I need advice,” said junior Ellysa Rosenberg. “She kind of makes everyone feel at home in here. Like, everyone knows everyone. You can come in if you don’t have anyone to hang out with. You can just – you know, it’s like home.”
“V is inspiring. She is brave, and she teaches that to her students every day,” said junior Danielle Isaac.
Speech, with its weekend-heavy tournament schedule, and drama, calling for months of night rehearsals, are both renown for the toll they take on teachers’ time. On top of those extras, students juggling multiple AP courses convinced her to take on an early period.
“I thought, well, if a kid is begging for a class at 7 a.m.,” Van Nieuwenhuyzen said, “I can get up.”
“She is a rock-star to students, and two of mine were recipients of her great work and compassion,” said Turlock Unified Superintendent Dana Trevethan, who was interviewed by the Carlston team along with Principal Marie Russell, former students and fellow teachers.
“I think they are looking for teachers who make an impact on current students, but also years later – a longevity impact,” Russell said.
“This is a teacher who day in, day out changes lives.”