Q&A with Three Iowa Teachers of the Year

Aileen Sullivan, Shelly Vroegh and Scott Slechta have much in common. All three have earned an education degree from UNI, and all three are outstanding Iowa educators. In fact, they were named Iowa Teacher of the Year (TOY) in 2018, 2017 and 2016, respectively.

Aileen Sullivan Sullivan received her bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and chemistry teaching from UNI in 1996. Since graduating, she has has taught at Ames High School, where she currently serves as a model teacher, mentor teacher, science department coordinator and chief negotiator for the Ames Education Association.
Shelly Vroegh Vroegh graduated from UNI in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and special education. She was named the 2017 Iowa TOY as a fifth grade teacher and instructional coach at Lakewood Elementary School in the Norwalk Community School District. Vroegh currently serves as a K-5 curriculum and assessment instructional coach and a 3-5 math and science curriculum leader for Norwalk CSD.
Scott Slechta Slechta received his master’s degree in teaching English for the secondary school from UNI in 1990. He was teaching classes, directing plays and leading the speech team at Fairfield CSD when he was named the 2016 Iowa TOY. In the fall, he’ll begin serving as director of the DMACC Teacher Academy.

We spoke with all three educators about their own education, their teaching experiences, and the future of education.


Question: What led you to the field of education?

Aileen Sullivan: Third grade is the first memory I have of really wanting to be a teacher. I loved my teacher and I loved my class. I remember drawing pictures of me behind a teacher’s desk, preparing for my students. I loved going to school! It seemed to make sense to be a teacher since both of my parents and my grandmother had been teachers at one time.

In high school, I was really enjoying science … [but] after a somewhat disappointing experience in my own high school chemistry class, I knew that chemistry should be a topic that many students could enjoy and that I could help them learn.

Shelly Vroegh: I knew I wanted to be a teacher from a very young age. As a child I would often play school with my younger sister in a playroom that had been converted into a “classroom” complete with desks and old teachers manuals handed down to me by my aunt who was a third grade teacher.

The biggest influence on me becoming a teacher, however, was another aunt, Susie. She’s just three years older than me and has Down Syndrome, so from a very young age I was a teacher to her. She taught me about things like patience, passion and perseverance. Growing up with her and watching her achieve her goals and overcome challenges made me realize that I had an innate desire to work with students no matter their abilities. I have Aunt Susie to thank for guiding me toward my career path.

Scott Slechta: [UNI professor] Dr. Judy Beckman taught me to be a powerful and passionate teacher, a caring and concerned educator. She taught me to teach the student first, teach the content second.

I had dynamic teachers in my small rural school (Ar-We-Va CSD in western Iowa), from Ms. Buck, my first grade teacher, to Ms. Klopfenstein and Mrs. Ouverson, my high school English teachers.


Q: What was something you learned at UNI that you think may have helped you along the pathway to eventually being named an Iowa Teacher of the Year?

Sullivan: At UNI I learned that teaching and learning are really important. This sounds like it should be a given, but every person I came in contact with really cared that I was learning. They cared what they were teaching me. They loved what they did – from my RAs in the residence halls to the lab managers I worked for to my classroom professors. There was genuine excitement about being part of the UNI community and they wanted me to love being part of this community as well. I think this has led to my loyalty toward what I do and where I teach. My loyalty and care for the learners I am entrusted with each year is among the most important aspects of my teaching.

Vroegh: I think the collaborative nature that was instilled in me through my coursework and practicum experiences really helped me as I moved through my teaching career. Becoming the Iowa TOY was never a goal when I decided to become a teacher and it certainly isn’t anything I achieved on my own. I firmly believe that being an effective teacher is all about surrounding yourself with people who will push you to get out of your comfort zone in order to help you learn and grow. This was certainly something I learned during my time at UNI and it has helped me improve my instructional practices.

Slechta: [The] change from teacher-directed to student-centered classroom; structured flexibility and flexible structure in lesson planning; [being a] reflective practitioner.


Q: What is one thing you would change about the current education system if you could?

Sullivan: …the fixed mindset that seems to exist at all levels of education….I would want stakeholders in education to look at change and experimentation as a good thing. It seems we are often locked into “status quo” or doing things because that’s just how they are done or because that’s the way they have always been done. I would want to foster a growth mindset among all parts of education: students, teachers, learners, administrators, families, communities and colleges/universities to be open to trying new things and having a focus on improvement versus a focus on maintenance.

Vroegh: I would love to see more emphasis put on social-emotional learning....Social-emotional learning is the foundation for the schoolhouse. It is the grout that holds the tiles of academics together. I believe if we partner with families and focus on these skills in conjunction with academics we will better prepare students for the future.

Slechta: More funding for innovative practices; change schools, instruction and teachers to reflect the demands of the 21st century; and place people who are in education to make decisions about education.


Q: What insight or wisdom do you have for preservice teachers?

Sullivan: I would advise them to love what they do. I would want them to find a star, a shining moment, each and every day because it is so easy to get bogged down in the details of all that teachers must do. I would hope that they are not too hard on themselves, their students will know more and be more for having spent time in their class than not. The vast amounts of time, effort and work put into teaching is worth it because they will get better at their craft.

I would suggest that they spend time reflecting on their classroom and planning for the future because as teachers, we have a fantastic opportunity to start over each year and fix the things that need to be fixed as well as repeat the things that were great.

And I would want them to know that there are lots of people out there who believe in them and believe in what they do.

Vroegh: I think the two most important things I’ve learned as an educator during the past twenty-one years is to surround yourself with positive, energetic people who will support and encourage you and lose your willingness to learn new things. Teaching is hard and you definitely can’t do it alone. It is so important to find educators who have similar goals and passions as you and surround yourself with them. Go to them when you’re having a bad day and need a pick-me-up or when you need advice or a new idea to use in your classroom.

Also, be sure to have an open mind and be willing to learn new things. As an educator, learning never stops. Commit yourself to being a willing learner and you will surely be successful. You will also be demonstrating to your students that you value your own learning and education.

Above all else, enjoy what you do!

Slechta: You may feel that you know everything about teaching, but what you really need to know is how to be a teacher - ask questions, observe others, realize that you will fail and you will succeed; realize that each day is a new day; realize that there will be days when you really don’t want to teach; realize the importance of your role; realize your accountability and responsibility to your students' achievement.