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Through teaching, an educator can completely change a student’s life. Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WIVA) teacher Pamela Fierst won the Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction award in July. She was nominated by former WIVA student Braini McKenzie.

“Mrs. Fierst showed me how important a teacher-student relationship can be,” Braini said.

The immense support Pam provided Braini throughout high school can inspire students to do greater things beyond graduation.

Pam has taught English and history for about 20 years in a brick and mortar high school and middle school, and she started teaching English at WIVA in October 2013.

Braini was so inspired by Pam that she is now on the path to become a teacher herself. She graduated from WIVA in the spring of 2015 and is now a sophomore studying education at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

“I always let people know that I went to WIVA, and it was the best decision,” Braini said. “Now, I am in the University Honors Program and on the board of directors for two honors societies on campus. I am also a learning group leader at Student Support Services, working with freshmen to help them have a successful college career. After my first year, I was on the Dean’s List and the Honor Roll. I honestly believe that being at WIVA made all of this possible, and I will always be thankful for the K12 program!”

While at WIVA, Braini attended all of the class connect sessions and often called Mrs. Fierst for help with her written assignments.

“Through conversation, we got to know each other well enough, and she became an inspiration in my life,” Braini said. “She always encouraged me to do well and to be the best me I could possibly be. Now, we keep in touch through text and phone calls. I go to her for advice on being a successful educator in the future. I know if I have any questions about being a teacher or what to expect, I have someone who will always be there for me.”

Pam chose education as a career because she thought it seemed like a rewarding and engaging path.

“I come from a family of educators, so that field felt like home,” Pam said.

Growing up, she had influences like her mother, who was a principal and kindergarten teacher, as well as a high school teacher who became a mentor in her life. Virtual teaching came by chance for Pam after her husband had a job relocation and she had to leave the brick and mortar school where she was teaching.

“It was August and too late to begin applying for positions, so I decided to stay home a year and volunteer at my children’s school,” Pam said. “A friend of mine had recently gotten a job at WIVA and had worked there for a couple months when, at a meeting, she heard the high school principal state that she needed an English teacher. It was a lucky coincidence that worked well!”

Pam appreciates the flexibility of the WIVA program and how it helps students who truly require an alternative option.

“One of the obvious advantages is flexibility with location,” Pam said. “My family and I trade time between homes in Indiana and Wisconsin.  As long as I have my laptop and the internet, I am set to work in either location.”

Pam has found that she can better connect with students who have nontraditional needs and might have possible attendance or other participatory issues in a standard brick and mortar setting.

“The flexibility of the online environment affords students of all ability levels and needs to customize their educational path to fit their lives,” Pam said. “It definitely pushes me as a professional and opened an entirely new set of skills to develop and hone.

“It’s definitely a challenge to engage a classroom of kids who are not directly in your physical space,” she continued.  “There is no reading body language or using proximity to redirect. With that in mind, we need to be creative in the way we engage students and then be thorough in our assessment of their growth.  We collaborate weekly with instructional coaches, and the conversations and strategies worked through during these planning sessions ground and solidify our practices.”

Pam is grateful for having a student like Braini in one of her classes.

“Braini McKenzie is an amazing young woman,” Pam said. “She was enthusiastic about learning and the profession needs future educators like Bri!  Since graduation, we were able to meet in person for coffee and keep track of one another via Facebook.  While she was in school, she was a constant leader in classes and we worked closely during office hours.  She was genuinely engaged in her learning journey and wanted to be the best reader, writer, thinker she could be.  Bri is the kind of student teachers dream of working with.  I am privileged to have had the opportunity to work with her!”

Pam said she is humbled and honored to be nominated and have received the Educator of Distinction award. She explains that many of her colleagues work hard every day and go unnoticed, and this kind gesture from Braini is what makes a teacher smile.

“It reinforces, for me, that kids go off into the world beyond my classroom equipped with certain skills needed to thrive,” Pam said. “I continually want kids to know that what we are doing here in the now is building a foundation for later.  And to me the award meant that she is still finding value and impact in our work two years ago.  It’s my goal in shaping lessons for kids and it’s not easy for them to see the potential in the now.”

On Tuesday, Wisconsin’s local WFRV (CBS) station aired a Terrific Teacher segment featuring Pam and Braini.

Here is a copy of Braini’s letter of nomination for the Educator of Distinction Award:

Mrs. Pamela Fierst has not only been my English teacher for the past two years, she has also been a key contributor to the remarkable success and accomplishments that I have attained thus far in life.

Prior to enrolling at Wisconsin Virtual Academy in 2013, I was a student in the Turks and Caicos Islands, which was not only a culture shock, but an academic strain. Furthermore, Mrs. Fierst made my tedious transition an incredible adventure, which is something I heavily doubted would ever happen as a virtual scholar. She established a connection with me that transcended the meager mechanics of language and literature. Mrs. Pamela Fierst inadvertently boosted my confidence and highlighted all of the wonderful talents I had hidden within me. Through her guidance, I was able to enter and win third prize in my first national poetry contest, and begin writing my very first work of fiction, “Scenario.”

Consequently, as this semester and my final year in high school comes to an end, I cannot think of any other teacher that has propelled me in such a magnificent way. If it had not been for Mrs. Fierst, I can honestly say I would not feel as ready and worthy of being a college student as I am today. It is with great honor and pride that I nominate Mrs. Pamela Fierst for this Educators Of Distinction Program.

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