Va. teacher recognized for impact on students and community

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BEDFORD, Va. (AP) – A Bedford County teacher is being recognized with state-level awards for her contributions to career and technical education.

Elizabeth Wendland, a teacher at Bedford’s Susie G. Gibson Science and Technology Center who instructs two dual enrollment classes – Early Childhood Education and Teachers for Tomorrow – was named the Virginia Association for Teachers of Family and Consumer Sciences Teacher of the Year for 2021.

The distinction from VATFACS advances Wendland to a regional competition through the Virginia Association of Career and Technical Education, which, if she wins, will make her eligible for national recognition from the ACTE.

This award recognizes teachers “who are providing outstanding educational programs for youth and/or adults in Family and Consumer Sciences and communities,” according to the VATFACS website. Candidates for the award are required to have made “significant contributions toward innovative, unique” programs geared toward improving and promoting career and technical education.

The 32-year-old teacher has done just that over her eight years teaching at the Susie G. Gibson Science and Technology Center.

At first, Wendland didn’t see herself becoming a teacher. However, she always knew she wanted to make an impact.

Wendland began an undergraduate degree program in intercultural studies in with the intention of working overseas, but said she quickly realized the field was not what she expected.

After reflecting on her life and thinking about who made the greatest impact on her, she realized it was teachers and coaches. It was then she changed her major to elementary education and, following her undergraduate degree completed in 2011, she earned her master’s in teaching and learning English from Liberty University, graduating in 2014.

“I just always wanted to do something big,” Wendland said. “To some people, success means a big salary, or a big reputation, but for me, it always meant impact. I felt like the biggest impact for me would be education.”

Through her education and career journey, Wendland found herself teaching high school students.

Wendland teaches the dual enrollment courses at the Susie G. Gibson Science and Technology Center in conjunction with two local institutions of higher education: “Teachers for Tomorrow” is in partnership with the University of Lynchburg, and the “Early Childhood” class is offered with Central Virginia Community College.

The Early Childhood program offers practical experience in teaching for students through internships and volunteer work at Bedford County preschool and elementary schools, in addition to classroom learning.

Practical experience teaching can have a positive impact on students’ self-esteem, Wendland said.

In an age where going viral online is held as important and perceptions of self-worth can rely heavily on the amount of social media “likes” and followers one has, she said many teens might feel like they do not make a difference if they are not popular or visible enough. Through teaching, Wendland hopes teens will recognize they can all have an impact on others even in small circles.

“When they come into my class, I’ve always told them that, ‘Hey, it’s not a matter if you influence. It’s a matter of, what kind of influence are you?’” she said. “Because no matter where you are in your life, you are influencing people every day. Who you meet at the gas station when you’re pumping your gas; who you meet in the hallways. When they get in the class, they work with the kids, and when the kids are looking up at you and what you say matters, and what you do matters, and how you dress matters, and the kind of conduct that you have matters, you start really realizing you do have influence.”

Wendland’s students also are active in the national Educators Rising Club, which seeks to guide United States high school and college students interested in pursuing work as educators into their chosen careers, offering support like networking opportunities and ways to engage with and grow their skills in teaching along the way, including through club competitions.

Over the past eight years, Wendland’s group has traveled to multiple states for education-focused events and competitions hosted by the club, including public speaking and debate competitions on education topics, lesson planning and delivery competitions, and essays or studies on topics such as the impact on poverty and education, or remote learning on the special education population. Many of her students have won awards at these state and national competitions.

The awards bestowed upon Wendland came as a “total surprise” to her, and she said it has been a humbling experience. It is the first time in her career she has been recognized at a state level for her contributions in the teaching realm.

While honored by the recognition, Wendland said she does not want to be glorified for it.

“It’s not about you,” she said of teaching.

Through this achievement, Wendland said more than anything, she wants to promote education and the teaching career in a positive way, highlighting that many students in her classes desire a career in education despite sometimes facing discouragement from pursuing the profession.

Many students who have completed Wendland’s programs are teaching across Virginia, with some closer to home in Bedford and Roanoke counties.

“There’s something special about this field. We need good teachers,” Wendland said.

Although Wendland bears the title and work of a teacher, she also learns from her students. Of the “hundred million things” her students teach her in turn, she specifically highlighted the lesson of resilience.

Emily O’Connor, executive director of VATFACS, said she has known Wendland for years through various programs.

“She is a passionate, caring teacher,” O’Connor said. “Elizabeth is a forward thinker always looking for resources and experiences to enhance her students’ learning and opportunities. She already has students who have come through her programs who are now teaching. I believe that in itself is a testament to her accomplishments.”

Troy Doss, principal of the Susie G. Gibson Science and Technology Center, said Wendland’s energy and positivity is contagious among colleagues and students alike.

“She is a dedicated teacher. She’s dedicated to her students, and she is dedicated to the profession,” Doss said.

Doss added Wendland contributes to the institution beyond the classroom and programs she teaches.

“If anything needs to get done around here, she’s always the first to volunteer,” he said. “She volunteers her kids to do things, whether it be putting up bulletin boards, or decorating hallways, or doing morning announcements. She does it all. She definitely is a well-rounded individual, and definitely passionate about what she’s doing. ”

Wendland said good teachers are greatly needed, and she strives to help produce more of them through the work she loves.

“It is a joy to teach,” she said.

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