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Published on January 30th, 2015 | by Millennium Magazine Staff

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Long-serving District Five teacher honored for more than 45 years of service

Pictured CrossRoads Middle School retired teacher Penny Valek returns to her classroom to visit with students.

IRMO – When you’ve taught sixth grade as long as Penny Valek, you learn a lot about how best to keep students excited about learning.

“Kids have to like coming to your class for whatever reason… the technology, the trivia questions, your personality or a love of the subject,” she said. “I told them I loved them. I looked them in the eyes and listened to them… I learned that if they knew I loved them and I could get them to want to come to my classroom, then I could teach them something. And they would learn.”

Valek began her teaching career in Lexington-Richland School District Five in 1968 as a sixth grade teacher at Seven Oaks Elementary. Over the course of her career, she has taught at Irmo Middle School and Nursery Road Elementary before settling into a 15-year math teaching position at CrossRoads Middle School, a school housing only sixth grade students.

Valek retired this past fall, a hard and tearful decision she made to focus on caring for her ailing mother. She returned to the classroom for a visit in January and was honored as one of the longest-serving teachers in District Five during a school board meeting on Jan. 26.

“Ms. Valek was without a doubt a pillar of our faculty,” said CrossRoads Middle Principal Jess Hutchinson. “If you’re looking for the kind of teacher you want on your faculty, the kind of teacher you want to teach next to or the kind you want teaching your own children; Ms. Valek is that kind of teacher. She’s the total package.”

Her love for teaching began in childhood. “I always wanted to be a teacher,” Valek said. “I use to hold school in my garage and I would make all the kids in the neighborhood sit and write in chalk on the sidewalk.”

She graduated from the University of South Carolina. And though she interned in a first and second grade combination class, Valek says she found a niche teaching sixth grade math. When District Five announced it would open CrossRoads Middle as a sixth grade only school for students in the Irmo and Dutch Fork areas, Valek volunteered to be one of the first serving at the school.

While at CrossRoads Middle, she has earned her master’s degree in education. She also became certified in math and earned a middle school certification as well as a gifted and talented certification. Valek also has presented at the South Carolina Middle School conference and has served on the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports committee since its inception.

“She really knows how to keep the students engaged, and they are really excited…they run to the room,” said CrossRoads Middle School math teacher Kim Chavis, who refers to Valek as her “work wife.” “I know very well what a great teacher she was. We taught together. We planned together. We worked through our students’ problems and celebrated their triumphs together. She was someone who inspired others to want to learn and improve.”

Walking through the halls during a January visit to the school, Valek was met with hugs from former co-workers and students, all asking if she would one day return to teaching.

“Is Valek back?” one student asked another.

“Ms. Valek, are you here to substitute for me?” a former colleague joked.

Turning over her class to Valek, Chavis eyes her former colleague. In her element, it’s easy to see Valek’s years of expertise and passion for teaching.

“She’s not finished,” Chavis said. “I can tell, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her back in the classroom one day.”

Valek added, “Well, my teaching license doesn’t expire for another few years, so we’ll see. I just love the students. I love building them up and making them feel good about themselves …and about school. Teaching is what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s my way of making a difference in the world.”

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