FOREST CITY | Waldorf alumna Shelly Vroegh never thought she’d return to her alma mater as Iowa Teacher of the Year, but on Wednesday, Nov. 15, that’s exactly what she did.

Vroegh, who was named the state’s 2017 Teacher of the Year, spoke to more than 20 people, including Waldorf education students and professors, at the university about how she became a teacher and the impact Waldorf had on her and her teaching career as well as the power of teachers as leaders.

“I never dreamt that I would be standing here as the Iowa Teacher of the Year, and I think what that should tell you is that if you work hard and you surround yourself with good people and learn along the way, anything can happen,” she said.

Vroegh earned her associate’s degree from Waldorf University, then Waldorf College, in 1994 before attending the University of Northern Iowa to receive her bachelor’s degree in elementary education with a minor in special education. She is currently an instructional coach and fifth-grade teacher at Lakewood Elementary School in Norwalk — a district she has taught in since 1997.

Vroegh is one of three teachers from the Norwalk Community School District to be named Iowa Teacher of the Year within the past decade.

“It’s really a humbling honor to get to represent all the Iowa teachers,” she said. “I’m not the best teacher in Iowa ... What I am doing is representing all of the best teachers, all of those teachers who come to work early and stay late, who collaborate with one another, who meet with kids early in the morning or late at night.”

Vroegh, who grew up in Emmetsburg, said she has always wanted to be a teacher “as far back as (she) can remember.”

She shared about the influence her aunt, who taught third grade in Pocahontas for more than 30 years, had on her early desire to pursue teaching, and the upstairs playroom her parents converted into a classroom where she practiced teaching with her sister who tested her patience.

But if she could credit one person for the reason she’s an educator today, it’s her Aunt Susie — the youngest of her father’s eight siblings.

“She had or has a love and a zest for life like nobody else I know, and whenever I was with her it was just a sense of fun and enjoyment ... and the reason she is my inspiration and why I’m here is because Susie has Down syndrome,” Vroegh said. “So growing up with her by my side made me realize pretty early on that I had an innate desire to work with students no matter their abilities.”

When Vroegh arrived at Waldorf in 1992, she thought she’d become a high school history teacher, but during a community service outreach project at the university where she worked with a student with Down syndrome who reminded her of her aunt’s accomplished goals and overcame obstacles.

“Susie’s probably never going to fully understand the impact that she’s had on my career, but I can’t tell you how thankful I am that she’s in my life because if she hadn’t been, I may not be standing here today,” she said.

At Waldorf, in addition to earning her associate’s degree, Vroegh played softball and basketball. She said her time at the university provided her an early foundation for her teaching career and life-long connections.

“I’m really grateful for my time here at Waldorf and the opportunities and the experiences that I had that led me along this path today,” she said.

Since being named Iowa Teacher of the Year, Vroegh has served as an ambassador for education. She networks with other states’ Teacher of the Year as well as serves as a liaison between the Iowa Department of Education and school districts across the state. Vroegh also works with teacher preparation programs at colleges and universities statewide.

Vroegh said the topics she cares about, and finds herself most frequently speaking about, are teacher leadership and “recruiting quality and effective educators” and retaining educators in the profession.

The majority of her presentation at Waldorf was focused on that topic and its impact on her.

“As teachers or as future teachers, we have a responsibility to be leaders. We have to be leaders for our students, for our colleagues and for the parents in our community, so now or never we have the responsibility to elevate that profession,” she said.

Vroegh also spoke about how teachers and future teachers could be leaders in their classrooms, schools and communities and the importance of making students feel “valued, respected and loved.”

Her year of service as 2017 Iowa Teacher of the Year ends in May 2018, and she plans on returning to her classroom in Norwalk for the 2018-19 school year.

Reach Reporter Ashley Stewart at 641-421-0533. Follow her on Twitter at GGastewart.