Eighth-grade teacher Laura Beck demands excellence from her pupils and usually receives it, but she's not one to hold a grudge if a kid has a bad day.
"Academics are important, but the whole child is more important," she said. "They might have blown it 20 minutes ago, but who they are right now is not who they're going to be."
This is what she tells her students. No matter how badly they may screw up, she gives them second, third, even fourth chances to make things right. Beck is her students' cheerleaders, she said. It's her job to point them in the right direction by giving them an encouraging word or a little push.
After teaching elementary school in Alaska since 1982, Beck was content to teach first grade forever, but when the principal at Seward Middle School approached her with the vacant U.S. history position 11 years ago she tentatively stuck her foot in it.
"I was scared to death of seventh- and eighth-graders," she said. "And I've never regretted a moment since. They fit in with my sense of humor and my patience level."
From then on Beck's been a familiar sight in the halls and on the volleyball court, where she coaches middle and high school students.
As the person responsible for raising the money for the school's library, she's often there as late as the principal himself. It's this commitment to her school and to Seward that earned her this year's Wal-Mart-Sams Club Alaska Teacher of the Year award, an award that includes a $10,000 grant for Seward Middle School.
"She is certainly a mentor and a leader amongst the teaching staff in this building," said Trevan Walker, Seward Middle School's new principal. "Her hours in this building actually rival mine as the administrator."
Walker said students and parents recognized Beck's work not only on the volleyball court, but also those to keep the school library running. When the school moved out of the high school and into its own building, they had a library but no librarian and no money for books.
"If you're a voracious reader, you go to the public library," Beck said. "What I decided to do was build a reading library."
With the help of parents and a quilt donated by Christine Olsen, owner of Sew'n Bee Cozy, $8,000 went toward new books for the library. Beck became a certified librarian and spends her weekends cataloguing and stocking books. She's also shown her fellow teachers how to check books out.
"Teachers have free reign to bring students into the library at anytime, and we are all trained to check out books, which is pretty handy," Walker said. "None of this would have been possible had Laura not set the library up."
Beck said several of her students and their parents entered her in the regional teacher of the year contest, which she won in May. But winning the state teacher of the year award Oct. 1 came as a complete surprise.
"I told the student body that we really needed to acknowledge our soccer seasons and cross country seasons," Walker said, adding that they had acknowledged the athlete's accomplishments at the beginning of the year and the students weren't sure why they were doing it again.
Walker quickly brushed the students off when they wanted to get involved and began making arrangements for the ceremony from Soldotna so no one in Seward would get wind of what was going on. He was even able to keep Beck's husband John in the loop so he could allow her family to be there when she received the award.
"The neat thing is nobody knew this was happening," Walker said. "The reaction was wonderful. It was absolutely authentic. (The students) were out of their seats and whistling and clapping and yelling. It was a cool positive thing.
John Taylor, co-manager for the South Anchorage Wal-Mart, said out of 50 entries from all over the state, Beck was chosen as the regional winner because of the number of hours she coaches volleyball and works in the library. The regional award included a $1,000 grant for the school.
"Seward is a very small community. They struggle to even get (teachers) down there," he said. "(Beck) wears many hats at that school."
As if winning the award wasn't enough, Seward Mayor Vanta Shafer further honored her by proclaiming Oct. 1 as Laura Beck Day.
"It's just a ceremonial thing," Shafer said. "Our schools face a lot of struggle financially and sometimes you just don't feel like there's any good news coming out, and this is good news. This is terrific news."
Beck, she claims she's just a "small fish in a very big pond." Every teacher in the country deserves the same recognition she's getting, she said, because she wouldn't have been able to do her job without them.
"I just love doing my job and being here for the kids," she said. "The honor is that I didn't go after this. The students and parents nominated me. I did go after the $10,000 for the kids. That was something I felt I should do."
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at email@example.com.
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